Motherhood is Not a Finish Line

May 11, 2017 § 8 Comments

Last week, I was at Trader Joe’s buying flowers for my daughter, who would have the unique opportunity of performing at the Kennedy Center that evening with her community choir. My head was spinning while I was waiting in line to pay, going down the mental checklist of what needed to happen before heading to the concert hall (iron Emily’s uniform, print the parking pass, get the snacks together, etc.). Suddenly, the checkout woman interrupted my train of thought. “These flowers are such a gorgeous orange,” she remarked. I halfheartedly explained that the flowers were for my daughter, that she had a performance that night, and that orange was her favorite color. “These little joys make parenting so worth it,” she mused. “Yes,” I agreed, assuming she was talking about my being in the audience in a few hours. “It’s going to be so exciting.”

“Oh, I’m sure the performance will be great,” she replied, “but I was talking about getting to pick out flowers for your little girl.”

D’oh.

Once again, as a mother, I had found myself at the bottom of that all-too-tempting rabbit hole, of letting my “to do” list eclipse any opportunities for joy in the moment. What could have been a moment of delicious anticipation—and, really, I had deliberated over my flower choice at length—had quickly turned into checking off one more task before the minutes ran out and I had to pick up my kids from school. What could have been a moment of gratitude—to have the occasion to buy these flowers, the time to do so, the money to do so—was lost in a feeling of obligation. What could have been a moment of love and pride and affection was lost in a flurry of distraction.

As I was driving away from the store with my flowers, I caught the tail end of a rebroadcasted Ted Talk by a man who undertook a daring 1,800-mile journey on foot to the South Pole. To Ben Saunders’ surprise—and after nearly starving to death—he came to realize that his own personal reward came less from the completion of his goal than from the journey itself. “Happiness is not a finish line,” he says in the talk. “And if we can’t feel content on our journeys, amid the mess and the striving, then we might never feel it.”

If happiness isn’t a finish line, then neither is parenting. And yet, too often—amid the sleep deprivation, the academic struggles, the phases which seem to start and stop faster than we can count and yet feel terrifyingly permanent when they’re happening—we experience parenting as if it were one giant race. We may inherently understand that our time with our young children is short (and if we don’t, Facebook will remind us), but each time we find ourselves running to Target to replace some article of clothing which is suddenly too short, we’re too busy to realize we’re chasing after something we’ll never overtake.

Included in a short but I hope ever-growing list, there are two things I can almost always count on as a mother to return me to the moment. The first, you will not be surprised to learn, is reading aloud. When I’m reading to my children (something great, that is), time stands still, my mental checklist falls away, and the only thing that matters is delighting together in the words as they come off the page and enfold us in their spell.

The second is snuggling. My firstborn is not by nature a cuddler (though he has warmed to it over time), so perhaps the universe knew I needed a second child in order to get my cuddling fix. In this, Emily has never disappointed. I can be mentally a thousand miles away, but when she climbs in next to me in bed in the early morning, when she puts the back of her soft little hand against my cheek and places her nose where I can’t resist kissing those five tiny freckles, there is no place I’d rather be.

This is all to say that I can relate to each of the animal mothers in the darling new picture book, Mama’s Kisses (Ages 1-4), who are eager and ready to bestow kisses and cuddles on their young brood at bedtime. My kids may be too old for this book (stop it, just stop it!), but it nevertheless charmed every ounce of my maternal being. With spot-on rhyming by Kate McMullan (whose I Stink will forever be imprinted on JP’s second year of life) and whimsically but unsentimentally illustrated by Tao Nyeu (whose abstract orchestration of orange and blue began in this favorite), Mama’s Kisses is a rollicking seek-and-find jungle adventure.

When Mama’s Kisses opens, four mama animals are conversing (and sewing and knitting) in the foreground, while their little ones make mischief in the background. All the words in the book are spoken by the mothers. “Sun’s going down./ Moon’s on the rise./ Let’s find our babies./ And sing lullabies./ They must be yawning./ Sweet sleepyheads./ Our tired babies!/ We’ll put them to bed.”

The joke’s on the mamas (although older children will quickly realize they’ve been in on it the whole time), because the presupposed sleepy little leopard, panda, orangutan, and elephant are in fact frolicking, singing, and marching about with wild abandon. Even more, when they hear the STOMP STOMP STOMP STOMP of their mamas, the young animals quickly sneak off under giant banyan leaves, take playful plunges into the nearby water hole, and then don feathered disguises.

One by one, each mama delivers a soft, sweet invocation to her child (I should be so eloquent when I try to get my own children to leave the park).

Come now, my leopard,
All spotted and pepperered,
Tomorrow you’ll pounce,
You’ll roar and you’ll race.

