October 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”
To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”
But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.
#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.
Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.
When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)
Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:
Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.
Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty). Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).
In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.
Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.
Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)
Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite factoid, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.
Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.
If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.
#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.
As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).
Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.
Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”
(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)
For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.
I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.
It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.
When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.
Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).
Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.
And that brings me to my last point.
#1: Reading aloud slows down time.
How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.
And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet that have spent the last three months in and around a swimming pool, it occurs to me that my children are shedding their summer skin in more ways than one. (And not all of them are gross.) They are preparing for the great mental and emotional journey that a new school year demands. They’re working to put aside the comfortable, unhurried, joyful freedom of summer for stricter routines, increased expectations, and long days of scrutiny. As first and fourth graders, they know they will be doing real work, work that others will oversee and critique, work that might one moment feel exciting and the next feel tedious or overwhelming or downright scary. They know they will be navigating new social terrain, new faces among peers and teachers, perhaps even new behaviors from old friends.
They know, but they don’t know. They know that they don’t know.
At the beginning of each new day, our children have to screw their courage to the sticking-place of the Great Unknown. They get out of the car, get off their bikes, and they walk into this tentative, uncertain thing that is life, hoping to come back with a few more answers.
Perhaps because back-to-school season is itself such an intimidating journey, Dashka Slater’s new picture book, The Antlered Ship (Ages 5-9), strikes a poignant chord. Of course, it could also be the delicate color washes atop brazen graphite and pen by Terry and Eric Fan, who made their exquisite debut last year with The Night Gardener and have now outdone themselves. The book is absolutely gorgeous, right down to the cover, which is printed on such sumptuously thick and textured paper that it might have ruined all other picture books for me. Right off the bat, The Antlered Ship feels like the perfect gift to put into the hands of our young crusaders.
The story is about a young fox with questions. Not the insistent “whys” that my children used to pose as a response to everything I told them (“We need to leave the park now.” “Why?” “Because we have to make dinner.” “Why?” “So you can eat.” “Why?” “Because otherwise you’ll be hungry.” “Why?”). No, the fox’s questions are—like my children’s now—more loaded, hesitant, and thoughtful. They’re also questions which don’t always have an easy or straightforward answer. Or any answer at all.
On the drive home from school the other day, while her older brother was carpooling with another family, my newly seven year old seized this rare opportunity to hold court by asking a series of questions. Whether these questions had just popped into her mind or whether she had been mulling them over all day or all week was unclear. What is clear is that her mind is infinitely expanding—and not linearly. She asked:
How come we can still hear the other cars when we’re inside our own?
How do the moms’ bellies go back in after they push out the babies?
How come when people are shy they can’t just swallow their shyness?
The questions swirling inside the mind of Marco, the anthropomorphized fox in The Antlered Ship, are not dissimilar to my daughter’s, if arguably a bit more poetic. The fox wonders:
Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad?
Why don’t trees ever talk?
How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?
Marco’s problem is that he can’t find an audience for these questions. When he poses them to his fellow foxes, they look at him blankly and respond, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?”
So when a mysterious wooden ship—carrying seafaring deer and bearing a massive masthead carved in the shape of a stag’s antlers—docks in a harbor looking for a new crew to sail to a distant island, Marco volunteers. He hopes the ship’s destination might land him alongside some foxes who do know the answers to his many questions. Marco and the deer are joined as well by a band of adventure-seeking, checkers-playing pigeons.
Marco may have a clear destination and goal in mind, but he must venture into the Unknown to get there. Like any journey, things are not always smooth sailing—and they often give rise to even more questions. For starters, there are rough storms, with “waves crash[ing] over the sides of the deck.” “Why is water so wet? Marco wondered…”
The deer prove themselves useless at navigating, and the pigeons are full of complaints about the damp crackers. Marco is not immune to crankiness himself, but he decides they all need to “do the best we can.” He begins by throwing together a warm stew from a recipe book he finds and then moves the group towards consensus on navigation.
