Digging in the Backyard: Summer School Wraps Up!

August 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yucky Worms by Vivian FrenchEarlier 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.

Here, the story continues on the side, while the worms take front stage with their tunnels and word bubbles.

Here, the story continues on the side, while the worms take front stage with their tunnels and word bubbles.

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!

Learning from the Big Thinkers (Summer School Continues!)

June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

On a Beam of LightAlbert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)

I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).

I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.

Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”

I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)

Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'" In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots ("Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'” In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots (“Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)

The Human Body (Summer School Continues!)

June 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

You Are StardustSummer is naturally a time for children to sharpen their senses and take notice of their bodies. Running barefoot through the freshly cut grass; relishing the pure silence underwater at the pool; feeling the sweat beads on the back of their necks; hearing the crack of thunder that sends them tearing for the house; stretching out on the earth’s back to gaze at a sky full of stars: this is what summer looks, sounds, and feels like to our children. So why not turn these grass-stained knees into a chance to study the human body? And what if we take these bodily lessons further; what if we create an awareness in our children that their bodies aren’t just little planets unto themselves but are connected to the mysteries of the greater universe?

I have long been puzzled by the lack of children’s books that bridge the scientific and natural worlds, so I was thrilled to discover a little gem published last year, written by Elin Kelsey. You Are Stardust (Ages 4-8) is that rare blend of scientific fact and poetic wonder. Beginning with the premise that “every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born,” the book goes on to draw parallels between humans, animals, the earth, and the universe, from the salt water that flows through our tears like it flows through the ocean to the electricity that powers our thoughts like it powers the lightning in the sky. Every fact and connection is intended to shock and awe (and is backed up by scientific evidence). Did you know that the water we drink today is the same water that the dinosaurs drank? Or that “each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant?” (Both of these questions got an audible response from my son: “Is that seriously true?”)

One of my favorite things about sharing books with children is that you can never predict exactly what will rock their world. I would never have supposed that the fact which made the greatest impression upon JP was one having to do with continual renewal—specifically, that “you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten.” When he first heard this, JP threw back his head and roared, “I’m not a snake! Kids don’t shed their skin; that’s ridiculous!” “Not all in one piece like a snake, but in little bits at a time,” I told him, and we went on to discuss things like scrapes, sunburn, and dry skin. For the past week, he has now taken to brushing his hand across his arm 10 times a day, while declaring to his sister that “you can’t see it, but my skin is shedding RIGHT NOW!”

Prior to discovering You Are Stardust, my favorite “metaphysical” book for kids, although on a much simpler, toddler-targeted level, has been Molly Bang’s All of Me: A Book of Thanks (Ages 2-4). With loving, economical text, Bang pays tribute first to a child’s body (“thank you, hands, for gripping and throwing and patting and holding”); then to his senses (“my mouth tastes all my food before it slides down here, into my tummy”); then to his feelings (“today I felt curious, and excited, and angry, and brave…”); and, finally, to the way in which he is part of “this whole wide world…and this whole universe is inside…all of me!”).

What All of Me starts, You Are Stardust expands on for the older child, grounding wondrous observations about the body-universe connection with scientific data (the book’s afterward also cites a website for those who want to learn more about the science behind the book). Perhaps not just coincidentally, both Bang and Kelsey’s books are illustrated with collage, a fitting medium for a lesson on how we are greater than the sum of our parts. The collages in You Are Stardust, done by Soyeon Kim, are actually dioramas, combining rocks, dried flowers, painted leaves, string, tissue paper, and watercolor cut-outs to create a tactile, three-dimensional effect. The illustrations feel youthful and free-form, and I think my son immediately connected with them as something he could approximate with materials gathered from our backyard. I would love for my children (as the author similarly wishes in her afterward) to cart this book outside all summer long, to read it by flashlight in their tee-pee or while propped up on their elbows in the grass. I would like for them to look at the trees and the birds and the snails and the clouds—and to feel their own heartbeat answering back.

"You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature."

“You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature.”

