August 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
As previously noted, we recently spent a week on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, where the beach isn’t exactly the soft white expanse of the Caribbean. But there’s an as-of-yet-unmentioned benefit to such dark, coarse, and oily sand if you’re an almost five-year-old boy: when wet, it bears a striking resemblance to poop. Cue hours of enjoyment for my son, and lots of averted trying-to-seem-oblivious glances from me. It never mattered how things began (“Mommy, I’m building a series of canals!”), they always ended at poop (“Mommy, now these canals are full of POOP!”)
During the 10 hour drive home at the end of the week, I had a revelation: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or rather, how could I direct this obsession into something educational?
I decided to get my hands on The Truth About Poop, by Susan E. Goodman (Ages 5-10), a mature picture-chapter book packed with biological, zoological, historical, and geographical facts about, yes, poop. There have actually been quite a few expertly executed books on this topic over the past 10 years, and they were always big hits at my shop (“You’re telling me your seven-year-old son isn’t interested in reading? Have you tried giving him a book about poop?”). I figured it was high time to bring one home for JP.
March 1, 2019 Comments Off on Balancing the Me and the We
How do we celebrate our individualism without turning our backs on our community? How do we lift up those around us without sacrificing our sense of self? Teaching our children to walk this fine line as they grow into adults may be one of the most important things we as parents do.
Bonus if it involves a little sugar along the way. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 15, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: My Favorite Graphic Novel of the Year
Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared (Ages 9-13), about the horrifying, hilarious, and (occasionally) happy moments spent at sleepaway camp, is my favorite middle-grade graphic novel of the year. (I should add that it’s followed very closely by the subversive rags-to-riches The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, but since I’m running out of time, you’ll have to take my word on that one.) Brosgol’s novel, told appropriately through an army green color palette, is a fictionalized memoir of her own childhood experience at a Russian Orthodox sleepaway camp in the early ’90s; and it tugs at our heartstrings as much as it cracks us up. Because even though her camp is at times a horror show, Brosgol nails what it’s like to be away from home at such a trying and impressionable age. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.) « Read the rest of this entry »
November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
Ever since I hailed the stunning achievement of British author-illustrator Jenni Desmond’s The Polar Bear in my 2016 Gift Guide, I have eagerly anticipated the third installment in her narrative non-fiction series starring endangered animals. It has been well worth the two-year wait, because The Elephant (Ages 6-9), a tribute to the world’s largest living land mammal, is magnificent. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
Most parents have some part of the morning routine that they dread. For me, it’s not convincing my kids to get dressed; it’s not getting them to sit still long enough to finish their oatmeal; it’s not even brushing their teeth or standing by as they wrestle with any amount of outdoor attire. No, the moment that requires the most patience, that threatens to unravel me almost every day, comes at the very end—ironically, when the finish line is so close that I can almost taste it. It’s the simple, straightforward 10 foot walk from our front door to the car.
Getting my children into the car is like herding sloths. To look at them, you would think they had never stepped foot in the Great Outdoors before, the way they suddenly stop, stare off blankly into space, and eventually fix upon some object (a leaf, a truck, a worm misplaced from last night’s rainstorm), which inevitably prompts 25 questions Of The Utmost and Immediate Importance. At some point, they will begin to walk ever so slowly to the car, wedging themselves through the open car door with their overstuffed backpacks still on (will it ever occur to them to take off the bag before climbing in?), then struggling with car straps in some kind of slow-motion agony (my youngest: “You do it! No, I do it! Wait, what day is it?”), until finally 94 minutes have passed (which in actuality is only 4 minutes but feels like 94) and you pull out of the driveway. I adore my children. But.