The fox’s good nature is contagious, and the animals begin to embrace adventure for adventure’s sake, navigating the Maze of Sharp Rocks as a team and later going head to head with a line-up of warring pirates.
At last, the group reaches their destination: an island replete with waving grasses, fruit trees, and plenty of animals willing to listen to the sea crew’s bombastic accounts of their voyage.
Marco, however, doesn’t share the others’ elation. To his despair, he can’t find a single fox. “I have failed,” he tells his shipmates. “No foxes. No one to answer my questions.” The corresponding spread reveals that even in the togetherness on the ship, the fox has been alone. For all his leadership, he has yet to make himself vulnerable, to invite anyone to share in his uncertainty.
And yet, Marco’s mates challenge him. “What questions?” the pigeon asks. And Marco at last screws his courage, takes a deep breath, and begins to ask questions. Including, “‘What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?”’
Then ensues a discussion, as each of the three offers up a thought on friendship. Maybe, Marco offers, “you make friends by asking them questions.” The trio goes on to ask each other more questions: Should they head home? Should they have more adventures? And my favorite:
“Is it better to know what’s going to happen?” wondered Marco. “Or better to be surprised?”
(You could have knocked me over with a feather when my nine year old son, who insists on us telling him in detail where we are going and what we are going to do there, answered without hesitation, “Surprised.”)
There is no end to life’s questioning. Even when we are lucky enough to uncover an answer, another question arises. What Marco hoped to find on the other side of the sea was actually on the ship with him the entire time: not the answers, but the companionship with which to weather the questioning.
This lovely story challenges our own children’s assumptions. Do we really need all the answers to feel better, to feel more secure in the uncertainty around us? Maybe what we need—what we really, really need—are people to whom we can ask our questions. People with whom we can sit, musing aloud, in the comfort of a car, or on a twirl across the playground, or as we are being tucked into the covers at night. These people don’t have to be related to us, they don’t even have to look like us or talk like us. They only need to listen—and, possibly, to offer up some questions of their own.
Don’t worry, my little crusaders. The world will be big and scary, but you don’t have to figure it out to be in good company.
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Book published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 7, 2017 § 2 Comments
Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.
So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.
Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes.
For those yet to expose their kids to audio books, let me offer a thought. Oftentimes, what my children enjoy most—and what tends to be easiest for them to follow (after all, the road can be distracting)—is listening to books they have already read (or have listened to me read). Speaking from personal experience, kids forget much of what they’ve heard in the past, and they listen with the fresh ears of whichever emotional milestone they’re encountering right now. In other words, great books are great each and every time they’re read.
One last thing before we begin: it so happens that this list is almost exclusively classics—or, at least, most are published over forty years ago. Trust me when I say that we listened to plenty of contemporary selections this past year. It’s just that the ones below rose to the top, both in content and in performance, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. There’s something about these books that, even the first time we hear them, feels like old friends.
Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery, Howliday Inn, The Celery Strikes at Midnight, Nighty Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, and Bunnicula Strikes Again! written by James Howe, read by Victor Garber (Ages 8-12)
Vampire bunnies, mysterious night happenings, and haunted hotels—all with a healthy dose of misunderstanding and mayhem? A better series for October you won’t find. The only reason we didn’t keep going with the series after the first six (!) books is because Broadway actor Victor Garber stopped reading them. At that point, we were so invested, so enamored, so used to laughing our heads off at the banter—there’s Harold, the pragmatic middle-aged canine narrator; Chester, the hyper-paranoid cat (Woody Allen’s “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after me” comes to mind); and Howie, the gullible sidekick puppy—that the new reader’s voices felt ALL WRONG, and we all three started yelling, “Turn it off! Turn it off!”