Other Favorites for a More In-Depth Study of the Human Body (and with a more traditionally fact-based presentation):
The Skeleton Inside You; Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup and Yawn; A Drop of Blood; Hear Your Heart; My Five Senses, all part of the wonderful Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science Series (Ages 4-8)
See Inside Your Body, by Usborne Publishing (Ages 5-10)
First Human Body Encyclopedia, by DK Pubishing (Ages 6-12)
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work, by Steve Jenkins (Ages 6-12)
Picture This! Human Body, by Margaret Hynes (Ages 8-14)

Summer Reading to Save Us: Massive Middle-Grade Round Up

May 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

I have a confession. As our summer plans are being ripped away from us—slowly, painfully, like the stickiest of band-aids—I am secretly stockpiling books and puzzles. It’s compulsive. Possibly certifiable. But I can’t help it. In some tiny, naively optimistic part of my brain, I believe if we have stockpiles of books and puzzles, we won’t wake every morning and cry over missed swim meets and sleepaway camps and beach vacations. Even if it’s sweltering. Even if we can’t leave the house. Oh, who am I kidding? We’ll still cry. But at least we’ll have books and puzzles.

It seems I might not be alone. I ran a survey yesterday on Instagram and 85% of you voted for my gargantuan list of favorite new middle-grade books to come out now, as opposed to after Memorial Day. So maybe you’re getting ready, too. And it is a gargantuan list. (A reminder that I recently covered new graphic novels here, as well as three chapter books which we read aloud but could easily be read independently.) Some skew younger and some much older, so I’ve listed age ranges below each title. Here’s the thing: I read a ton over the past six months, and these are what made the cut. There were others I expected to like or wanted to like, but they just didn’t feel like anything I could give a kid and say, with confidence, You’re going to love this. You’re going to forget, for a few minutes, that the world is all kinds of suckiness right now.

But here’s the other thing. I’m not going anywhere, and I’m still reading. Like crazy. So keep tuning in. (You can always track what the kids and I are reading in real time on Instagram.) Summer is coming, and we’ll get through it together. With a little help from the books (and puzzles).

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What’s Left When Summer Ends

August 29, 2019 § 9 Comments

At no time more than summer do our children grow up. Camps, camping, gloriously long stretches of daylight, ample opportunities at exploration and courage and boredom…all of this combines to ensure that the children we send back to school in the fall are not quite the ones we ushered in summer with.

I was ill prepared for the onslaught of emotions I would feel upon picking up my oldest from his first sleepaway camp experience in Maine. As we slowed along the gravel road though the camp entrance, my excitement of the past 24 hours turned to butterflies. How would he seem? Would he look different? Would he have made friends? Would he burst into angry tears and declare he was never coming back?

We didn’t have to wait long: he was standing alone not far from the entrance. I waved frantically, shouting at my husband to stop the car so I could jump out. JP smiled broadly as I threw my arms around him, but something was immediately apparent. He was quiet. More upright than I’d remembered. More reserved than I’d expected. « Read the rest of this entry »

Summer Road Tripping (Audio Book Round Up)

August 2, 2019 Comments Off on Summer Road Tripping (Audio Book Round Up)

Over the past two years, owing to revolving carpools and the best kids’ podcast ever, we have listened to significantly fewer audio books. (My last round up is here). And yet, where quantity was lacking, quality was not. Is it just me, or has the audio industry really upped its game? If you’ve got a road trip planned this August, here’s hoping you find some inspiration below. Even if you’re just driving to and from the pool every day, or taking refuge at home in the AC, these performances are guaranteed to thrill and excite everyone in the family. (Parents included.)

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Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)

May 24, 2019 Comments Off on Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)

As I’m limping over the finish line that is May, I’m dreaming of summer. Of days at the pool, nights in the backyard, and lots of opportunities for lazing around with our noses in a book. Should you (or your children) be itching for a distraction from making lunches or dressing for another concert, let me help you plot a summer reading list, beginning with my favorite middle-grade reads of late. (Link to my last round up is here; or go back and check out this and this.) First up is a book which should go straight to the top of your list: it’s fresh, funny, and eerily timely.

