Counting Mania

June 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Have You Seen My Dragon?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. Light’s unique approach combines counting with a game of hide and seek, as a boy searches for his pet dragon from one end of New York City to the other (a map inside the book’s cover gives kids a bird’s eye view of the entire journey). A close look on every page reveals the dragon hiding atop a water tower, in the elevator shaft of an apartment building, or beneath the sidewalk in a maze of sewer pipes. Speaking of sewers, I love that Light’s inspiration for this book came from his father telling him as a child that the steam coming up through the manhole covers in NYC was a dragon’s breath (“which made me want to live there!” he writes).

So where does counting come into play? On every spread, in addition to the brief narrative and the hiding dragon, is something to count, beginning with two hot dogs from a street vendor and ending with 20 lanterns in China Town. Light’s distinctive illustrative style makes abundant use of strong black lines, sometimes highly detailed and other times roughly penned, against which the only splashes of color are the items we’re supposed to count.

Light's awesome use of color against the black and white background; here to signal the 10 paint cans (and the paint that came out of them). See the dragon?

Light’s awesome use of color against the black and white background; here to signal the 10 paint cans (and the paint that came out of them). See the dragon?

Having just returned from taking Emily to the Big Apple—where I grew up—I’m especially excited about a book that so whimsically captures the excitement of the city, the diversity of the architecture, and the other-worldliness that sometimes feels present above and below the manholes. The fact that Emily can get her counting on at the same time is just an added bonus. I’d like to see more counting books with this level of artistry. In fact, I’m counting on it.

Other Favorite Counting Books:
Anno’s Counting Book, by Mitsumasa Anno (Ages 2-6)
1-2-3 Peas, by Keith Baker (Ages 2-5; just published in a new board book form!)
1-2-3 A Child’s First Counting Book, by Alison Jay (Ages 2-6)
Ten Apples Up on Top, by Theo LeSieg (a.k.a Dr. Seuss)
Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3, by Bill Martin Jr. & Lois Ehlert (Ages 2-6)
Ten Little Caterpillars, by Bill Martin Jr. (Ages 3-6; reviewed here)
Richard Scarry’s Best Counting Book Ever, by Richard Scarry (Ages 3-6)
One is a Snail, Ten is a Crab, by April Pulley Sayre & Randy Cecil (Ages 4-8)

AND…for those with older kids obsessed with numbers, don’t miss:
The History of Counting, by Denise Schmandt-Besserat & Michael Hays (Ages 7-12)
Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnese & John O’Brien (Ages 7-12)

Counting Down to Halloween

October 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ten Orange PumpkinsOur decorations are up, the kids’ costumes are ordered, and earlier this week, right on cue, a streak of stormy weather moved in. All in all, the perfect time for getting out our Halloween-themed books and sharing tales of ghosts and goblins with my revved up trick-or-treaters (it’s not just about the sugar, my sugars). Honestly, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this year’s Halloween offerings. Of course, last year was particularly exceptional: we were treated to Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina—all three brilliant and all three enjoyed (since none actually mention Halloween) long past pumpkin-carving season. But speaking of pumpkins, it has been a long time since a great pumpkin book has entered the scene, and this year of slim pickings has at least given us that.

Stephen Savage’s Ten Orange Pumpkins (Ages 2-6) is billed as a counting book—and it’s true that there are opportunities to count on every page, as ten pumpkins become nine, become eight, and so on. But the “trick” of the book lies in how each pumpkin disappears, and the answers are (often quite subtly) revealed in the striking illustrations. In the opening spread, for instance, ten pumpkins sit beside a pair of pants, socks, and a shirt, all silhouetted in black on a clothesline: “Ten orange pumpkins,/ fresh off the vine./ Tonight will be a spooky night.” We turn the page to reveal the rhyme—“Yikes! There are 9”—with the nine pumpkins now beside an empty clothesline and a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin for a head. (For the record, it took my kids a good 60 seconds to figure out where the 10th pumpkin had gone.) A different fate befalls each of the other pumpkins: one becomes pie in the hands of a ghost; another falls off a truck into a pit of alligators; while still another is struck down by lightning on a rainy night much like tonight. The last pumpkin standing becomes the glowing jack-o-lantern of Halloween night.

