April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments
If you haven’t discovered the amazing British children’s artist Alison Jay, you’re in for a real treat. Or, if you’re as obsessed with her as I am, you’ll love her latest masterpiece, a fairy tale of sorts titled The Cloud Spinner (Ages 3-6), by Michael Catchpool (a fellow Brit).
The Brits have an unparalleled knack for creating books that feel Quintessentially Childlike, seamlessly blending fantasy with realism, and sprinkling on a quirkiness that makes these stories memorable for a lifetime. Alison Jay’s artistic signature, which she employs in all her work, is a “crackle finish” layered over her paintings, a technique which gives them a vintage look. In contrast, her animals, landscapes, and people feel anything but old-fashioned (here’s where that endearing quirkiness comes into play).
It seems that Jay’s artistic style has not gone unnoticed by JP, my four year old. Our favorite alphabet book is Jay’s ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, which I’ve been reading to him since he was a baby (and which is jam packed with hidden surprises), along with a handful of her other storybooks (see my list at the end). A few months ago, while perusing the shelves at our local library, JP stumbled upon an Alison Jay book he’d never seen before (William and the Night Train), and he called out, “Look Mommy, it’s one of those books with the crazy clouds!” I had never thought of it that way before, but he was right: Alison Jay does have a very specific way of painting clouds.
So, it seems only appropriate that Jay’s newest book, The Cloud Spinner, should take on clouds as its central subject. And with a unique, magical premise: Once upon a time, there was a boy who could “weave cloth from the clouds”—not just any cloth, but cloth “as soft as a mouse’s touch and as warm as roasted chestnuts.” All was OK because he had been wisely taught by his mom (who else?) to use only as many clouds as he absolutely needed (say, for essentials like a muffler).
Enter a Greedy King, who takes one look at the boy’s scarf and demands, not only a matching one for himself, but a wardrobe for the entire royal family. As the boy weaves, the clouds get sparser, the days get hotter, and the crops get drier. Jay adds in her own artistic endorsement of this ecological message: through the first half of the book, each hilltop is subtly populated with animals, trees, or flowers that together form patterns of smiley faces (British humor at its best). And yet, as the story goes on, the hilltop smiles begin to bend down; they begin to look serious and, eventually, downright forlorn.
Every fairy tale needs a hero to step up, and in this case it’s the King’s daughter (up until now silent but watchful), who gathers all the clouds-spun-clothes while her family sleeps and takes them to the boy. As she hands over the treasure, she poses the loaded question, “Is it too late to undo what has been done?” Like the ending of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and other books that remind our children of their power to do right by their Earth (to turn the frowns upside down, if you will), the boy assures us: “There is still time.” Phew.
Other Favorites Illustrated by the Magical Alison Jay:
ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (Ages 1-6)
Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4), by Phillis Gershator
I Took the Moon for a Walk, </em>by Carolyn Curtis (Ages 1-4)
If Kisses Were Colors, by Janet Lawler (Ages 1-3)
Christmastime (Ages 2-10)
The Nutcracker (Ages 3-6)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (Ages 6-12)
March 5, 2020 § 5 Comments
We are packing up our house to move out for a renovation project. Which means I can no longer ignore the board books still on our shelves, even though my kids, at nine and twelve, are long past paging through them. Only the most beloved of our stash are left, with their faded covers and frayed edges (wait, are those bite marks?). I suppose it is finally time to retire them to a box in the attic, where they’ll sit optimistically until a time when little ones might once again grace our home.
And still. Picking up these books takes me right back to the days of spit up and babble and hair pulling and cuddles so delicious I wondered how I’d ever been happy before. To days when I was so exhausted, I feared I wouldn’t rise to get my screaming infant from her crib. Reading these books to my children sometimes felt like my only lifeline to sanity. A time when a squirming child would succumb to my lap; when the call of laundry and dishes would fade; when alongside my child, I could ride on the back of a rhyme or escape into a picturesque barnyard where everything seemed ordered and wonderful.