Perhaps given my children’s tendency to stallllllllll, or perhaps just because it’s a darling story from start to finish, I am totally taken with Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhans’ Sparky! (Ages 4-8), a new picture book about a girl’s ambivalence surrounding her pet sloth’s inability to perform on command (or, frankly, do much of anything). « Read the rest of this entry »
November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
Six year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:
Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”
JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”
Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”
JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”
Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”
JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”
We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
Earlier this summer, the kids and I were on a morning walk—JP in the lead on foot, Emily trailing on her scooter, and me bringing up the rear. It had rained most of the night before, and the sidewalks were still damp. Abruptly, JP let out one of his characteristic ear-splitting screeches (at almost six, the boy still has no regard for volume control): “STOOOOOOP, EMILY!” Before I could launch into my characteristic lecture about not screaming into people’s faces, especially when that sweet face belongs to your little sister, JP followed it up with, “MOMMY, EMILY WAS ABOUT TO RUN OVER A WORM!” I looked down and, sure enough, the sidewalk was covered in worms, evidently displaced from the previous night’s storm. Is it wrong that I immediately assumed JP’s reaction was based on the grossness factor of squashing a worm between one’s scooter’s wheels? I’ll admit I felt slightly guilty when, once everyone calmed down (by now Emily was screaming nonsensically about worms as well), JP explained, “We have to be so, so careful not to hurt these worms. They need to go back into the dirt to make the plants grow!” I wasn’t going to tell him that these worms didn’t look like they were going anywhere ever again; Emily and I simply followed in tow as he went first and pointed out any worms that we should steer around.
It’s moments like these—rare, fleeting moments—when I wonder if maybe I’ve done something right as a parent. That somehow in all my blabbing on about trees and seeds and caterpillars, my kids have begun to develop an appreciation for the natural world that surrounds them. I would have to credit any success I’ve had to books like Yucky Worms (Ages 4-8), by Vivian French and Jessica Ahlberg, which is part of a fantastic Read and Wonder Series published by Candlewick Press. This is natural science for young kids at its best: fictional stories packed with scientific facts that are woven accessibly into the narrative. In Yucky Worms, a boy gets a lesson in Wormology from his green-thumbed grandmother (perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was first introduced to spiders and butterflies by my two grandmothers?).
Quick to exclaim “Yuck! Throw it away!” when his grandmother digs up a “slimy, slithery, wiggly worm,” the boy in the story gets schooled on the different parts of the worm, how it tunnels through the ground, what it eats, and how its poop enriches the soil. It turns out that worm poop—white curly forms called “casts”—are very plentiful in our backyard. It also turns out that most earthworms do not regenerate when accidentally cut in half by a gardening spade (I now get schooled regularly on this by my “backseat gardeners”). There is much to love about this book, from the sweet relationship between grandmother and grandson, to the hand-drawn diagrams of the worm’s anatomy, to the answers to questions kids don’t even know they have, like what happens to worms in the winter. But perhaps the biggest appeal for kids are the word bubbles that occasionally come out of the mouths of the worms themselves, reinforcing the lessons in the book while adding some enticing humor. What is it about worms that seem to invite speech bubbles? Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss incorporate a similar technique in their hilarious series, Diary of a Worm (more fun than fact but still surprisingly illuminating about these creatures). Worms have a lot to say, evidently, as they dodge predators or feast on moldy fruit.
I have tried my darndest this summer to get my kids out into nature. When it comes time to make dinner, it’s all I can do to resist the temptation to turn on the TV, shooing them instead into the backyard. Inevitably, I am called out moments later to settle some dispute over an ancient half-broken toy that has been unearthed from the shed and is suddenly the Only Thing Worth Playing With. But, in time, they settle into the rhythm of things and begin to take closer notice of their surroundings. Once again, my dinner making is interrupted by yelling: “Mommy, come out here RIGHT NOW!” I trudge outside more than a little exasperated, only to find the kids, not fighting over toys, but instead huddled over a corner of the deck. I bend down to see a spider’s web glistening from drops of water that have fallen out of the just-watered planters above. “It’s just like the one in the book!” JP exclaims, referring to Helen Frost’s stunning photograph of a dew-covered spider’s web in Step Gently Out, which we had just been reading that morning. “Only it’s even more beautiful,” he adds. “Yes,” Emily pipes in. “It’s sooooo boootiful.”