At one point last year, my son turned to me and said, “Mommy, you are getting really good at making food that I like.” I realize this was (probably?) intended as a compliment and not a backhanded nod at my servitude, but I still thought my children might benefit from listening to stories about families for whom everyday life is about making ends meet, sharing workloads, and prioritizing family togetherness. There is perhaps no sweeter cure for entitlement than Sydney Taylor’s classic about a Jewish-American immigrant family (think five daughters with another on the way), living in turn-of-the-century New York City. These are stories about penny-pinching, but they’re also stories about growing up in a time when being tall enough to reach the letterbox was a thrill worth savoring, when a single lost library book could lead to weeks of hard work and sisterly collaboration. As a bonus, my kids got a primer on Jewish traditions and holidays, and Toren’s rendition of the father’s Yiddish accent is pretty awesome.
Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones (Ages 6-12)
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s loosely autobiographical stories have inspired some of the best hours I’ve spent with my children this year—and not just listening to them, but discussing them. I had read the first five books to my children years ago and they loved them then, but what we lose in Garth Williams’ warm pencil sketches is more than made up for with the addition of real fiddle music, which opens and closes chapters and which Pa delights in sharing with his girls. Cherry Jones is a masterful reader, quiet and understated, conjuring up young Laura’s wide eyes as much as Pa’s seasoned chuckling ones, and enfolding us in her storytelling like we were all snuggled up under a warm quilt. We are now seven books in and gearing up to finish with Laura’s “grown-up” years in These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years.
HOLD UP, people. I need to say two things to the nay-sayers (among them, my husband, who playfully teases us, “So what happened in the book today? Did they paint the house and sit around for four hours watching it dry?”). For those who think the Little House books are boringly old-fashioned or (horror) just for girls, I offer up my nine year son as proof: no one gets in the car faster to listen to the next installment than him—not even his younger sister, who talks about Laura, Mary, and Carrie as if they were her own siblings. Pioneer life is fraught with hardship and ruin at every turn, be it blizzards or bears or fire or swarming grasshoppers. It’s the very essence of grit.
For those who think the Little House books are racist: you’re right. The treatment of Native Americans, while realistic for the period in which the stories are set, is grossly stereotypical, often uncomfortable, and certainly—as with many classics—demanding of discussion and supplemental reading (I strongly suggest the historically accurate Kaya series by American Girl, about a Nez Perce girl living in the 1700s).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, performed by Anne Hathaway (Ages 6-12)
This recording alone might be enough to justify an Audible subscription (Audible likes to put out exclusive recordings by Hollywood celebs). Before listening to Anne Hathaway perform L. Frank Baum’s original text—more lighthearted, humorous, and fabulously weird than the Judy Garland movie, with a vast and ever-changing cast of characters—I would not have thought it possible for one person to create so many unique voices. How Hathaway manages to do just that, then seamlessly bounce back and forth between them all, I’ll never know, but I guess that’s why she gets paid the Big Bucks. Here’s another case where we had read the book together as a family a few years ago, but it was like falling in love all over again.
The Witches, written by Roald Dahl, performed by Miranda Richardson (Ages 8-12)
While we’re on the subject of witches (and celebrities), let’s talk about my favorite Roald Dahl book from when I was a child (yup, here I go, telling you once again to share Roald Dahl with your children). True, this one is not for the faint of heart, being about real witches lurking under the disguise of regular-looking people, but the breathless terror with which I turned its pages as a child no doubt contributed to my love of reading today. How then could I resist a performance by Miranda Richardson, whose voice for the Grand High Witch will come dangerously close to blowing out your car speakers, at the same time that her soft, matter-of-fact delivery of the protagonist’s Grandmamma will make you wish you had a Norwegian grandmother of your own? As with all Dahl’s stories, the cleverness of a hapless young child outsmarts the lot of them.