There were also those times when one child would be playing in the next room, and the sounds of wooden drums and plastic trucks would suddenly stop; and I’d peek in to see a mess of books, with little hands turning pages and the sweetest voice singing out remembered phrases. Like watching my heart beat outside my body.
So, before I pack up these treasures, stamped indelibly on my heart, I thought I’d bid farewell to a few specific titles, in case you haven’t happened upon them in your own quest for sanity.
November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment
I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).
Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 8, 2015 § 3 Comments
In my 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, I ran a post dedicated to parents desperate for a break from incessant nightly rounds of Goodnight, Gorilla. It strikes me that the two books that I’m discussing today (Ages 2-5) would line up beautifully alongside those others. They are perfect bedtime stories. They are perfect for reading every single night (because, trust me, that’s what you’ll be doing). They are quintessentially sweet, dear, and innocent. And if, after reading them, you want to clutch them to your own chest, I promise not to tell.
We begin with Ida Pearle’s stunning The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House (Ages 2-5). Shhhh, I know I’m not supposed to pick favorites, but if I were to call out the illustrations of only one book this year, it would be this. Brooklyn-based Ida Pearle has got to be one of the most evocative children’s artists today, using her talents in figurative drawing and cut-paper collage (her choice of papers, many of them Italian or Japanese-designed, is sheer eye candy) to produce something at once charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly modern. In my old store in Chicago, we used to display and sell Pearle’s wall prints. I’m positively giddy that her art is finding a more accessible expression now in picture books (Caldecott Committee, are you listening?).
August 18, 2014 Comments Off on Three “Beach Reads” I Should Have Told You About Earlier
We have spent some fabulous time at the ocean this summer, and it seems almost cruel to deny my children their sand-worn feet and crab-catching nets, in exchange for the laced shoes and lunch bags of a rapidly-approaching new school year. It also seems a bit cruel to have waited until now to share with you our favorite beach reads of 2014. Then again, I’ve been too busy helping my children dig giant sand pits to bother with computers, and I suppose that counts for something, too.
Each time we read David Soman’s Three Bears in a Boat (Ages 3-6), the idyllic watercolor seascapes have me yearning for the New England coast, where icy waters crash on rocky shores, lighthouses guide fog-draped ships, and legends abound on the salty tongues of weathered fishermen. In this case, the high seas adventure features three energetic young bears (Dash, Theo, and a female Charlie), who accidentally shatter their mother’s prized blue seashell in a reckless moment of play. Fearing maternal wrath (“after all, [she] was a bear”), the scheming youngsters set off in a sailboat to find a replacement shell that they can put back before she returns. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 14, 2014 Comments Off on Counting Mania
My three year old is a counting fool. She counts the little green squares on her napkins (thank you, Target); she counts the steps up to her room; she counts everyone’s matches in our endless rounds of Go Fish. “I’m out of breath of counting!” she exclaimed the other day, after numerous laps around the house counting from 1 to 50. So, it only stands to follow that she would also want to read counting books, an especially robust subject matter in the world of children’s picture books (see my complete list of favorites at the end).
Emily’s current obsession is Steve Light’s new Have You Seen My Dragon? (Ages 2-5), which I knew would be a hit the instant I felt the green metallic foil dragon on the front (ooooooh, ahhhhhh). While most counting books can’t pretend to “teach” counting (with the exception of Anno’s Counting Book, the single best presentation of counting for children that I’ve ever seen), the good ones present clever ways to practice counting and to develop the finger control that goes along with it. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 8, 2014 § 1 Comment
Last year, at about this time, JP came home from school proudly toting a plastic grocery bag filled with the contents of his “work drawer.” I was nearly giddy with excitement at the prospect of getting a glimpse into his work over the past few months, endeavors in addition and subtraction, story writing, and cursive practice, about which I had heard only mumblings in response to my daily inquisition, “What did you do at school?” After we ate snack together and his sister had lost herself in a project, I sat down, folded my hands on the dining room table, and watched eagerly as JP began to unpack the bag’s contents. Not many “oohs” and “ahhs” had gone by, before I realized that most of papers bore the signatures of other children. Daphne. Josh. Helena. “But, honey, where’s the work that you did?” I finally asked. And, as if that was the silliest question in the world (duh), JP informed me: “I gave it away to my friends!”