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The Best Problem Solving of Our Summer

August 2, 2018 § 2 Comments

In my ongoing challenge to tempt my ten year old into inserting more literature into his self-chosen deluge of graphic novels, comics, and (understandably addictive) action-packed series by the likes of Dan Gutman, Stuart Gibbs, and Rick Riordan, I announced at the beginning of the summer that I would read Stacy McAnulty’s debut novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, aloud to him. He seemed generally unenthused with this proclamation (“Is this going to be a slow book?” he asked over furrowed brows, after he gleaned from the inside flap that there would be no spies, time travel, or epic battle scenes); but I was undeterred. You see, I’m not just used to this reaction. I’m also used to how well my plan works. « Read the rest of this entry »

Familial Strife: Summer Reading Recs for Tweens

June 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

While I mostly discuss books that lend themselves to sharing aloud with children, I make exceptions around holidays and summer break to offer shorter write ups of middle-grade chapter books—ones you’ll want to put into the hands of your older readers and then get out of the way. (You’ll find past favorites here, here, and here.)  Sitting on the Capitol Choices reviewing committee affords me ample opportunities to keep up with what’s current. Fortunately, for all of us with tweens, the well is especially deep right now.

Some (ahem, grown-ups) believe summer reading should be exclusively light and fluffy. I beg to disagree. Away from academic pressures and structured sports can be the perfect time for our children to embark on uncharted territory: to push outside their comfort zones; to dabble in different writing styles; to experience characters who look and sound nothing like them; and to contemplate—from the security of the page—some of the heavier lifting they might someday be called upon to do. « Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Without Walls (Summer Reading Challenge)

June 29, 2017 Comments Off on Reading Without Walls (Summer Reading Challenge)

You never know what’s going to get through to a child.

Earlier this year, when I was leading a book club with my son’s class on Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water, the subject of refugee camps came up. Salva, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and the main character in the book, flees from South Sudan during the war and spends several years in refugee camps across Ethiopia and Kenya. Because his perilous journey on foot through violence and wild animals before reaching the camps is so graphic, the camps at first seem like a welcome respite—at least they did to my readers—despite the narrator’s insistence on their overcrowding and the loneliness Salva felt as an orphan there.

“I mean, at least they were safe there,” one of my students remarked. “Plus, a lot of them are wearing clothes without holes, so that’s good,” said another, when I brought in photos of refugee camps to help them visualize what they were reading. “Yeah, and they teach the kids stuff and let them play sports,” said another. They looked at me and shrugged. As if to say, This doesn’t seem too bad.

I was taken aback by their cavalier attitudes. Have even our youngest become desensitized to the horrors of this world? « Read the rest of this entry »

Laughing Our Way Back to School

September 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt(Before we get started—HELLLLOOOOO AGAIN!—I thought I’d link to three guest posts that I wrote as part of a Summer Reading Series for the local blog, DIY Del Ray. There’s one on picture books about the garden; one on recent new installments in our favorite early-chapter series; and one on my favorite middle-grade chapter books so far this year.)

And now, let’s get down to today’s business.

As I write this, my kids have been back in school for a few short hours. The house is blissfully, rapturously, guiltily quiet. The good news is that I can finally do laundry in the basement without my children scootering—and I mean, quite literally scootering—around me. The bad news is that I can’t get cuddles or kisses or giggles whenever I want.

As my kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to see summer end. I will miss my buddies. I will miss our lazy mornings (only the mail carrier knows how long we stayed in our pajamas). Most of all, I will miss our adventures—the way every new shade of green, every sun-kissed rock, every goldfinch and swallowtail and cicada becomes something to marvel at and remark on.

And I will, of course, miss the many hours we curled up to read together (as well as the times when we were too busy catching a ferry or celebrating a swim meet or chasing fireflies to read at all). Lest you think my silence this summer meant that we didn’t discover piles of new books, I can promise you redemption this fall. We have a lot to catch up on.

Beginning with what we read at the very end of our summer break. « Read the rest of this entry »

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 Comments Off on Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton JonesLast year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.

But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.” « Read the rest of this entry »

God of Summer

June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai GersteinAs a stay-at-home parent, I greet the arrival of summer with equal parts giddiness, relief, and dread. I know I will watch my children grow before my eyes more rapidly than during any other season. I know the front hall will be draped with wet towels, half-empty coolers, and bottles of sun block. I know we will picnic in beautiful places. I know my children’s boredom will give way to creative partnerships the likes of which I could never predict. I know there will be tears; there will be yelling; there will be hysterical laughter. I know the noise will drive me into the laundry room. I know there will be long sticky cuddles while reading together on the couch. I know there will be dance parties. I know my children will jump at every chance to stay up and catch fireflies. I know their eyes will close the second their heads hit the pillow—and that mine will follow close behind.