Other Favorites About Backyard Critters:
Step Gently Out, by Helen Frost (Ages 3-6)
Where Butterflies Grow and The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder & Lynne Cherry (Ages 3-6)
The Honeybee Man, by Lela Nargi (Ages 4-8)
Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Spider, & Diary of a Fly, by Doreen Cronin & Harry Bliss (Ages 4-8)
Insect Detective: Read and Wonder, by Steve Voake & Charlotte Voake (Ages 4-8)
Seeds, Bees, Butterflies & More: Poems for Two Voices, by Carole Gerber & Eugene Yelchin (Ages 5-10)
Plus these favs mentioned in a previous post about Young Naturalists!
August 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
Once again, I find myself singing the praises of Mo Willems, whose Time to Pee! (Ages 1-4) proved just what my daughter needed to get her potty training on. For those of you who have navigated these murky waters before, you will agree that there are VERY FEW decent potty-related books for kids. There are useless books about princesses sitting on potties. There are patronizing books that suggest you’re only a big kid if you use the potty. But there are far too few that are clever and helpful, fun and functional. But that’s OK. Because all you really need is one great book—and, lucky for us, there’s Time to Pee!
Truth be told, I had been dreading potty training my youngest. I had it too easy with my firstborn. If I told you about how he emphatically decided upon turning two that he wanted to poop on the potty and never looked back, you would hate me. Except that you can’t hate me, because I literally had nothing to do with it (JP has always been a child to take matters into his own hands, skeptical that his parents don’t really know what they are doing and not entirely incorrect much of the time). So when my daughter turned two and showed ZERO interest in anything having to do with the potty, I simply told myself that she wasn’t ready. But then, yikes, almost an entire year passed, and here we are just a few short weeks from her joining her brother in Montessori, where she’ll be expected to do things like wear underwear and wipe her own butt; suddenly, “I no interested in the potty!” seemed like a recipe for disaster. So we took the plunge, gave away all remaining diapers (this tip from the parenting book, Diaper-Free Before 3, a fantastic recommendation from our Montessori director), and casually placed Time to Pee! on the top of a reading pile in the bathroom.
Now, I’m obviously not going to tell you that a children’s book (even one by the brilliant Mo Willems) was the single factor in Emily’s fairly quick and painless transition to the potty (much of the heavy lifting was in fact done by Big Brother). But what I can tell you is that the language in Time to Pee! repeatedly crops up when Em is talking about using the potty. At face value, the book reads like a straightforward (never patronizing) instruction manual, illustrated with Mo’s signature black-outlined doodles: you get “that funny feeling” while playing; you tell a grown-up that you have to go; you march yourself down the hall and into the bathroom, where you pull down your undies, do the deed, and get back to playing. Done. No problem. All the important logistics are covered, like waiting until you are done before grabbing for toilet paper (thank you, Mo) and washing hands afterwards. But then, because it’s Mo Willems, and because he is so darn perceptive about how kids’ minds work and what they are thinking (and obsessing and worrying) about, the book is loaded with humorous touches. “Please don’t ignore it!” (next to a boy with crossed eyes and legs). “Now is your chance to show how BIG you are!” And my favorite: “Everything will still be right where it was” (as the child returns to her tea party).
But the real unsung heroes here are the mice. Yes, that’s right, the hundreds of enthusiastic mice delivering each message, rolling out the red carpet and hoisting up the flags, serenading the potty goer and giving the thumbs up with a coy, “Go for it dude.” Three days into potty training, I tried to follow Emily into the bathroom after she announced that she had to pee. “No, Mommy! You don’t come in! I’m having a party with the mice.” And just like that, I found myself once again singing the praises of Mo Willems.
Other Favorite Potty Stories for Kids:
Even Firefighters Go to the Potty: A Potty Training Lift-the-Flap Story, by Wendy A. Wax, Naomi Wax, & Stephen Gilpin (long after JP was potty trained he still requested this book 10 times a day for two years)
Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi (yes it’s weird, yes it’s kinda gross, but it’s actually quite effective (and my kids love the camel’s “two hump poop”))
A Potty for Me, by Karen Katz
Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle, by Axel Scheffler (my daughter loves this sweet, simple series about two friends—and, lo and behold, they have a potty story about an accident during a playdate)
April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
A customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise).