The eighth pumpkin vanishes into thin air when it is struck by a lightning bolt: "Flash! There are 7."

The eighth pumpkin vanishes into thin air when it is struck by a lightning bolt: “Flash! There are 7.”

Savage’s artistic style has a distinct “flatness,” devised from digital art that emphasizes simple, two-dimensional forms with little to no detail. It is his magnificent use of color that infuses emotion into the pictures (his first book, Polar Bear Night, fills our hearts with warmth despite its ice-blue landscape). Any good Halloween book should make creative use of orange and black, and Savage does not disappoint. The deep vivid orange of the pumpkins shimmers on the page, so striking is its contrast to the largely monochromatic backgrounds, dominated by black silhouettes. Savage could easily have limited his palette to orange and black, but he doesn’t. Instead, he chooses a different color for each background—and each one feels spookier than the next, from the electrified green of the witch’s lair, to the crimson of the alligator water, to the smoky grey of the pirate ship descending through the fog. Night after night this week, as the rain has pummeled the window panes, I’ve cuddled my little ones under a blanket on the couch and read this simple but perfect book—counting the pumpkins as we count down to our own All Hallow’s Eve.

Other Favorite Picture Books Featuring Pumpkins:
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, by Linda Williams (Ages 3-6)
Big Pumpkin, by Erica Silverman (Ages 3-7)
The Ugly Pumpkin, by Dave Horowitz (Ages 4-8)
Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden, by George Levensen (Ages 4-8)
How Many Seeds In a Pumpkin? by Margaret McNamara & G. Brian Karas (Ages 4-8)

August’s Birthday Pick

August 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Count the Monkeys Mac BarnettSometimes we need a Crowd Pleaser. How many times have we rushed to the store (on the morning of the birthday party, no less) and stared at the shelves, thinking “What do I even know about this child, this person in my daughter’s class whose name I’d never heard until last week?” Our children are often no help: “Ummm, I don’t know, he likes Star Wars, I think…” And then there’s the latest trend in birthday parties—the book exchange—which, naturally, I find charming and all, except that now we have the additional challenge of finding a book that will appeal to any one of the number of children at the party. Enter the Crowd Pleaser: a book that’s guaranteed to make boy, girl, preschooler, first grader laugh; a book they can listen to or read themselves or read to their siblings; and, of course, a book that’s Brand New and Off the Beaten Path and all that good stuff.

Now enter Monkeys. Because if there’s any animal that’s universally loved by children (and their parents) it’s the monkey. We all call our children monkeys; we all think of them as little monkeys (incidentally, we also think that this comparison is an entirely novel notion). Anyway, monkeys are good. Monkeys are safe.

Now enter Mac Barnett, one of the most original and—conveniently, in our quest for a Crowd Pleaser—one of the funniest picture book creators around. Last year, along with the talented Adam Rex, he wrote Chloe and the Lion (Ages 4-8), a hilarious (and surprisingly educational) look at the process of writing and illustrating a picture book, whereby Barnett and Rex essentially “argue” the book into creation. This year, he teams up with Kevin Cornell to lend his deconstructionist approach to Count the Monkeys (Ages 3-7), another book that appears to take form right before our eyes. The book begins with a simple premise: “Hey, kids! Time to count the monkeys! It’s fun. It’s easy. All you have to do is turn the page…” Except that the monkeys are nowhere to be found, scared away by a king cobra, who in turn is scared away by two mongooses (“or is that 2 mongeese?”), who in turn are scared away by three crocodiles…and you get the picture.