For any ambivalence I might have about summer’s arrival, my children have none. For them, summer is something to be greeted with unadulterated ecstasy—the skipping, jumping, eating ice cream, and wearing whatever they want kind. In this, they feel a kinship to a certain Greek god in Mordicai Gerstein’s wildly infectious new picture book, I am Pan! (Ages 5-10). « Read the rest of this entry »

When Big Sis Starts School

September 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori NicholsSeconds before I heard the door to his room slam shut, I heard my son bellowing these words to his little sister: “Emily, sometimes you are the best of all people, and sometimes you are THE WORST!”

Have truer words ever been uttered about one’s sibling?

Perhaps at no other time than summer is the sibling relationship so poked, prodded, and pushed. There have been long stretches this summer when the only kids at my children’s disposal have been each other. Having so much unstructured time together requires more than a little adjustment. As a parent, witnessing my children re-connect, re-establish boundaries, and re-attune their imaginations with one another, is equal parts mesmerizing and maddening.

Still, take away the bossing and the tattling and the unprovoked hitting (WHY DO THEY DO THIS?), and I am still smiling about the dinosaur dance party I walked in on…or the day my daughter appeared for lunch dragging her big brother on all fours by a dog collar…or the time I eavesdropped on them whispering conspiratorially under the bed. Nor will I forget the tears that welled up in my eyes when, after what seemed like hours of yelling and bickering, I came down from a shower to find the two of them sprawled on the living room floor, telling made-up stories to each another.

I would argue that, in recent years, no picture book artist has captured the young sibling relationship more astutely and adorably than Lori Nichols. Tracking the relationship between two sisters, Nichols first gave us Maple, where Maple (named for the tree her parents planted when pregnant) learns that her parents are expecting a second child. Then came Maple and Willow Together, where the storming and norming of sibling play reaches full fantastic force. Now, in this fall’s latest installment, Maple and Willow Apart (Ages 2-6), Maple’s departure for kindergarten throws both girls for a loop. This new angst is hardly surprising, given that the two sibs have just spent the entire summer playing together (in and around trees and while speaking in their secret nonsensical language—two favorite themes that run through all the books).

IMG_2818

Ah, but which is the greater plight for a sibling: the one doing the leaving, or the one getting left behind?

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
While it has been two years since Emily watched her brother walk up the steps into school without her, this is the first fall that Emily will stay for a full day like JP. Boy oh boy, has she longed for this day. The question of what the school children do between the hours of 1pm and 3pm has been nothing short of an obsession for her these past two years. “I think they get to play special games!” “I think the teacher sneaks them special snacks!” One night, as I tucked her into bed, she whispered in my ear, “Mommy, I think in the afternoon is when the kids learn to read.”

Like Emily, Willow discovers that she, too, can fall back on her imagination during the quiet hours at home while Maple is at school. When Maple comes home—chatting incessantly (and not a little bossily) about everything she has learned, everything she did on the playground, everything her teacher said—Willow lets her big sister in on a little secret of her own.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
“I had fun, too,” said Willow. “I played with Pip.”

“Pip?” Maple asks. “Who’s Pip?”

“Pip is my new friend,” said Willow. “He has a bumpy head and he is afraid of squirrels.”

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols IMG_2831
Pip is, of course, an acorn. But he is not just an acorn. Through the vivid escapades that Willow paints for her sister—they ride snails! they nap in bird nests!—Pip becomes elevated to something greater than simply Willow’s imaginary friend; he becomes a signifier for both girls of the Change that’s taking place in front of their eyes. Suddenly, Maple isn’t so sure that she wants to go to school and miss out on the adventures to be had in her own backyard. For a brief second, she isn’t sure she wants to grow up.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

The solution that’s offered up (and I won’t ruin the surprise) is nothing short of delightful. It’s also realistic—as are all three of Nichols’ books. But the best and most unexpected part is that this solution comes from Willow, the younger sibling. It turns out that big sisters still need their little sisters. It turns out that little sisters know just how to make their big sisters feel better.

Beginning next week, even though my children will enter and exit school together, they will likely ignore each other for most of the day, perhaps granting a brief wave or smile as they pass in the hall. They’ll still have evenings and weekends together. But it’s not the same. They’ll grow and stretch and circle back and grow some more…and then, with luck, next summer will come and they’ll find their way back to each other again. There will most definitely be squabbling. But I like to think that I’ll choose instead to notice the other stuff. The laughter. The whispering. The heads pressed together. The scampering in unison. The casual, unforced gestures of affection.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Mid-Summer Reading Roundup

July 16, 2015 Comments Off on Mid-Summer Reading Roundup

"The Blue Whale" by Jenni DesmondRemember how last summer I waited until August to tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture books of 2014? Well, this summer, you’re in luck, because I’ve only waited until July (you’d think by now I would have a clue as to how impossibly little a parent can accomplish when school is not in session).