It wasn’t but a few days later that I casually mentioned this exchange to JP’s teacher. I know Montessori is more about the process than the end result, I told her, but wouldn’t it be nice to see some tangible results of my tuition, ha ha ha? “It is ironic, isn’t it,” she replied. “We spend years hoping, pleading, begging our children to share. Then we complain when they want to give everything away.” How true! « Read the rest of this entry »
March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments
I was wrong. Occasionally, this happens. (My husband would probably debate the word “occasionally,” but this isn’t his blog and, besides, I am usually right when it comes to books.) Shortly after Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose (Ages 4-8) was published last year, I hastily thumbed through it at a bookstore and thought, “Another alphabet book…rudimentary drawings…simplistic-seeming text…a Bullwinkle-style moose…I’ll pass.”
Then, in January, right after the Caldecott winners were announced, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about this book: top children’s book critics were outraged that Zelinsky’s book got passed up for an award, and some went so far as to argue that it was the most revolutionary book published in 2012. “Huh?” I thought.
So ,when I happened to come across the book a second time (this time at our local library), I picked it up, brought it home, and read it to my kids. I’ll say it again: I was wrong. In my haste to judge a book by its cover, I completely blew past its cleverness, its hilarity, and its brilliant way of turning conventional alphabet books on their head.
January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
For this month’s birthday pick, I’m doing something a little different: 1) I’m focusing on the youngest ages for a change; 2) I’ve chosen not one but two books (which make a perfect pairing); and 3) I’m encouraging you to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on books that aren’t brand new but are commonly unknown.
In short, the next time you are headed to a birthday party for a one or two year old, you’re in luck. I Took the Moon for a Walk (Ages 1-4) and Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4) are both illustrated by the supremely talented Alison Jay, whose praises I have sung here before. With their over-sized 9” by 9” format, these hefty board books mirror another favorite by Jay, her ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (which tends to be well known and for good reason: it may just be the best alphabet book ever illustrated).
Alison Jay’s books are the ultimate gift. Packed with hidden surprises, layered with detail, and shimmering in vivid colors underneath a “crackle” finish, Jay’s paintings beg to be poured over again and again.
November 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
The best parenting advice I ever received—and didn’t listen to—came when I was in the throes of sleep training my six month old. The advice was: “Make sure you pick a short bedtime ritual, because you’ll be doing it for a long time.” Of course, when you’re knee-deep in sleep deprivation, it’s not easy to see into the future and predict that five years later, your son will still expect a book, water, two songs (one being a made-up “Curious George” song, don’t ask), a hug, a kiss, and a very involved tucking in of the covers every single night.
We all get wiser the second time around; and consequently, I have a five year old who takes 45 minutes to put to bed, and a two year old who takes 45 seconds. But one thing remains the same: I love a good bedtime story.
The best bedtime stories are filled with gentle, lulling rhymes; jewel-toned illustrations; and ample opportunities for whispers and kisses (see my full list at the end of this post). The witching hours of dinner and bath time behind us, pajamas donned and teeth brushed, our collective bodies relax as the first words are read. No matter what madness has just transpired in the moments leading up to this one, peace is now restored; those big juicy bonds of love can flow freely once more (because, let’s face it, it’s almost over).
June 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
“Moon” was one of the very first words uttered by both of my children. When they’re playing outside at dusk, they will shriek at the top of their lungs—“MOOOOOOON!”—upon catching sight of it emerging in the still-blue sky.