These invocations don’t exactly have the desired effect (McMullan understands what it’s like to be a parent), so the mamas have to do some playful pouncing of their own—in the form of a good-humored Sneak Attack.

My favorite part of the story then arrives, as each mama curls up with her little one. Four more invocations follow—each given its due in beautiful double page spreads—and these rhymes at last prove irresistible in their power to make sleepyheads submit to mama’s kisses.

Rock-a-bye bear cub,
Come closer now, scootch
So Mama can land
A Panda bear smooch.
         MWWWWAH!

Rock-a-bye fuzzy,
Don’t squirm like a bug.
Here comes a great big
Orangutan hug.
         MMMMMM-UMM!

Watching my daughter sing on stage last week was wonderful, but it wasn’t even the best part of the night. Still thinking about my exchange at Trader Joe’s earlier in the day, I tried my darndest to soak up every moment of the before and after. I delighted in the way Emily ran up and down the terrace under an enormous blue sky in her break between rehearsing and performing; I snuck peaks at her serious face doing breathing warmups with her fellow choristers; and I gathered her up in the biggest, smoochiest, longest hug when, after it was all over (even though it was well past bedtime, and I was eager to take up my post in front of some adult TV), we walked into her bedroom together and she squealed as she saw the vase of bright orange gerber daisies on her dresser.

Happy Mother’s Day to my fellow mamas, my fellow runners of the Great Race that we can’t be faulted for sometimes mistaking for motherhood. May we all just remember to spend a little more time smelling the roses along the way.

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Review copy from Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

2015 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Lunar Lover

December 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" and "Thank You and Good Night"In my 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, I ran a post dedicated to parents desperate for a break from incessant nightly rounds of Goodnight, Gorilla. It strikes me that the two books that I’m discussing today (Ages 2-5) would line up beautifully alongside those others. They are perfect bedtime stories. They are perfect for reading every single night (because, trust me, that’s what you’ll be doing). They are quintessentially sweet, dear, and innocent. And if, after reading them, you want to clutch them to your own chest, I promise not to tell.

We begin with Ida Pearle’s stunning The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House (Ages 2-5). Shhhh, I know I’m not supposed to pick favorites, but if I were to call out the illustrations of only one book this year, it would be this. Brooklyn-based Ida Pearle has got to be one of the most evocative children’s artists today, using her talents in figurative drawing and cut-paper collage (her choice of papers, many of them Italian or Japanese-designed, is sheer eye candy) to produce something at once charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly modern. In my old store in Chicago, we used to display and sell Pearle’s wall prints. I’m positively giddy that her art is finding a more accessible expression now in picture books (Caldecott Committee, are you listening?).

Pearle’s subject—the moon—is a common one in children’s literature. For good reason. Since my children first started to become aware of the world beyond their fingertips, they have been fascinated with the moon (remember this?). Even now at eight and five years of age, they will interrupt whatever conversation we are having in the car to exclaim exuberantly, “Look, there’s the moon!” They feel a personal, intimate relationship with this glowing sphere that seems to follow us as we drive up and down and around our neighborhood streets. Apparently, they are not alone in feeling this way.

Pearle’s book is reminiscent of an older favorite in our house—Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay’s I Took the Moon for a Walk—where the young narrator pays homage to the way the moon seems to keep step with him as he walks home one evening. In The Moon is Going to Addy’s House, the child’s journey has a more contemporary context, immensely relatable to children, as Addy travels by car from a friend’s house in the city (“Addy, your play date is over,” calls Mama. “It’s time to go home!”), down the bustling, summertime streets, across a long bridge, and into the rolling hills of her home in the country.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

On each page, as the sky increasingly darkens and the city lights fade away, Addy and her little sister crane their heads to follow the moon. If they lose the moon behind a tree or a cloud or a boulder, it is “only for a moment.”

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

The narrative voice is replete with the naive egocentricity of a young child: The moon was going to my house! Even during bath and pajama time, the moon is never far.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

At last, Addy comes to her favorite moment of the day: “my nighttime dance,” in which she cartwheels through the grass in her pink-footed pajamas against the brilliant backdrop of the moon.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle
Carried inside and tucked into bed by her loving parents, the girl reminds herself of the friendliness of the night. Of the moon (and a family) that “waits and watches over me, always.”

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

"Thank You and Good Night" by Ida PearleThere is similar nighttime romping—albeit of the less picturesque and more adorable kind—in Patrick McDonnell’s Thank You and Good Night (Ages 2-5), a story about a girl named Maggie who hosts a sleepover for her stuffed bunny (Clement) and his two pajama-clad friends, an elephant (Jean) and a bear (Alan Alexander). McDonnell first stole my heart with The Monster’s Monster, and he endows this new story with the same understated affection and gentle humor (including great names).