(Whatever you do, don’t let your kids listen to Roald Dahl’s The Twits. It’s a liability. I simply cannot endorse it. I mean, you would be setting a bad example—your children might laugh at such disgusting, despicable behavior. Heck, they might even start making up their own stories about beards that never get washed or gluing furniture to the ceiling. Ok, fine, I can see some of you are going to do it anyway. Just don’t say you did it on my advice.)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien, read by Barbara Caruso (Ages 8-12)
Of all the stories listed here, this is the most complex: a fantastical tale of a group of escaped, highly intelligent lab rats, who build a high-tech civilization under a stretch of farmland, and an ordinary field mouse, who discovers their secret on her quest to save her children. But it might also be the most intellectually rewarding. It won the Newberry Medal in 1971, and it was another favorite of mine as a child (I remember thinking Mrs. Frisby was the bravest mother in the world). What I didn’t remember are the fascinating ethical questions raised by the novel. What is intelligence? What if every species could learn to read? What is community? How should we treat one another—and at what expense?
I’ve already alluded to the joy of listening to these stories in a previous post, so I’ll just leave it at this: if you ever have the chance to listen to E.B. White read his own prose, seize it with open ears.
Boredom can be good, certainly it is necessary, but it doesn’t have to happen in the car. I promise my next list will include more contemporary reads, but in the meantime, happy back-to-school season and happy listening.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com (Audible) affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.
I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged.
(Case in point: last year, my six-year-old’s class studied North American artists, including Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack, reading several books in the Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists series. When I took her to The Met last spring, she flitted around the modern wing, waiting for her eyes to fall upon “A Georgia!” or “A Jackson!”, at which point she stood transfixed for several minutes. But anything else? Barely a pause.)
In that vein, I was not as surprised as my children were when the Easter Bunny left baskets filled with books about Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Ancient Romans six weeks before our trip (“I can’t believe the Easter Bunny knew we were going to Italy!”). We spent much of the weeks leading up to our departure deep in these pages. (I’ve listed our reading list at the end of this post for those planning an Italy trip of their own.)
In Florence, when my daughter walked into the Piazza della Signoria and caught her breath, I knew it wasn’t just the animated story our tour guide was delivering. “Mommy, look there,” she whispered, pulling on my arm. “It’s the lion from my Michelangelo book! The one Michelangelo is sketching when he’s a boy.” She ran over to one of the iconic Medici lions and peered up at its gaping stone eyes. “It has the sweetest face, don’t you think? And its paw is gigantic! You can’t tell any of that from the book!” Would she have felt the same connection to this work of art had she not seen that silly cartoon beforehand? Certainly, she would not have sought it out.
If reading about something beforehand deepens our connection at the moment we finally see it, then the same might also be said for reading about it afterwards. When we arrived home after our two weeks in Italy, all four of us dragging ourselves and our luggage down the front walkway, we found what turned out to be a very fortuitous package sitting by the door: an advance copy of Barbara DiLorenzo’s Renato and the Lion (Ages 5-9). Loosely based on true events, this exquisite picture book tells of a Florentine boy’s love for the art in his city—and his determination to protect it in the early days of World War Two.
A bit of the magic had followed us home.
In luminous watercolors, DiLorenzo has captured the timeless essence of Florence, the way it looked seventy years ago when the story was set and the way it still looks today. The city is itself a work of art, its orange clay-tiled rooftops creating a color scheme which enfolds cobbled alleyways, hidden piazzas, medieval bridges, and—at its center—the magnificent Duomo. As one Booklist reviewer noted, this book is nothing short of a love letter to this beauty.
The boy in the story, Renato, has grown up around the art of Florence, not only because it surrounds him as he kicks his soccer ball home from school or splashes with friends in the fountain of Neptune, but because his father works in a museum, caring for and repairing ancient sculptures.
One evening, Renato’s father, who has been working late into the night for many weeks, leads him into the Accademia Gallery, where he shows him a tall domed wall made of red bricks in the spot where Michelangelo’s famous David statue has stood for the past sixty years (having been relocated from the Piazza della Signoria).
“The sculpture is still there,” explained his father, “but if you can’t see it, you might not know it was there.”