But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose).
September 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
There’s no better time than the fall for reading spooky stories! Now, before you start worrying, let me preface by saying that my almost five year old is the ultimate Nervous Nelly; so, if he’s not scared by these stories (and actually demands to read them again and again), rest assured that your kids won’t be either. In fact, if you have a child that’s scared of the dark, even better: books like these can be an invaluable tool for empathizing with kids about their own nervousness (and helping them understand the role their imagination plays).
Without further ado, I give you my favorite new spooky story of the fall: Creepy Carrots! (Ages 4-7), by Aaron Reynolds, with illustrations by Peter Brown. I have loved everything Peter Brown has ever done, beginning with his first book, Flight of the Dodo, which is a quirky story about bird poop (remember: my son has a thing for poop books). What impresses me most about Brown is that none of his books feel derivative: for each story, he perfectly tailors his illustrative style to the topic at hand. In Creepy Carrots!, he sets his witty, cartoon-like drawings against a backdrop reminiscent of film noir, invoking a Hitchcockian play of black and white frames accented by splashes of orange.
May 30, 2012 Comments Off on Life on the Farm
Some days, it seems like all I hear is “Why?” “What?” “How?” It started two years ago, when JP turned two and a half; and it quickly became apparent that I was going to need to brush up on my mastery of Practical Life (not to mention engineering, plumbing, physics, astronomy, and physiology). The onset of this prolonged phase of questioning (the kind that follows you into the shower and becomes a nagging buzz in the car) coincided with our family’s relocation out East, which meant that I had just quit my full-time job, was seven months pregnant with my second in the middle of summer, and was temporarily living alongside a major highway in a corporate apartment infested with ants. I panicked: how was I going to keep my Energizer Bunny occupied and myself from going crazy at the same time? My salvation came from Frying Pan Farm, a small not-for-profit working farm just a few minutes away in Herndon, VA. It turns out that many of JP’s questions could be answered on morning excursions to Frying Pan Farm; things like: “Where does milk come from?” “How does my cereal get made?” “How do tractors work?” “Why is a cow’s poop so big?” (OK, so he never asked that last one prior to visiting a farm, but it soon became a favorite.) It also turns out that all these questions (and many more) are answered in Flip Flap Farm (Ages 2.5-6), part of a fantastic non-fiction series by Usborne Publishers, which breaks down topics through clear, concise text, charming illustrations, and a multitude of flaps (sometimes three-deep!) that little fingers can lift up to learn the complete story.
I first happened upon Flip Flap Farm in the General Store at Frying Pan Farm (sidenote: some of my best book finds come from off-the-beaten-path gift shops, because when a store has a niche focus, books which might otherwise get shelved in an obscure section of a bookstore end up front and center there). Organized by season, Flip Flap Farm starts with springtime: we see baby lambs and calves alongside their mommies (a flap opens to reveal a sheep who has “moved away from the others to have her baby”); a vet examining the newborn animals; and a tractor scattering new seeds. In summer, the sheep are sheared: a flap reveals the “cool, shorn sheep” and another takes us along for the ride as the fleeces are washed, spun, and turned into clothes and bedding. My favorite spread is Milking, where flaps showcase the digestion of grass inside a cow (did you know that cows swallow grass, cough it back up, and then go on to chew it “for ages” before swallowing it again?); as well as a number of brilliantly-executed flaps that show how milk gets from a cow’s udders to your grocery store’s shelves. Not surprisingly, JP’s favorite spread is Farm Machines, where (by turning a wheel) he gets to watch a combine harvester move through the fields, cutting wheat and turning straw into bales (that’s where your cereal comes from, baby!). There’s lots more, including a look at what the farmers do in the dead of winter, but come on, what are you waiting for? Get in the car! I hear they’re milking at 4pm today.
Other Favorite Picture Books on Farm Life:
Big Red Barn (Ages 1-3), by Margaret Wise Brown
Farm (Ages 4-8), by Elisha Cooper
Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm (Ages 3-6), by Alice & Martin Provensen (and, incidentally, my husband’s favorite book as a kid!)