The three friends are determined to take full advantage of their togetherness: jumping on the bed, playing hide and seek, doing the “chicken dance” followed by restorative yoga poses, wishing on a shooting star, and enjoying a bedtime story that Maggie reads to them.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

Maggie’s relationship with these three animals reminds me of my all-time favorite series for two and three year olds: Polly Dunbar’s books about a girl named Tilly, who lives in a yellow house with a litany of anthropomorphic animals, for whom she is both a silly playmate and a nurturing caregiver. Maggie, like Tilly, is exercising control in an imaginative domain of her own making, entirely outside adult supervision and participation.

Yet, Maggie is just the gentle touch that these animals need to settle down for sleep. As the moon emits its soft light outside the darkened room, Maggie recites a list of things for which they can all be thankful. There are few things that make me want to go back and have kids all over again, to savor those little hands to hold, those little foreheads to kiss. This page is one.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

The sun, the moon,
a red balloon.
Hiding, seeking
fun with friends,
a shooting star wish
that it never ends.
Cozy pajamas,
a happy surprise,
night birds singing
sweet lullabies.
Bedtime stories,
old and new,
read with love,
to me,
by you.

In their own ways, The Moon is Going to Addy’s House and Thank You and Good Night both end on a note of gratitude. Gratitude for companionship and for constancy. They make the listener feel safe. And important. And loved. And they make us parents feel like drawing out those nighttime dances and subsequent snuggles just a little bit longer, to embrace the majesty of the moon and the fleetingness of time—before the sun comes up again.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

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Review copies provided by Penguin and Little Brown respectively. 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!

The Real Winnie the Pooh

November 19, 2015 § 7 Comments

"Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear" by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie BlackallA. A. Milne’s iconic classic, Winnie the Pooh, the collected tales of a stuffed-bear-come-to-life and his friends, was one of those books I was most excited as a new parent to read to my children. I still have the copy that once belonged to my own mother and her brothers: a water-stained hardback with their own handwritten improvisations along the way.

While I vaguely recollect reading and enjoying this classic as a child myself, I’ll admit that my more prominent memories are of decorating friends’ yearbooks with A.A. Milne quotations (“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” said Piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered.) Pooh and his friends, it seems, have an enduring resonance.

When it came to cracking the spine on this treasure for my firstborn, I didn’t anticipate how surprisingly sophisticated A.A. Milne’s writing is. I first tried to read Winnie the Pooh to JP when he was only three and a half. Big mistake. The dry humor was over his head (it’s hard to find Owl’s misspellings funny when you don’t know how to spell yourself); and the sudden jumps in narration were jarring (one minute we’re in the 100 Acre Wood, the next we’re in Christopher Robin’s bedroom hearing about the 100 Acre Wood). I would be erupting in giggles, while JP would be eyeing me as if to say, This is funny why?

We tried again when JP was six, with much greater success, although I think the beauty of Pooh (in the vein of other classics, like The Little Prince) is that it can be re-read at almost every age from here on out for different gain. The 100 Acre Wood is like a microcosm for the world. In it, we encounter the same personalities that we do on the outside. Look at bossy pants over there, hopping around like ‘ol Rabbit. Cool it with the Kanga-like cheerleading, kay? I need a lunch date with my Piglet.

One might argue that, at the heart of this microcosm, is Pooh bear himself, the lens through which the child reader sees the world. Pooh is the very embodiment of childhood innocence. He spends his days moving through states of befuddlement, hunger, distraction, anxiety, and discovery. He’s Every Child. As much as we observe and chuckle over what Pooh’s friends are doing, we feel what Pooh feels.

Today, 89 years after A.A. Milne published his classic, we are being treated to a new picture book that will likely be as mind blowing for your children as it is for mine. WINNIE THE POOH WAS REAL. That is, there was once a real live bear named Winnie. A bear who was adopted by a World War One veterinarian and named after the soldier’s Canadian hometown, Winnipeg. A bear who became the Mascot of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade and kept the soldiers’ spirits high in training camp. A bear who, when the soldiers were shipped out to France, eventually came to reside in the London Zoo. A bear who was visited every day in the zoo by a little boy named Christopher Robin—along with his father, the aspiring writer A.A. Milne.

A bear who was—drumroll, please—a female.

That’s right: as Lindsay Mattick chronicles in her irresistibly charming new picture book, the inspiration for Milne’s Pooh was, in fact, a female Canadian-British bear named Winnie, whom Milne’s son adored and played with at the London Zoo for many years (and for whom he named his own stuffed toy bear).