“Who might not know?” asked Renato.
In the gentle dialogue between father and son which follows, readers begin to comprehend alongside Renato the reality of the war raging across Europe, a war which now threatens—either accidentally or purposefully—to destroy the artistic treasures of this beautiful city. While Renato’s family is fiction, DiLorenzo has based them on Italian citizens who protected ancient treasures from bombings during World War Two—for example, by encasing them in brick tombs.
Renato’s favorite statue has always been the stone lion off the Piazza della Signoria. He bids it buongiorno every morning and buona sera every evening. When Renato learns of his father’s plan for the family to flee Florence, to seek refuge from the war in America, he immediately thinks about the lion.
“But what about the lion?” Renato said. “We need to protect him, too.”
“We don’t have time,” said his father. “We must leave tomorrow.”
Renato looked around the museum.
He looked at the walled enclosures where the sculptures had been.
Before his father could object, Renato ran toward the piazza.
It is impossible not to hold your breath in the next scene. As Renato begins hurriedly to lay bricks around his beloved lion after curfew, German soldiers approach. Renato quickly climbs upon the lion’s back and attempts to make himself unnoticed behind the lion’s massive head.
What follows are several glorious pages of magical realism, as the lion suddenly comes alive beneath Renato’s body. Holding tight to the living lion’s mane, Renato is transported on a moonlit journey across the city—in many respects, a journey of goodbyes to some of his city’s most beloved landmarks—until the lion delivers him safely into the arms of his grateful father.
The next morning, moments before Renato and his family must depart for the Henry Gibbins, the ship which will take them across the ocean (named for the actual boat ordered by President Roosevelt to rescue refugees from Europe), Renato finds his father back at the Piazza della Signoria, putting the finishing touches on a brick wall around the stone lion. He has worked all night to protect the statue that protected his son.
DiLorenzo could have stopped her story there, although we’re immensely fortunate she didn’t, especially those of us with a dual love for Florence and the island of Manhattan. (As we were walking around Florence, my daughter said, “Florence is a lot like New York City. You do a lot of walking and there are a lot of pigeons.”) Not only do we learn more about Renato’s life in New York—including his regular visits to the two stone lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library—but we are treated to a touching inter-generational story. An old man by the end of the story, Renato returns to Florence for a short stay with his granddaughter. It is the first time he has been back, and while this time he takes an airplane across the ocean, he finds that the most important things have not changed.
Those who have had to leave behind a piece of themselves will identify with Renato’s initially subdued expression, as he walks quietly with his granddaughter through the nostalgic streets of his childhood. When they get to the piazza, though, he finally lets himself feel the swell of the moment. His granddaughter—just like my Emily—is the first to spot the lion, and she pulls her grandfather toward it. The smiles on both of their faces when they get there are as priceless as the works of art themselves.
Oh, Florence. Oh, Italy. Oh, art and travel and family. May we always fight for what we hold most dear.
Italy Reading List (things we read prior to and since our trip!):
Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
Michelangelo (Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer
What is the Colosseum?
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator!
Pompeii: Lost and Found
What Was Pompeii?
You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii!
Ancient Rome (DK Eyewitness)
History News: The Roman News
A Renaissance Town
Olivia Goes to Venice
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Review copy by Viking, PenguinYoungReaders Group. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 18, 2017 § 1 Comment
When I was around the same age my children are now, my father used to play Kick the Can with my sister and me in the backyard after dinner on summer nights. Sweaty and exhausted—and probably owing to the giant glass of milk my mother insisted we drink with dinner—the time would predictably come when I would have to go to the bathroom. I would be crouched in my hiding position behind a bush, trying to keep quiet, but mostly trying not to pee. I could easily have run inside, used the bathroom, and come out again. But I didn’t dare. I would rather have hopped about, wincing with every step, risking an accident (and there were some)—all because I never wanted these moments to end. I never wanted to break the spell. The only thing better than the anticipation of my father coming home was the joy of being with him.