"Ice Cream Summer" by Peter SisAnyway, in case you missed the Facebook posts, I recently did three 2015 summer reading guest posts for the wonderful local blog DIY Del Ray. The first (read it here) was about my favorite new beach-y Picture Books: Sea Rex, Pool, Ice Cream Summer, and The Blue Whale.

"Dory and the Real True Friend" by Abby HanlonThe second post (read it here) was focused on new titles in Early Chapter Series, guaranteed to keep those newly-independent readers from losing momentum over the summer: Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny, The Case of the Weird Blue Chicken, Pop Goes the Circus, and Dory and the Real True Friend (this last one hit bookstores just this week— WHOOOP WHOOOP—we have mad love for the first Dory book in our house, if you recall).

"Circus Mirandus" by Cassie BeasleyThe third post (read it here) starred middle-grade novels for the 9-14 year old crowd, especially those who love escaping into rich, meaty stories—in this case, those tinged with everyday magic (after all, nothing beats summer for magical escapades): Circus Mirandus, Echo, A Snicker of Magic, and (my favorite YR novel of last year, now in paperback) The Night Gardener.

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetWant more? I was feeling nostalgic (lazy?) and dug up some old posts from my archives, books that are still read frequently around our house, especially in these hot, sticky, lazy days of summer. Remember last year’s ode to Reading Deficit Disorder and this poetic cure? If the poems in Firefly July are too long, you can’t get any shorter than seasonal haikus (with some zen meditation thrown in for good measure).

"Picture a Tree" by Barbara ReidThere’s no time like summer for instilling a love for the natural world. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for books about trees, titles like Picture a Tree and The Tree Lady. Oh, and never forget how The Lorax can make stage-worthy readers of us all. Then there’s Miss Maple’s Seeds, which I could pretty much read every day to my children, so lovely is this message of care taking and growing up.

"The Dandelion's Tale" by Kevin Sheehan & Rob DunlaveyIf you, like me, are desperately trying to recruit your children to help pull up the mountains of weeds that seem to erupt in the backyard after every downpour, then you might have luck piquing their interest with books about worms. Or dandelions. Or bugs. Or birds (seriously, these bird books are amazing).

"The Night Fairy," by Laura Amy SchlitzAnd please, if you haven’t spent a few glorious firefly-studded evenings reading The Night Fairy, then tarry no longer. While we’re on the subject of chapter books that pay homage to the natural world, need I also remind you about the sequels to The Cricket in Times Square, where the scrappy Manhattanites become seduced by the charms of the Connecticut countryside?

"The Noisy Paint Box" by Barb Rosenstock & Mary GrandpreOccasionally, I wake up in summer and decide we’re all going to learn something. And off we go to a museum, after which I have to spend a few days lying about basking in the glow of my parental ambition and warning my children not to talk to me. If I’m really feeling fancy, I pair these museum or zoo outings with books about art history or books about astronomy or books about archaeology or books about zoology. Sometimes, I just can’t bear the thought of another packed picnic lunch, and so we make do with staying put and reading about Famous People and the Really Important Stuff They Did.

"Boy, Were We Wrong About the Weather!" by Kathleen V. KudlinskiIf you live in my house, you are privy to 70 daily discussions about the weather, 90% of which are generated by my seven year old. And that was last year, when the weather was relatively uneventful. This summer, the daily discussions have risen to 700, almost as frequent as the hourly changes to the weather forecast. Boy, Were We Wrong About the Weather! is my son’s new obsession—that is, when he isn’t lecturing me about the devastating effects of global warming, as evidenced in this other favorite.

"Jangles: A Big Fish Story" by David ShannonAnd last but not least, don’t forget about our finny friends, the ones lucky enough to spend their whole year plunging beneath the clear, cool water. Many of my favorites are listed in this post from a few years ago (Jangles!), which incidentally concludes with my longest and most diverse reading list to date. Of course, we must add this year’s magnificent non-fiction picture book, The Blue Whale, and now we’re right back where we started.