"Finding Winnie" by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall

It’s the backstory of how Winnie came to the zoo that takes center stage in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. Author Mattick has a personal connection to this story: she is the great-granddaughter of Captain Harry Colebourn, the veterinarian-soldier who initially befriends Winnie outside a Canadian train station on his way to care for the horses in the Army’s training camp. The book is actually framed as a bedtime story, which Mattick herself is delivering to her own eager son, so that he might learn about his great-great grandfather.

You might say Finding Winnie is three love stories wrapped into one. A solider and his bear. A boy and his bear. A mother and her son.

"Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear" by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall

Captain Harry’s relationship with Winnie is love at first sight. He parts with twenty dollars (a lot in those days, Mattick explains to her son) to purchase the Bear from a trapper at the train station. At first, the Captain’s entire regiment is horrified: “We are on a journey of thousands of miles, heading into the thick of battle, and you propose to bring this Most Dangerous Creature?” But Henry’s heart makes up his mind for him: “There is something special about that Bear,” he professes to himself.

"Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear" by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall

My children go mind-blown-crazy for true stories, although it’s rare that I can find one that’s as interesting to my eight year old as it is to my five year old. My oldest is obsessed with trying to understand what war looks like; my youngest just wants sweet stories about animals. This book manages a bit of both: it gives behind-the-scenes glimpses of World War One, alongside humorous anecdotes of the pet Bear’s insatiable appetite, playful antics, and avid curiosity.

"Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear"

IMG_3931

Finding Winnie’s broad appeal is in no small part owing to Sophie Blackall’s soft yet stirring ink-and-watercolor illustrations. Have I mentioned my obsession with Blackall? Her art is at once feminine and masculine; at once nostalgic and fresh. Her play of color and light infuses emotion into every single detail. In short, her touch is pure magic (heck, she got me to love a story about wrestling back in 2013!). She could illustrate the Dictionary and I’d probably walk around hugging it to my chest.

"Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear" by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall
All love stories have bittersweet moments, and Harry ultimately makes the difficult decision to bring Winnie to London, where he will be safe from the front lines of war.

“There is something you must always remember,” Harry said. “It’s the most important thing, really. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always love you. You’ll always be my Bear.”

"Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear" by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall
But where one love story ends—Mattick reassures her son—another begins. The book goes on to explore the playful relationship between Winnie and Christopher Robin in the early 1900s. It’s not long before Christopher Robin is granted permission to enter Winnie’s enclosure and ride on his back (apparently, zoos are not what they used to be).

But what about Harry? Cole asks his mother, returning our focus at the end to Winnie’s first family. Mattick explains how Harry returned safely to Canada after the war and started a family of his own, of which Cole is now a part. My children like to trace their fingers over the Family Tree, a visual which makes it all the clearer the role that the different characters in the book indirectly play in Pooh’s story.

"Finding Winnie" by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall

The book’s final four pages are made to look like excerpts from Maddick’s own family album, including actual black-and-white photographs of Harry and Winnie, an excerpt from Harry’s journal on the day he adopted Winnie, and the original Animal Record Card that shows the day Winnie was checked into the London Zoo. All proof, my son was quick to point out, that this story actually happened.

What is left to pure speculation is why A.A. Milne changed the sex of the real bear when making up stories about the pretend bear. Perhaps that secret will forever rest between him and his son (a fourth love story of sorts). Still, I don’t mind not knowing. I’ve often thought that the discussions my children and I have while reading together are as interesting as the books themselves.

But I must run. My kids and I have a date with one Pooh bear and a water-stained hardback that has been passed along for generations.

Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

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Review copy provided by Little Brown. 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!

A Mother’s Greatest Gifts to Her Children

May 7, 2015 § 4 Comments

"Dragon's Extraordinary Egg" by Debi GlioriIn this age, where our self-worth seems increasingly defined by how busy we are, I find that one of my greatest challenges as a mother is quieting the “to do” list in my head when I am around my children. I’m not talking about simply spending time with them. I’m talking about being in the moment with them. I might be on the floor playing Candy Land, but I’m secretly fretting over when I should start dinner. I might be throwing a ball in the backyard, but I’m all the while thinking about the mountain of weeding that needs to get done.

My children know I love them. But how often do they feel the gift of my time?

This winter, I fell in love with a picture book by the lovely Scottish author-illustrator, Debi Gliori, titled Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg (Ages 4-8). It’s about dragons, yes, but it’s also about penguins and a landscape of ice and snow, so by all accounts, I should have shared it with you in the height of snow days and sub-zero temperatures. Except that it’s also one of the most beautiful portraits of motherhood that I’ve ever come across in a children’s book (it’s right up there with this one). So, I’ve been saving telling you about it until Mother’s Day, a time for celebrating those who are trying so hard every day to do right by the little ones we love.

Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg is, if we’re being literal, a multi-generational adoption story. But get it out of your head right now that just because my or your child wasn’t adopted, that this story won’t resonate through every inch of their being. More than anything, Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg is about the power of maternal love to transcend differences, to transcend convention, to transcend the occasional ugliness of life.

The story begins with a dragon who finds herself the only one of her kind without a spotted, striped, or bumpy egg of her own; a heartbroken dragon who “went off to be alone for a while” and in the process stumbles across a small, abandoned egg on a sheet of ice. “Yes, that egg needed a mommy. And that dragon needed an egg. It was a perfect fit.”

"Dragon's Extraordinary Egg" by Debi Gliori

When the egg hatches to reveal “Little One,” a black, fuzzy, round baby who looks nothing like the other dragon children, we as readers immediately recognize her as a penguin chick (although, in perfect keeping with the story’s message, she is never labeled as such). For each way that Little One is different from the other children, her dragon mother makes sure that she has exactly what she needs.

"Dragon's Extraordinary Egg" by Debi Gliori

All the other eggs grew big and strong.
They grew long necks and wide wings
and hard scales all over.

But Little One, being small and fluffy,
grew courage instead.

All the other eggs were given endless gifts:
fast toys; vast toys; flashing,
clattering things that made a noise.
But Little One was given
love and time, the greatest gifts of all.

“Love and time, the greatest gifts of all.” (Can you hear my sobbing? Is this not the most beautiful thing ever? OK, OK, let me continue.)

As Little One grows up with the dragons, who live “on top of a mountain with a fire in its heart,” she is often picked on by the others for her inferior size, her inability to breathe fire, her failure to fly. Her feathers may keep her warm, she quickly learns, but “they can’t keep cold words out.” However, a real dragon’s skin is “too scaly to feel the heat,” and it’s Little One who perceives the volcano roaring to life beneath her and sounds the warning for the other dragons to fly away and save themselves.

In possession of courage and the will to survive, which her dragon mommy has so lovingly bestowed on her, Little One discovers that she can fly on her own to escape the flames—that is, on her belly down the snowy mountain.

"Dragon's Extraordinary Egg" by Debi Gliori

At the bottom of the mountain, Little One—like her mother before her—finds an egg that’s in need of someone to love it.

Beyond the soft, warmhearted illustrations; beyond the beautiful blending of two species to create an enduring familial bond; beyond the impressive aerodynamics of the dragons and the grounded sweetness of the roly poly penguins—is something even better: a narrative twist that’s hinted at in the story’s beginning, but gets a big, surprising reveal at the end. As it turns out, the story I’ve just told you is a story within a story, a story that happened three generations ago. In the present, Little One is now grown up, her egg now a rambunctious young penguin named Pip. Pip is requesting his favorite bedtime story, the story about his grandmother—a dragon—who took a chance on an abandoned egg and gave it all the love and time she could. In the warm, secure embrace of his mother, a son is reminded of what matters most.

"Dragon's Extraordinary Egg" by Debi Gliori

I recently took a yoga class where the teacher ended by sharing a personal story about attending an outdoor concert with her husband and children. She admitted that, even with the electrifying music, even with the beautiful sky above them, her thoughts kept returning to the work waiting for her back home. Then, one of her children needed to go to the bathroom—and afterwards, on the way back to their seats, she and the child discovered that they were locked out of the concert. For the next hour, the two sat together on a fence, listening to the distant music and laughing about the unexpected turn of events. Throughout that hour, she felt completely grounded in the present and acutely aware of the palpable love between her and her son.

As I listened to that story, it hit me that this is precisely why I choose to read aloud to my children so often. When I read to my kids, my heart and my mind are equally focused on what’s directly in front of me. Thanks to how picky I am about what we read and to how exceptional today’s offerings are, I’m usually just as enthralled in the story or pictures as my children are. I can ignore my beeping phone; I can forgo the distraction of Facebook; I can quiet the “to do”s.

When I’m reading to my children, every one of my senses is engaged. I feel their soft limbs pressing against me. I inhale the musty smell of a library book or the inky crispness of newly-purchased pages. I discover things I might otherwise miss, when little fingers point something out on a page. I’m astonished and proud and moved by what they say or ask when we finish a final chapter. Reading to my children is one of the few times (I’d have to add impromptu dance parties and family bike rides) when I can shut out everything else and just be with them.

When I can give my children, not only my love, but also my time.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommies out there—getting up each day to do what we do—and may we all clear more mental space for ourselves and for our loved ones in the days and years ahead.

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The “Help” They Can Do Without

April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline ValentineSometimes I think there has never been a more distractible child than my Emily. Ask her to go upstairs for a hair bow, and she’ll come down ten minutes later with a baby doll. Ask her to take a bite of her food, and she’ll break into song before the fork gets halfway to her month. There are days when I think she was put on this earth to teach me patience (and, Holy Saints in Heaven, I am failing).