I lost my father when I was eighteen—much too young, by all accounts. And yet, the experience of being with my dad still feels as tangible to me as if it took place yesterday. As a parent now myself—one more tired and distracted and grumpy than I sometimes care to admit—what impresses most upon me is how my father seemed when he was with us. He was not merely present when we were together. He delighted in our presence.
My father’s eyes would twinkle as he’d sit across from us over grilled cheeses at the pavilion in the park, and they would widen when we brought him handfuls of chestnuts. His head would lean in as I described every detail of my day and roll back only for a conspiratorial chuckle. He genuinely seemed as excited to read aloud each night as I was to listen (to this day, I cannot read the Little House on the Prairie series with my children without thinking of him). Though I knew sometimes his work would take him overseas or far into the night, I never questioned for a second that he would rather be with us.
Of course, such is the bias of a child who loves her father and thinks he can do no wrong.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.” So begins the second chapter of Danny the Champion of the World (Ages 8-12), a story by Roald Dahl starring quite possibly the sweetest and most unusual father-son relationship in children’s literature. (Am I really still talking about Roald Dahl? YES. Yes, I am. And that is because, while at first our favorite was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then it was Matilda, and then it was James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and The Witches, the thing about Roald Dahl is that every one becomes the new favorite. Plus, I’m frantic to think you might not know about Danny the Champion of the World—because I didn’t. And it is FABULOUS. And outlandish. And hysterical. And heartwarming beyond words.)
The first few chapters of Danny the Champion of the World read as an incredibly touching tribute to a single father—something rarely dwelt on in children’s literature—as seen through the eyes of his adoring son. The two share an intimate world, both physically and emotionally. They live in a single-roomed, 150-year-old gypsy caravan, parked behind the filling station which serves as the family business (Danny’s mother died when he was just four months old). Rather than complain of his scanty, isolated accommodations, Danny relishes the closeness his house brings him to his “smiling-eyes” father—and to the wildly entertaining stories which his father spins for him each night (including one your kids will be quick to recognize from a previous Roald Dahl book).
It is impossible to tell you how much I loved my father. When he was sitting close to me on my bunk, I would reach out and slide my hand into his, and then he would fold his long fingers around my fist, holding it tight.
Danny’s father isn’t just a comforting presence and a keen storyteller: he’s also an eccentric, unpredictable, and endlessly fascinating plotter—and it is this quality which endears him as fervently to us readers as it does to our young hero. Who wouldn’t like to imagine himself the son of this quirky, fun-loving man? “It was impossible to be bored in my father’s company…plots and plans and new ideas came flying off him like sparks from a grindstone.” Danny’s father trains Danny “from birth” to be a mechanic, to take apart engines and put them back together. They make and fly kites which soar miles above the ground and “fire balloons” which levitate like lanterns in the dark night. With only the materials around them, they make tree houses and stilts and boomerangs and even a giant soapbox car with a real working engine. And all this before Danny turns nine and our real story begins.
While they may be narrated through Danny’s adoring eyes, these scenes create the unmistakable impression that Danny’s father enjoys being with his son every bit as much as his son enjoys being with him. He delights in tinkering, inventing, playing, and laughing alongside him. This is what makes him so special as a father.
This is also what makes him decide to let Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life”—and here is where a seemingly simple story about a father and son takes a wild and wacky turn (lest you forget this is a Roald Dahl book). The father, as it turns out, has a long history with—and a very heated passion for—the sublegal sport of pheasant poaching. What the what, you say? Pheasant poaching (which, I might add, is a real thing in Britain, even to this day) involves sneaking onto the property of wealthy, stuffy landowners, who stock their backyard trees with expensive pheasants for fancy-pants shooting parties, and stealthily making off with said pheasants in the dead of night. (Roald Dahl never misses an opportunity to subvert the Upperclass.)