Happy summer, happy reading.

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A Master Class in Art History (Without Leaving Your House)

June 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

"The Noisy Paint Box" by Barb Rosenstock & Mary GrandpreI don’t know how the rest of you are planning to get through a hot and steamy summer, but I am counting on a lot of time at the craft table. Especially good news for today’s parents is that we don’t have to live next door to an art museum to teach our kids about the great artists and artistic movements of the past. Last June, I kicked off a “summer school” series with a post about some of my favorite picture book biographies for elementary-aged children, a rich and growing subset of children’s literature. Nowhere is the picture book format better utilized than in biographies of famous artists. These aren’t the books of our past, which reproduce notable paintings aside dry critical analysis; rather, they are true and entertaining stories about formative artists who, beginning as children, overcame struggles, searched for inspiration, and broke down conventional barriers to define their unique artistic styles. As your child sits before a blank piece of paper, wouldn’t you love for him or her to channel the stories of Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Henri Rousseau, and Vasily Kandinsky? (See my list of favorite books at the end.)

The latest of these gems, Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Ages 6-12), strikes a particular chord with my family. At almost seven, JP loves to draw and paint, but while his peers are steering more and more towards realistic creations, JP still prefers abstraction. Some might call it scribbling, although to imply that it is rushed or without meaning would be misguided. JP (and now Emily, following in his footsteps) never stops talking—not for one second—while he draws. He narrates the action as it takes shape before him: comets blasting through the sky, submarines bursting into flames, houses pitched airborne towards a burning sun (the theme of explosion is strong with this one). I’m not exactly sure what he is working out on that paper—because there is clearly something cathartic going on—but when he is finished, his entire body is relaxed, his mind at peace. « Read the rest of this entry »

Biking for Beginners and Pros

July 5, 2013 Comments Off on Biking for Beginners and Pros

"Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle" Chris RaschkaWe interrupt our Summer School Series for some good ‘ol fashioned outdoor play—and because there happens to be two seriously awesome new picture books about riding a two wheeler (the Ultimate Summer Challenge, really). The first book is for the I-Think-I-Can-Beginners; the second is for the experienced, daring, and creative bikers (especially those with a love for all things Space).

Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle (Ages 3-6) is a simple but poignant “how to” look at mastering a two wheeler, first with training wheels and then without. Now, if I were going to write a step-by-step guide to teaching a five year old to ride a bike, it might go something like this:

Lug ten tons of second-hand steel to park, at the request of eager child.

Help eager child up into bike seat.

Become temporarily deaf by imminent screaming of “NOOOOOOO get me off get me off get me off!”

After much cajoling and pleading and promising for the 45th time that you are going to hold on the whole time, convince child to remount bike and begin pedaling forward.

After 10 minutes, whereby you are still holding fast to the training-wheeled bike and said bike has moved exactly 10 feet, suggest that he try turning.

Feel an abrupt jerk as child slams on the breaks (this, oddly, comes very naturally), jumps off bike, and announces that he is Most Definitely Not Doing This Right Now.

Lug ten tons of steel back home.

Fortunately, Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle paints a much rosier picture of a child learning to ride a bike, along with the help of her patient and gently encouraging father.

But, actually, what I love about this book is that things are not always smooth sailing: the little girl has lots of false starts, falls down again and again, and needs both hugs and Band-Aids. “Oops! You nearly had it,” the book coaches. “Don’t give up. You’ll get it. Find the courage to try it again, and again, again, and again, again, and again, and again, until by luck, grace, and determination, you are riding a bicycle!”

Rashchka’s signature watercolors, seemingly effortlessly executed with thick, breezy, rough strokes of paint, are perfectly suited to the subject at hand. Every single painting exudes movement—whether it’s the little girl pulling her father’s hand toward the bike shop, her sideways and backwards tumbles off the bike, the neighborhood kids zooming past her on their colorful two wheelers, or her triumphant forward-leaning fast-pedaling stance at the end.

Rashchka’s greatest gift has always been his ability to capture emotional expression with just a few brushstrokes; and it’s the determination, bewilderment, frustration, joy, and pride on the little girl’s face that will make this gem relatable for children—those struggling to ride and those who’ve newly mastered the skill. I’m not promising this book will work miracles, assuming there might be other parents out there who are having similar bicycling battles on the playground (please tell me I am not alone); but I can promise that your child will identify a kindred spirit on the page.