The temptation to sweep in and finish the job is often too great for me. If I just shove her feet into these shoes, we can leave the house! If I just usher these last few bites into her mouth, this dinner can actually end! Although, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s more than mere efficiency that I seek. It’s more than a desire to control the chaos around me. Doing something for my daughter is as much about the sheer pleasure of my feeling needed. (Remember this?)

As parents, we know we’re supposed to nurture a drive for independence in our children, to prepare them for the day when they won’t need us anymore. At the same time, parenting has become this Super Important Identity that we’ve assumed—at times it feels like it has obliterated all other identities!—and it’s natural to feel validated, encouraged, and protected each time our little ones seem to need our help. Even though our head reminds us that we’re supposed to get out of their way, our heart just can’t keep from meddling.

Introducing my daughter’s new favorite book: Little Red Henry (Ages 3-6), by author Linda Urban and illustrator Madeline Valentine. I challenge you to find a preschooler who won’t instantly relate to this tale of a little boy, the youngest of three, whose well-intentioned but incessantly doting family never lets him do anything himself. (The title is a nod to the moralistic fable, The Little Red Hen, about the bread-making hen whom no one will help—only here, it’s the opposite.)

The book’s opener is priceless:

Every since time began,
Mama and Papa and Mem and Sven had loved and cuddled
and smooched and squeezed their little redheaded Henry.
They had made his breakfast and picked out his clothes and
ferried him here and there, and if he hadn’t gotten so big,
he might never have known the feeling of the
earth under his feet, they had carried him about so.

Frankly, little redheaded Henry was sick of it.

Despite his green footie pajamas—clearly several sizes too small for him—Henry starts asserting himself. When all four of his family members try to spoon feed him breakfast and wipe down his face, he respectfully informs them, “No, thank you, I can do it myself.” And he does—albeit with spills and smudges aplenty.

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

When Henry’s family races him to the bathroom, elbowing each other out of the way in an attempt to brush his “widdle toofers,” Henry holds them off: “I can do it myself.” And he does, even without being able to see his full face in the mirror.

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

When it’s time to get dressed, Henry rejects the various options that his family presents. “I can choose them myself.” And if you haven’t by now fallen in love with our befuddled but determined young hero, this double-page spread of Henry’s private fashion show will unequivocally win you over. My daughter dies over these two pages. (Before settling on cargo shorts, a graphic tee, and a handkerchief scarf, Henry dons a tutu, a giant woolen poncho, and a superman costume.)

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

I recently read this book aloud to Emily’s class, a mixed-age Montessori classroom with 2-6 year olds. Before I launched into the story, I posed a question to the group: “Are there things that you think you can do yourself, but that your parents insist on doing for you?” I wasn’t sure what kind of a response I’d get—or whether the children would need more context to understand what I was even asking.

Immediately, three-quarters of the hands in the room shot up. Every single one of them had a unique answer. “Brush my hair!” “Wash my dish!” “Pack my lunch!” “Paint my nails!” Each time a child would offer up a response, several others would furiously nod their heads in agreement. It was like, all their lives, they had been waiting for someone to ask this question.

So, what happens if we get out of our children’s way? If we sit on our hands, if we run the risk of being late or embarrassed or driven to the point of insanity—if, instead, we let our children begin to do things by and for themselves?

It turns out that Henry is a quick study. By the story’s end, he can pour his own milk and do all the buttons on his big-kid PJs.

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But this is also when all hell breaks loose. Henry may be as proud as a peacock, but the rest of the family is miserable.

They were listless. Adrift. Without Henry to do things for, they had no purpose.

Henry looks up at his family and poses the age-old question, “What do you want to do?” And just like that, all those dusty, cast-off identities are back! Mom starts wall papering; Dad starts tap dancing. Big Brother plays the violin; Big Sister gets out her coloring book. And Henry, smock tied neatly behind him, stands before an easel with a big fat paintbrush in his hand. Together yet separate. Each family member beating to his own inner drum.

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

But let’s not get carried away. As the story’s ending goes on to remind us, while there is some help that our kids can do without, there are other times when our children really, really want us. When they still need what only we can give.

“Could somebody please tuck me in?”

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

Reading, singing, snuggling, whispering sweet nothings into their ears before they fall asleep: these are the things no parent willingly wants to stop doing for their children. And, at least for the foreseeable future, it looks promising that we’ll still be invited to do so.