If the sheer volume of children’s storybooks dedicated to this subject is any indication, my children are not alone in their enthrallment with the moon. It’s nearly impossible for me to choose one favorite story to profile here (see my lengthy list below), so I will simply go with the newest addition to this already impressive repertoire: Red Knit Cap Girl (Ages 2-5), written by first-time author Naoko Stoop. I’ve mentioned before my weakness for Japanese-influenced picture books; and, like so many of her predecessors, Stoop (who grew up in Japan and now lives in Brooklyn) has created a work that holds together like a perfectly wrapped present: each word is chosen with the utmost care, each picture serves a clear purpose. In a wholly original move, Stoop’s expressive, whimsical watercolors of a little girl and her woodland friends, on a quest to speak to the moon, are painted on pieces of plywood; children can actually see the grain of the wood shining through the paintings, an effect which is especially fitting for a story set in the forest.
But it’s Stoop’s heroine that inspires me to want to read this book to my children (especially my daughter) for years to come. I love Red Knit Cap Girl. I love her curiosity, as she “wonders about flowers, butterflies, leaves, and clouds”—but most of all “about the Moon.” I love her pensiveness, as she experiments with different ways to reach the Moon. I love her courage, as she holds tight to her white bunny and journeys into the darkest part of the forest to ask Owl for advice. I love her leadership and her inclusion of others, as she rallies her forest friends to prepare a celebration to get the Moon’s attention, an affair full of handcrafted paper lanterns. I love her patience, as she waits and waits for the Moon and doesn’t give up. I love her ability to admit that she was mistaken, as only after she has extinguished the lanterns and waited quietly in darkness does “the Moon come out at last.” I love that the Moon is female-personified (none of this man-in-the-moon stuff), and I love her message to Red Knit Cap Girl: “You have made it dark enough to see me and quiet enough to hear me.”
But most of all, I love Red Knit Cap Girl’s interpretation of this message, delivered in the last sentence of the book: “Now Red Knit Cap Girl knows the Moon will always be there for her.” What a wonderful ally for our daughters (and sons) to have as they tuck into bed at night.
Other Favorites About Trying to Reach the Moon:
Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, by Eric Carle (Ages 2-4)
Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes (Ages 2-4)
Moon Plane, by Peter McCarty (Ages 2-4)
Bringing Down the Moon, by Jonathan Emmett (Ages 2-4)
I Took the Moon for a Walk, by Carolyn Curtis & Alison Jay (Ages 2-4)
Many Moons, by James Thurber & Louis Slobodkin (Ages 5-8)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin (Ages 7-12)
June 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
Last June, on the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, I wrote a post about a picture book titled Following Papa’s Song, a beautiful metaphor for the delicate dance that we perform with our children, of when and how to let go (and pull back, and let go again), so that our children might grow up to be their own persons. This year, I was all set to write about David Ezra Stein’s Tad and Dad, which brings a more rambunctious and funny treatment to a similar discussion of boundaries: a toddler frog is so enamored with his Dad—the very best swimmer and hopper and burpper in THE WORLD—that, naturally, he wants to sleep in the same bed as said Dad every night.
Then yesterday, when I arrived home, I found on my doorstep Ask Me (Ages 3-6), an upcoming new picture book by the late Bernard Waber (sadly, not coming out until next month, so think of it as an all-year-round read and not as a Father’s Day gift, per se). Everything changed when I read that book. There was no going back. It’s not just because I grew up with and adore Waber’s classics (in fact, our Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile treasury happens to be my son’s go-to reading material when he’s trying to distract himself during a thunderstorm). It’s not just because the pencil illustrations are by the amazing Suzy Lee, who blends her South Korean sensibility with English training (and we know how I swoon over British and Asian illustrators). And it’s not just that the cover features a little girl skipping alongside her father, her hand clasped firmly in his, a smile on both of their faces, as if there is no other place they’d rather be.