Moving on to morHow to Bicycle to the Moone advanced bicycling (and a longer, more sophisticated story), I fervently recommend How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers: A Simple but Brilliant Plan in 24 Easy Steps, by Mordicai Gerstein (Ages 5-10). If the irreverent title alone hasn’t sold you, let me sing the praises of this most entertaining book, particularly for the kid who loves science, invention, numbers, the Moon, and bossing people around (that would be my son to a T, minus the bicycling).

First, when was the last time your child read a work of fiction that was laid out in steps? Each of this book’s 39 pages outlines a different step, numbered 1 through 24, many of them sub-categorized with letters (12a, 12b, 12c, 12d, etc.). Kids love this stuff; it’s exactly the way their mind works when they are bossing us around.

Secondly, there’s the very idea of bicycling into outer space, not to mention for the purpose of planting sunflowers to cheer up the Moon’s “big, sad clown face.” Thirdly, there’s the intricately involved and scientifically supported plan that the boy conjures up—a plan involving 2,000 used truck inner tubes, a 25-foot flagpole, a ship’s anchor, 238,900 miles of garden hoses wound tightly around a giant spool, a rented XS space suit from NASA, and various provisions, including “nourishing, flavored Glop, squirted through a straw in your space-helmet.”

Finally, there’s the climactic adventure itself, Boy On Bike, pedaling up miles of garden hoses that have been anchored into the Moon’s surface, stopping to wonder at “the trillions of stars.” Within the largely comic narrative, written in the boy’s instructive voice, there are also many clever descriptions, my favorite being the notion that the Moon looks “like a coloring book that hasn’t been colored yet.”

Gerstein’s pen and ink drawings have a comic-book feel, but the crudely colored line art is mixed with grace and subtlety (the Moon’s changing expressions are a particular delight). This is the same Gerstein who wrote and illustrated one of my (and my son’s) favorite books: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Ages 4-8), the true and serious story of Phillipe Petit’s dramatic tightrope walk between the World Trade Towers in 1974. The two books could not look or feel more different (a rare feat for a picture book artist); yet, oddly, they both involve moving atop a skinny, rope-like material suspended over great heights.

Gerstein writes books about dreams—about the mystery, wonder, and excitement in planning for and achieving those dreams. I have a dream that my children will both ride two wheelers some day, that they will taste the victory that comes from balancing up high on their own, and (as I vividly remember doing as a young girl) that they’ll speed around the block, dreaming and scheming and making their own Big Plans.

Moving Past Color-Blindness

June 25, 2020 § 2 Comments

I have been drafting this post in my head for two weeks, terrified to put pen to paper for the dozens of ways I will certainly mis-step. Raising children dedicated to equity and justice has always been important to me—if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll recognize it as a frequent theme here—but only lately have I pushed myself to consider the ways my own privilege, upbringing, and anxiety have stood in the way of that. It is clear that I cannot raise my children to be antiracist if I am not prepared to do the work myself.

When my daughter was three, I brought her to the pediatrician’s office for a rash. As we sat in the waiting room, watching and remarking on the colorful fish swimming in the aquarium, my daughter suddenly turned to me. “Mommy, is the nurse going to be black-skinned?”

Embarrassment rose in my cheeks. “Oh honey, I’m sure any nurse here is a good nurse. Let’s not—”

Her interrupting voice rose about ten decimals. “Because I am not taking off my clothes for anyone with black skin!”

Just typing this, my hands are shaking. I am back, seven years ago, in that waiting room, aware of all eyes upon us. Aware of the brown-skinned couple with their newborn baby sitting directly across from us. This can’t be happening, I thought. This can’t be my child. She goes to a preschool with a multicultural curriculum. We read books with racially diverse characters. She plays with children who look different than her. Shock, outrage, and humiliation flooded every inch of my being.

Caught off guard and determined to rid myself of my own shame, I fell into a trap familiar to many white parents. For starters, I came down hard on her. I took my shame and put it squarely onto her. I was going to stop this talk immediately. I was going to prove to everyone listening that this was unacceptable behavior in our family. I was going to make it…all about me.