The genius of Count the Monkeys, apart from Cornell’s irresistibly mischievous drawings of gluttonous grizzly bears and “polka-dotted rhinoceroses with bagpipes and bad breath,” is the invitation for children to interact with every page. If you’ve ever read Herve Tullet’s groundbreaking Press Here to your children (and if you haven’t, please proceed immediately to your nearest independent bookstore), you are already familiar with this now trendy trick of modern picture book artists. These are books that invite children, not only into the reading process, but into the creation process as well. They make children feel like they themselves are driving the direction of the story. On every page in Count the Monkeys, the narrator (still obsessed with getting back those elusive monkeys) asks us to perform various tasks to get rid of the imposter: tell the lumberjacks to “scram” (“Say it even louder!”); don’t look the wolves in the eyes (“In fact, cover your eyes while you turn the page”); move your hand in a zigzag to “confuse” the crocodiles; etc. I triple dare any child (heck, I dare any parent) to refrain from doing any of the things Barnett demands; it’s simply too much fun to take a backseat on this one. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a Crowd Pleaser.

Rethinking Mother Goose

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Mother GooseA 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). Many nursery rhymes lend themselves to singing, which was clearly part of the initial appeal for Em (“Baa Baa Black Sheep” is still a favorite), but in time she’s become equally mesmerized by ones that aren’t easily sung (like “One, Two Buckle my Shoe”). Actually, literacy experts say that we as parents should encourage our children to read nursery rhymes (or other rhyming poetry) from an early age: such word play creates an awareness of linguistic sounds and word endings that later translates into learning to read with greater ease and success down the road. (Don’t feel bad if you, like me, missed the boat on this for an earlier child; simply break out some Shel Silverstein at four, five, or six and watch their awareness of language transform before your eyes.)

As Emily’s love of sing-songy language continues to grow, I’ve stopped bemoaning the strangeness of Mother Goose and started enjoying the way the words roll off my tongue—and the way Emily quickly begins to anticipate and fill in the endings of each line. As such, we have graduated from our abridged board books and delved into the Treasury of all Treasuries: The Original Mother Goose, a reprinting of the 1916 classic, featuring a beautiful purple cloth cover and many of Blanche Fisher Wright’s original illustrations (incidentally, this makes a wonderful unisex baby shower gift if you are a traditionalist). Last year, while I was helping my mom downsize her apartment, I came across her own tattered copy of this same anthology; how often do we get to share with our kids something that their grandparents remember looking at when they were kids? With over 300 nursery rhymes, this anthology is obviously too much for one sitting (too much for me—not my daughter—just to be clear), but therein lies the fun: Emily loves to take her finger and point to which rhyme she wants to hear from a page (ah, the power of choice). I discreetly try to avoid the blatantly offensive ones (“Peter Piper Had a Wife and Couldn’t Keep Her”—seriously?), because I have to draw the line somewhere. But we giggle, we talk in silly voices, and at two and a half, Emily’s love affair with language is in full swing. She marches around the house making up her own rhymes, stringing together “poop” “goop” “soup” “loop” (the fact that many of her rhymes begin with a potty word is owing to having an older brother). I probably won’t be too sorry when we close the cover of Mother Goose for good, but I will definitely miss her wide-eared enchantment.

Warning: a love of Mother Goose can quickly, suddenly transform into a Big-Time Obsession with Dr. Seuss for all the same reasons. You may find your child demanding that you read the equally nonsensical and often interminable One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish nine or ten times a day (you may find yourself hiding said book from said child)…but that’s a post for another day.

Other Favorite Nursery Rhyme Anthologies:
Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever, by Richard Scarry (Ages 2-4)
Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose, by Tomie dePaola (Ages 2-4) (there is also the abridged board book mentioned above)
Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young, by Jack Prelutsky & Marc Brown (Ages 2-5; not traditional Mother Goose rhymes but very Mother Goose-esque with contemporary vocab and great humor)