What really hit home about this simple, poetic, and stunning picture book is that it speaks to the greatest gift my Dad gave me when he was alive. He listened. He listened to everything I told him—and I told him A LOT. As a child, I would save up everything that happened to me during the day (including the plot of whatever book I was reading); and then, when Dad got home, I would relay it all to him, including every single mind-numbing detail (I add the “mind-numbing” part all these years later, since as a parent myself, I have SEEN THE LIGHT). I would sit on the window ledge on our second floor landing, overlooking the driveway, and strain to see his car lights. All the while, the words would be collecting in my mouth, burning on my tongue, jittery with excitement at the prospect of spilling out.
(It is perhaps the greatest testament to his character that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I even considered whether he was as fascinated by these largely one-way conversations as he always seemed at the time.)
As a child, if I had a thought, I thought only of sharing it with my Dad. As if any thought wasn’t entirely real until I spoke it aloud—until it had been listened to with the greatest patience, the softest expression, the keenest interest.
Much like the father and daughter in the book, we walked. And walked. And walked. On the weekends, we’d stroll down the street, stopping to pick up chestnuts, stopping for ice cream at the pavilion in the middle of the park, stopping to study the cloud shapes in the sky. Me always talking. He always listening.
The entire text of Ask Me consists of a dialogue between a girl and her father, over the course of a single (presumably) weekend day together. There are no quotation marks. What the girl says—inquisitive, insistent, vulnerable—is in black; and how the father responds—deliberate, bemused, attentive—is in blue. (Do I have to tell you that the instances of black far out number the blue?)
It is impossible not to hear my own children’s voices in the girl’s almost stream-of-consciousness chattering. No clean or predictable transition from one subject to the next. Saying whatever thought pops into their heads. Asking questions and then going straight on to give the answers themselves. Struggling to choose the right words: qualifying, changing their minds, emphasizing.
Ask me what else I like.
What else do you like?
I like horses. No, I like riding horses.
You rode a horse?
On the merry-go-round. Remember? You remember.
The father and daughter spend most of the book walking around their neighborhood, exploring playgrounds, fountains, and forests. (Incidentally, this is all thanks to illustrator Suzy Lee’s unique interpretation of Waber’s purposely vague text, which could take place just about anywhere—or even, for that matter, between a girl (or boy) and her (his) mother.) The season is fall, and there is natural beauty to behold everywhere. And yet, the girl is as much in her own imagination as she is in the present. I like sand. I like digging in the sand. I really, really do like digging in the sand. Deep, deep, down, down, down in the sand. And I like seashells. Remember when we collected seashells?
Then, there are times when the girl pauses. When she wants to be the one to listen. When she desires, longs, needs to hear certain things. How come birds build nests? she asks. And her father, accustomed to this game, at first echoes, How come birds build nests? Only this time, the girl breaks her customary pattern. You tell it, she says. And so her father does:
So they will have a safe place to lay their eggs.
I knew that.
Why did you ask?
Because I like to hear you tell it.
Later, as the girl and her father get ready for bed, brushing their teeth side by side, the girl asks her father if he remembers the significance of next Thursday. His responds:
How could I ever forget?
Forget my birthday.
Not in a million years would I forget your birthday.
How about a billion years?
Not even in a billion years.
As children, especially during one-on-one time with the people we love, we have a brief opportunity to feel like Masters of the Universe. We stroll confidently through a carpet of leaves, we twirl beneath the rain, and we feel like the words we say must unquestionably be the Most Important Words Ever.
But only because someone is listening.
As we grow up, we no longer speak our every thought aloud (at least, not to our parents). But, if we are lucky, we still have a parent to call with the most exciting words, or the most disappointing words, or the words that we just can’t get right in our heads. Listening is a gift we give our children. And it’s a gift they never stop needing, even when they’re no longer so little.
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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!