“You mean stealing them?” I said, aghast.
“We don’t look at it that way,” my father said. “Poaching is an art. A great poacher is a great artist.”
…I was shocked. My own father a thief! This gentle, lovely man! I couldn’t believe he would go creeping into the woods at night to poach valuable birds belonging to somebody else.
Danny is even more horrified to discover this sport is also highly dangerous, bringing with it the risk of “poacher’s bottom” from the armed “keepers” hired to guard the pheasants. (Again, only in a Roald Dahl book.)
…”You’ve missed the point, Danny boy! You’ve missed the whole point! Poaching is such a fabulous and exciting sport that once you start doing it, it gets into your blood and you can’t give it up.”
In subsequent chapters, as Danny’s father invokes his storytelling prowess to describe the “secret methods” used by him and his own father over the years to catch pheasants—one called “The Horsehair Stopper,” involving soaked raisins strung on single strands of horsehair, another aimed at getting a pheasant to stick its beak into a sticky paper hat—we understand all too well why Danny begins to soften to the idea. Heck, we are softening. My kids are looking at me out of the corner of their eyes like, Mom, are you really reading this to us? Is this even OK? And PLEASE GO ON.
(Don’t worry: no pheasants suffer in the telling of this book. I’m not saying they don’t end up as dinner.)
Ultimately, though, Danny becomes determined to join the fun when he discovers the target of his father’s next pheasant poaching plot. The wealthy landowner Mr. Victor Hazell is not only a “roaring snob,” but he has a history of making nasty, disparaging comments to Danny and his father when bringing his Rolls-Royce to the filling station for a tune up. What’s worse, Mr. Hazell has been plotting to drive Danny and his father out of town for years, desperate to get his hands on their tiny piece of land to complete his massive estate.
Oh, so he’s a bad guy. That’s why it’s OK to steal his pheasants. Heck, it’s better than OK. Let’s get on with it! (This is classic Roald Dahl logic. We can’t help it. We’re all in.)
The last 150 pages—three fourths of the novel—are equal parts hilarious and hair-raising, as father and son cook up and attempt to carry out the most elaborate, unlikely, and daring (nonviolent) plot to poach Mr. Hazell’s 120 pheasants and share them with their working-class neighbors. I would never dare spoil the spoils for you and your children. All I will say is: you will never see it coming.
But amidst pheasants swaddled in baby carriages and our own Danny high tailing an “Austin 7” in a police chase, it remains the relationship between Danny and his father which steals the show: this beautiful, joyful dance between two people who love each other unconditionally, who would journey to the moon and back if it meant being together.
Pheasant poaching might seem a hard act to follow, but Danny wants us to know it’s just one of many wondrous things comprising daily life with his dad (it just happens to make a particularly great story). As the two come down from the high of their mission, dangling their feet off the front step of their cozy caravan (which, by the way, my kids haven’t stopped talking about wanting to live in), they dream about catching trout in a nearby stream and buying an electric oven and making sandwiches for lunch.
And after that?
There would be something else after that.
And after that?
Ah yes, and something else again.
Because what I am trying to tell you…
What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without a doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.
When our parent delights in us as much as we delight in him (or her)—well, we feel for a moment like the Champion of the World. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who share their craftiness, their playfulness, their goofiness, and their mischief-making with their children. And to my own dad, I’ll never forget how much fun we had.
Book published by Penguin Young Readers Group. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
May 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
It never fails to astonish me how long my kids can withstand a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Earlier this spring, we waited in line for three hours to get tickets to an art exhibit, and they entertained themselves for at least an hour playing this hand game. Long after myself—and every adult around us—was ready to banish the words “rock,” ‘paper,” and “scissors” from the English language, my kids kept going. Alas, this is not a quiet game.