Seeing the World in Color

March 23, 2013 § 3 Comments

Baby Bear Sees Blue“It’s bud season! It’s bud season!” chanted my children earlier this week, after some long-awaited warm sunshine had beckoned us into the backyard. Thankfully, they were referring not to the beer (although my son’s soccer team does call themselves the Silver Bullets) but rather to the discovery of tiny little green bursts on the ends of our hydrangea bushes and crape myrtles. Since this is the first spring in our new house, our backyard is full of surprises, including yellow daffodils and purple crocuses and little red berries, all of which the children were delighted to point out to me as they raced back and forth across the lawn. Their springtime exuberance is exactly why I love Ashley Wolff’s Baby Bear Sees Blue (Ages 1-4), about a baby bear venturing forth from his den to discover the colors of the world. “Who is warming me, Mama?” asks Baby Bear. “That is the sun,” Mama says, as Baby Bear steps into a pool of brilliant yellow; “Baby Bear sees yellow.” And so begins a series of introductions to different colors, from the blue of the jays to the red of the strawberries to the grey of an approaching storm cloud. For months now, I have been trying (and failing) to teach my two year old her colors; at two and a half, she knows the names of all the colors and loves to exclaim “that’s purple!” or “that’s red!” for things that are, in fact, green or blue. I’m not obsessing about this, having drunk the Montessori Kool-Aid that she’ll learn on her own time (either that or someone will eventually tell me she’s color blind). But I figured it couldn’t hurt to start reading her books about colors, a rich topic in children’s literature (see my complete list of favorites at the end of this post).

Consequently, Emily and I are entranced with Baby Bear Sees Blue. For starters, there’s the child-centric way in which Baby Bear approaches the world, convinced that everything from birds to butterflies exists for the sole purpose of entertaining him. Secondly, there’s the mother and baby dynamic, which Emily is keenly aware of on every page, especially when the mother is not pictured. “Where is Baby Bear’s mommy?” she will ask when she can’t readily spot her; and I answer, “She’s there, she’s just off the page.” “She’s there? She’s off the page?” she’ll parrot back to me, and I like to think she’s making a parallel to her own separation experiences (like kissing me goodbye during her two mornings a week at preschool and learning to trust that I will return). But for all the book’s wonder and charm, it’s the artistic choices that make Baby Bear Sees Blue an exceptional tool to introduce color to children. I have always loved wood-block illustrations for the classic charm they lend a picture book (This Little Chick being a long-time favorite and an excellent way to teach animal sounds at that). Here, Wolff has applied linoleum blocks in black and then hand colored them with watercolors. The result is a stunning juxtaposition of hard outlines exploding with soft, vibrant color. There’s even a glorious rainbow that follows the brief rain shower in the book. But here’s the best part. The other day, after finishing up a quick shower of my own, I went hunting through the house to find Emily. I discovered her on the floor in her bedroom, surrounded by books, each one open to reveal the endpapers just inside the covers. Expanses of solid colors were everywhere, and Emily was running her hand over each one in turn: “This is yellow!” “This is blue!” “This is orange!” I quietly observed until I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer: “Honey! You know your colors!” She turned, saw me in the doorway, and smiled triumphantly. Baby Girl had finally seen her colors. (All I had to do was leave the room.)

"Baby Bear sees orange."

“Baby Bear sees orange.”

Other Favorites About Color:
Butterfly Butterfly: A Book of Colors, by Petr Horacek (Ages 1-3)
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle (Ages 1-3)
Red is a Dragon: A Book of Colors, by Roseanne Thong (Ages 3-6)
A Color of His Own, by Leo Lionni (Ages 3-7)
A World of Food: Discover Magical Lands Made of Things You Can Eat, by Carl Werner (Ages 3-7)
Little Blue and Little Yellow, by Leo Lionni (4-8)

P.S. Don’t stop reading books about color just because your child knows his colors! My five year old has lately been loving Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s simple but breathtaking masterpiece, Green (Ages 3-6), which is a wonderful way to talk about the different shades of colors and the creative labels that can be applied to them.