“Stop it!” I said firmly. “We do not say things like that.” Then, I started rambling about how we shouldn’t judge people by how they look, how underneath skin color we’re all the same, how we’re all one big human family, and so on. You know: the speech. The color-blind speech. The one where white parents tell their children to look past skin tone to the person underneath. The one where we imply that because skin color is something we’re born with, something “accidental,” we shouldn’t draw attention to it. The one where we try and push on our children a version of the world we’d like to inhabit, as opposed to the one we actually do.

My three year old was observing—albeit not kindly or subtly—that not everyone looked the way she did. And she wasn’t sure if that was OK. She was scared. She was uncomfortable. Because we weren’t talking about skin tone or race with her at home, because our conversations (however well-intentioned) steered mainly towards platitudes of kindness and acceptance, she had begun to internalize the racial assumptions around her. She had used the descriptor “black-skinned,” I later realized, whereas if she had simply been observing skin tone, she would have said brown skin or dark skin. The word she chose was a reference to race. A loaded word. Something she had heard. Something she didn’t understand. Something she was beginning to associate with something less than.

We don’t want our children to use race to make judgments about people, so we’d rather them dismiss race completely. Except, in a society where race is embedded into nearly every policy and practice, it is impossible not to see race. So instead, what we are really communicating to our young children is, I know you notice these differences, but I don’t want you to admit it. (Including to yourself). Good white liberal children don’t talk about their black and brown friends as being different from them. Even more problematic, good white liberal children love their black and brown friends in spite of these differences.

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What Does It Mean to Be Woke?

June 4, 2020 § Leave a comment

In the preface to her scintillating picture book of poems for young readers, Mahogany L. Browne provides this definition of “woke”:

It means to be aware. It means to see your surroundings and challenge how we strengthen our relationship with the government, the community, and nature. To be WOKE is to fight for your civil rights and to fight for the rights of your neighbors…The idea of being aware of your surroundings, especially in a time when we are taught to be quiet and not rock the boat, can be difficult to embrace, but this is where our freedom begins.

The events of the last week are calling us to become woke. They are calling us to listen, especially to Black voices unleashing decades of pain and injustice. They are calling us to expand our bookshelves and our social media feeds to include more voices of color (@hereweeread and @theconsciouskid are a great place to start for parents). They are calling us to talk to our children about difficult topics like race, privilege, and racism and help them revise their summer reading lists to include stories by people of color. They are calling us to begin the uncomfortable and long-overdue work of examining the way our own whiteness makes us complicit in the sickness of systemic racism, because until we change what’s in our hearts, we can’t lead our children to do the same.

Topics like police brutality and racial profiling can be overwhelming and frightening to children of all races, but we can also use these conversations to empower them. “Rocking the boat” starts with finding the words to describe what’s happening and how it makes us feel—and then turning these words into beacons of inspiration, hope, and change.

We are being called to help our children find their voice, and I can think of no better vehicle than Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Ages 8-12). Historically, poets have been on the forefront of social movements. Here, Mahogany L. Browne’s poems sit alongside those from Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood, serving as “instruction manuals and anthems,” as “literary heartbeats and blueprints of survival,” for our children to sift through cruelty and injustice and find the words and courage to speak out about them. Several of the poems address racial history and discrimination. Others speak to gender bias, immigration, activism, body image, physical disability, intersectionality, and our relationship with nature. Taken as a whole, the poems celebrate a definition of community that’s richer for its diversity of voices, skin colors, and genders. Double-page illustrations by Theodore Taylor III enhance the vibrancy of the poems. As “Instructions on Listening to the Trees” concludes, “We are all part of someone else’s journey/ That’s the way communities are built/ Each root sprawling toward the edge of an infinite smile.”

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Read Alouds Inspired by the Pandemic

April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

You need only consider the two chapter books I’ve just finished reading to my children to glean the wild fluctuations in mood characteristic of Home Life During the Pandemic. The first, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793—a historical novel set during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia—is dark, gripping, macabre, and mind-blowing. The second, Louis Sachar’s Wayside School: Beneath the Cloud of Doom—thirty interconnected stories about the students at the quirkiest school in literary history—is silly, preposterous, dry-witted, and a rip-roaring good time…while still being a tad apocalyptic, because I can’t resist a theme. If we’re doomed to spend all day, every day, in each other’s presence, while the pendulum of the wider world swings dramatically between fear and hope, heartbreak and grace, serious headlines and funny memes, it seems only appropriate that our read alouds should follow suit.

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