 

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

 

March’s Birthday Pick (Pajamas Optional)

March 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Snoozefest" by Samantha BergerWho’s ready for a good snooze right about now? I’m not talking about the fall-into-bed-eyes-already-closing-ready-to-be-awakened-at-any-time kind of snooze, which is par for the course when parenting young children. I’m talking about a luxurious, heavenly, finest-Egyptian-cotton type snooze…a long, uninterrupted, sleep-in-as-late-as-you-want sort of snooze…a snooze in a silent house, where the only sound you have to worry about is the steady pit-pit-patter of melting ice outside.

If that sounds too good to be true, it is. But, for those of us who prefer to live life in the tiny space between reality and fiction, I have a close second. The newly-published Snoozefest (Ages 3-7), written by the always witty and clever Samantha Berger, and charmingly illustrated by British newcomer Kristyna Litten, is a book you can gift with abandon (you know, when you’re not sleeping) to all those kids of parents who shoulda, coulda, woulda be sleeping more. It’s a book that celebrates snoozing. And not just any snoozing. We’re talking snoozing so deep, so restorative, that it warrants its own festival. Welcome to Snoozefest: a Lollapalooza for people who love to sleep (yes, my fellow almost-forty year olds, this is what it has come to).

Once a year, all the best sleepers in the town of Snoozeville ride buses to the giant Nuzzledome for this “naptacular show.” Amidst the wildcats, bats, and koala bears is the insanely adorable and sleepiest of sloths, little Snuggleford Cuddlebun. (PAUSE: did I say sloth? Yes, I did. That’s right, my friends, we now have a second favorite sloth story to remind us of our sloth-like children! Remember Sparky?)

Here’s Snuggleford, checking into the festival (I die over the cuteness).

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

Before the blissful sleep commences, there’s plenty to do at Snoozefest, from shopping for sleep swag, to procuring milk and honey, to cheering at the P.J. Parade (showcasing the latest in sleepy fashions from Diane Vonfirstinbed and Louis Futon).

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

It wouldn’t be Snoozefest without a wide range of musical performances, from bands like Chamomile Rage, Deep Hiber-Nation, and The Nocturnal Nesters (“who play until only the flutist still stands”).

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

Naturally, for optimal sleeping, every animal is required to bring along his or her blankie. You know. A child’s Most Sacred Possession. In our house, this would be my daughter’s “Baba,” a tiny terrycloth square of a blanket with the head of a lamb. While my son rotates through a litany of stuffed animals each night, there’s only ever the same one thing in bed with Emily. Don’t even think of trying to get her to sleep without it. Don’t even think of picking it up by anything other than the top corner of its left ear, lest you be chastised, “SHE CAN’T GET HOT! DON’T LET HER GET HOT!” My daughter tucks into bed each night, thumb in her mouth, cheek gently resting on the coolest, softest corner of her Baba.

I’m sure you can’t relate. Only I know you can. Because, while writing this book, Berger interviewed adults and kids alike and included all of the blankie names she heard:

Blanket with nicknames like Knit-Knit and Night-y,
Lank-Lank and Woobee, and Bah-Bah and Bite-y,
Softie and Snuggle and Lolly and Didi,
Pinky and Minky and Gunk-Gunk and Gee-Gee.

(Did you catch the Bah-Bah in there? Apparently, there is more than one out there. You’ve never seen bigger eyes than those on my daughter when she took in this piece of news.)

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

But back to our heroine, Snuggleford Cuddlebun, who is not easily swayed by the visual, musical, or tactile distractions of Snoozefest. She settles into a hammock in the treetops, high above the crowds and the din of the music, and gets right down to business. She sleeps through it all.

At times she will whisper, “Man, this is the best!”
It’s all that she wanted from this year’s Snoozefest.
This kind of concert is just too tire-riffic,
dreamy, delicious, and so soporific.

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

Oh, to be this sleep-indulging sloth for just one night! The first time we finished this book, I tried not to sound desperate when I suggested to my kids that perhaps we could have our own Snoozefest RIGHT HERE IN OUR HOME! TODAY! OR MAYBE ANOTHER DAY!

“That’s crazy!” my son responded. And then he and my daughter stood up and walked away to go play. “It’s a good book, Mommy,” my daughter added as a final thought, as if not to hurt my feelings.

Sigh. A girl can dream. (Well, at least for some of the night.)

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

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Review copy courtesy of Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

January’s Birthday Picks (Good Ol’ Bear Fun)

January 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

In the canon of children’s literature, there is perhaps no character more reliable than the bear. When in doubt, put a bear on the cover and little hands will want to open it. In past decades, we’ve fallen in love with bears who have lost their buttons (Corduroy), or lost their mothers (Blueberries for Sal); with bears who have a vivid imagination (Little Bear), and bears who’ve let that imagination run away with them (The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree). The trend hasn’t slowed in recent years, as evidenced by these two newcomers, both of which will be guaranteed hits should you have any preschool-aged birthday parties in your future.