Making A Mess of the Alphabet

March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

Z is for MooseI 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. This is not your run-of-the-mill alphabet book; it is not going to teach your child the alphabet. It’s a book best read to a child that knows his alphabet and is ready to play with it (the joke begins with the title: kids have to be able to recognize that “Moose” does not begin with “Z”). The basic premise is this: a zebra is trying to stage a very basic book (hence the rudimentary drawings) about the alphabet—only he’s constantly interrupted by a moose who’s eager for the letter “M” to have its turn and then furious when that turn arrives and the zebra chooses a “Mouse” to take the spotlight. No narrative explanation is present (we as readers are left to fill that in). Instead, the action itself tells the story, via the argumentative speech bubbles between Moose and the Zebra or the rebellious graffiti that the former inflicts across certain pages in protest. Repeated readings reveal delightfully subversive details at every turn: perfectly square borders around the pages get bent as Moose brazenly rushes past them; an “O” on the book’s cover is askew from Moose’s protruding antlers. Zelinsky has exploited the very idea of a picture book, calling children’s attention not only to how such works might be constructed but also to how that process could go terribly wrong.

But for all its artistic prowess, Z is for Moose’s tell-tale sign of success is the reader’s reaction: MY KIDS THINK THIS IS THE FUNNIEST BOOK THEY HAVE EVER READ (to be fair, my two year old daughter has no idea what she’s laughing at, but the fact that her five-year-old big brother tips his head back and roars loudly on most pages makes for equally good entertainment for her). What child cannot relate to an impatient, foot-stomping Moose who is denied the justice he feels he deserves? At the same time, what child cannot relate to Zebra’s mission to do things in a certain way without anyone messing them up? And then there’s the ending—every parent’s sigh of relief—when Zebra yields a little control, Moose adjusts his vision of success, and the two friends end up sharing the spotlight under the caption “Z is for Zebra’s Friend Moose.” After all, everyone makes mistakes. Thank goodness for second chances.

The first time that Moose makes an untimely appearance...

The first time that Moose makes an untimely appearance and is ushered off the page.

Other Favorite Alphabet Books (though of the more conventional kind):
ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, by Alison Jay (Ages 1-5)
The Sleepy Little Alphabet Book, by Judy Sierra & Melissa Sweet (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet City, by Stephen T. Johnson (Ages 3-6)
LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker (Ages 2-6)
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Marin Jr. (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet Adventure, by Audrey and Bruce Wood (Ages 3-7)

January’s Birthday Pick

January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

I Took the Moon for a WalkFor 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. When he was a toddler, my son JP absolutely adored I Took the Moon for a Walk, which is inspired by the illusion of the moon moving with us as we walk. Alongside Jay’s illustrations, Carolyn Curtis’ lyrics chart a little boy out for a pre-bedtime stroll: “I took the Moon for a walk last night. It followed behind me like a still summer kite.” The child-centric premise (why shouldn’t the moon be following my every move?) has always been immensely alluring to my son, who like many children is fascinated by the moon. Although he hasn’t read the book in a probably a year, just the other day when we were out walking at dusk, JP spotted a nearly full moon and immediately broke into a jog, craning his neck toward the silver disc in the sky and yelling back at me, “Look, Mommy, it’s like we’re taking the moon for a walk!” (at five it seems his world view has now broadened to include his family). My two year old daughter, on the other hand, is currently entranced by Listen, Listen, an onomatopoetic ode to the seasons, written by Phillis Gershator, and which seems especially fitting to be reading at the beginning of a new year (although, in few disclosure, it actually begins with summer’s “chirp, chirp, churr, churr, buzz, buzz, whirr, whirr”). While the book’s text is all about the sounds of the seasons, the illustrations are all about looking; even after dozens of readings, Emily and I continue to find something new on every page. Alison Jay is like a magician who seems to conjure up new details in her paintings from some nearby invisible location (how could I have missed the little black witch trick-or-treating in the distance? Ha, I never noticed that the ladybug has her legs over her ears because the tulips are shouting so loudly!). Naturally, being obsessed with all things baby, Emily’s favorite pages are those devoted to springtime, in particular to the baby chicks hatching from eggs and falling on their bottoms beside their mother. Even JP has joined us for a few of our more recent readings (naturally, being obsessed with all things competitive, he likes to challenge Emily to see who can find the icicle or the dragonfly faster in the bonus seek-and-find pages at the end). But I digress. The important thing is that with these two treasures, you will be armed with gifts that keep on giving with every season, with every night.

Listen, Listen

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