Perhaps when I could have been pondering nobler pursuits, I have instead been asking myself: What is it about this highly repetitive game (“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot! Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”) that lends itself to such welcome repetition? The answer, I’ve decided, is larger than simply immediate gratification or the apparent thrill of saying “shoot” over and over. RPS is the perfect game of chance. Rock trumps scissors trumps paper trumps rock. (That’s all the Trumps you’ll get out of me.) It’s an equilateral triangle—a closed system, if you will–where each opponent has an equal shot at winning and losing. (Apparently, this is not strictly true, as some professional players—yup, they exist—are able to “recognize and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents’ play.”)
Apparently, I am not the only one spending quality time contemplating a greater meaning behind this mundane game. Two of the cleverest, funniest, and most subversive children’s book creators—Drew Daywalt (author of the wildly popular The Day the Crayons Quit) and Adam Rex (illustrator of Chloe and the Lion and How This Book Was Made, to name a few musts)—have teamed up to imagine what the backstory to this age-old game might look (and sound) like. Let’s just say it didn’t take me more than half a second to decide we needed to own The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors (Ages 5-10). (It’s also a beautiful reminder that elementary children are not too old for picture books.)
Long before they make one another’s acquaintance, the anthropomorphized Rock, Paper, and Scissors have a taste for battle. Each spends his or her days seeking out opponents. Rock, for example, who lives “in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard,” baits a clothespin on the laundry line: “Drop that underwear and battle me, you ridiculous wooden clip-man!” To which the clothespin replies, “I will pinch you and make you cry, Rock Warrior!”
A battle ensues—and yet, despite Clothespin’s big talk, Rock is quickly victorious.
As we quickly understand, no matter whose buttons Rock pushes (“You, sir, look like a fuzzy little butt,” he says to an apricot, to which the latter responds, “What?! I challenge you to a duel!”), Rock always dominates. And yet—as anyone who has antagonized a younger sibling will understand—rather than feeling satisfied with this predictable turn of events, Rock finds himself disheartened by what he realizes are not “worthy challenges.” “Smooshing you has brought me no joy,” he mutters atop a squashed apricot.
A similar search for a worthy foe is simultaneously taking place in both the “Empire of Mom’s Home Office” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer,” where Paper and Scissors respectively take on computer printers (“Noooo! Not a paper jam! Paper is victorious!”) and adhesive tape.
Probably because I’m always asking my children to lower their voices, they think my reading a book which demands shouting and taunting and battle noises is absolutely hysterical (puts me in mind of this). But I must admit: with writing like this, I kinda do, too. If you can’t beat ‘em, sometimes you have to join ‘em. (Plus, the scene where Scissors forges into “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer” and refuses to bow down before a bag of cocky dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets—she spears them to bits instead—is sheer brilliance.)
Like mine, your children will relish the anticipation of the inevitable: Rock, Paper, and Scissors at last meet (in the “great cavern of Two-Car Garage”) and discover worthy opponents in one another. The battles are “epic and legendary” and the trash talk even better. Says Scissors, “I hope you’re wearing your battle pants, rock warrior.” Replies Rock: “If by ‘battle plants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes…yes, I am wearing my battle pants, weird scissory one!”
The surprise comes when each in turn is finally beaten. Where we might expect sorrow from the defeated, instead there is elation. “You have made me so happy by beating me!” cries Scissors to Rock. The latter (not having challenged Paper yet, to whom he will fall) responds, “I wish I felt your joy, Scissors, for I have yet to meet a warrior who can beat me.”
There’s pride to be taken in a hard-fought loss to a worthy opponent. And perhaps this message is not all that foreign to our children. After all, they beg and plead for “one more minute” of playtime—sweaty and grassy, they chase each other back and forth across the backyard—but when we bring down the parental “That’s enough,” when we guide them through the front door and into the bathroom and over to the dinner table and into the bath and into bed, they know they’ve lost. They’re free at last to give up the good fight and surrender—with a sleepy smile on their face.
And prepare for Round Two tomorrow.
Book published by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperColllins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!