The premises of Jory John and Benji Davies’ Goodnight Already! (Ages 3-6) and Sophy Henn’s Where Bear? (Ages 3-6) are not particularly novel in and of themselves. Goodnight Already!, starring a Bear who wants only to sleep and his pesky neighbor Duck who wants only to keep him awake, reminds us of favorites like A Bedtime for Bear. Similarly, Where Bear?, about a boy who decides to deliver his pet polar bear to his natural habitat, recalls favorites like Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found, or even the darling story that I wrote about during last year’s Polar Vortex.

That these may be story lines that you or your kids have heard before doesn’t actually matter. What does matter is that, in both of these new picture books, the comedic timing and the bold, modern art are 100% unique. And 100% fun. I’m including them in the same post because, as my children instantly pointed out, there are striking aesthetic similarities between the two, most notably the flatness of the art and the retro color palettes. In both cases, the art and text are in perfect harmony, playing off each other to heighten the drama on every page.

But the best news—and why you should give these as gifts—is that no parent will mind reading them 713 times. In a row. Because, if my children are any indication, this is what will happen. And you don’t want to make enemies of the parents of your children’s friends.

"Goodnight Already" by Jory John & Benji DaviesLet’s start with Goodnight Already!, which is told largely through the conversational banter between two friends, one exceedingly tired and cranky, and one insufferably over-caffeinated and peppy. Poor Bear wants a long, uninterrupted night’s sleep; and poor Duck wants someone to pay attention to him.

Relate much? Hell hath no fury like a Mama being kept from her sleep.  Now add to that spot-on repetition, dry wit, and perfectly placed visual gags (like the pink stuffed bunny that Bear tucks in beside him, or the sagging dark bags under his eyes)—and you have a flawless rendition of Theater of the Absurd, guaranteed to invoke giggles galore from young and old alike.

Over the holidays, I was sitting next to my daughter on an airplane. The hum of the engine, coupled with the stifling air, was making my eyelids heavier and heavier. Suddenly, I was startled awake by Emily tapping me on the nose. Just as I was about to launch into a lecture about how we DO NOT WAKE PEOPLE BY TAPPING THEM ON THE NOSE, I registered her wide grin and realized she was setting me up. She was taking a play from Duck, and she wanted me to respond as Bear. (She knows I can’t resist a chance to perform.) So we ran through these pages by memory:

"Goodnight Already" by Jory John & Benji Davies

"Goodnight Already" by Jory John & Benji Davies

"Goodnight Already" by Jory John & Benji Davies

We repeated the sequence a few times until the two of us were in hysterics (Emily can hardly say “I stubbed my beak” without DYING laughing) and receiving more than a few inquisitive glances from fellow passengers. So there: when you give Goodnight Already!, you aren’t just giving a bedtime story; you’re giving built-in entertainment even when the book isn’t around. There is nothing as contagious as silliness.

"Where Bear" by Sophy HennIf Goodnight Already! is characterized by accelerated folly, then the charm of Where Bear? lies in its understatement. Where Davies gave us a wealth expression in and around the eyes, Henn’s crude, compelling brushstrokes communicate a depth of emotion from body posture alone. “Once there was a bear cub…who lived with a little boy.” Immediately, we know how much the boy adores his friend simply by the way he moves in relation to him.

But bears will be bears—and even the boy begins to see that his bear is growing too large and unruly for a human-sized house. (One of the many gems of this story lies in the complete absence of parental presence; the boy’s relationship with the bear reigns uninhibited by adult scrutiny.)

"Where Bear" by Sophy Henn

The question, repeated throughout the book, becomes, where should the boy take the bear to live? Each time, the boy addresses this question to the bear—and each time, without waiting for a response, the boy goes on to volunteer an answer. (Sound familiar? Anyone?) “‘Oh, hang on! There are bears at the zoo!’ said the boy. ‘What about the zoo?’” After a brief trial and error at the local zoo, the Bear pronounces a definitive “No.” And so the search continues: the boy offering up the circus, the toy store, the forest, the jungle, and a cave, all as habitat possibilities. My kids adore the way Henn plays with the font of the various “No”s, so that each one takes on a different sound in our own readings.

"Where Bear" by Sophy Henn

"Where Bear" by Sophy Henn

Not surprisingly, the bear’s perfect new home turns out to be the Arctic.

"Where Bear" by Sophy Henn

But where most boy-releases-animal stories would end there, did I mention that the two still telephone one another?

"Where Bear" by Sophy Henn

Well, duh. They need to plan vacations together to catch up. Now don’t you wish you could tag along with them right about now? Put the birthday present in the mail, skip the party, and let’s go have some real fun.

"Where Bear" by Sophy Henn

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Review copy of Where Bear? provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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