Gift Guide 2014 (No. 4): Three Books for the Scientist (Ages 5-12)

December 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

If I had a dollar for every time my children tell me they are doing a science experiment, I would be a rich Mama. Most of these experiments involve putting water in a cup with some household item and sticking it in the freezer (spoiler alert: it freezes). Sometimes, usually with the help of birthday gifts, they might raise their game by building baking-soda volcanoes or citrus-powered clocks.

Our children’s natural curiosity about the inner-workings of the world has been given extra-special treatment in books this year. Today, I’ll be singing the praises of two novels for the 9-12 crowd, which seamlessly weave science into the drama of middle-school life (one stars a boy, the other a girl). For the younger elementary child, a picture book biography on Carl Sagan will prove the perfect entrée into the mysteries of the cosmos. Without further ado, let us begin.


"Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor" by Jon Scieszka[Warning: this book may cause your child to talk like a robot well beyond the last page.] Author Jon Scieszka, long-time advocate for the reluctant boy reader (see his inspiring tips here), embarks on the ultimate Science is Cool chapter book series, with Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud). Frank Einstein is a kid-genius inventor—with a special fondness for his Grampa Al, as well as for his Grampa Al’s Fix-It! Shop (“the greatest place in the world to test any invention you might think of”). Determined to win the Midville Science Prize and reap a large cash reward to pay off Grampa Al’s debts, Frank, his best-pal Watson, and two self-assembled artificial intelligence entities named Klink and Klank (my son’s new favorite literary characters), create a Fly Bike powered by an Antimatter Motor. Naturally, all this gets complicated by Frank’s arch-nemesis: the doomsday-plotting, idea-stealing, robot-napping T.Edison.

Besides talking robots and bikes that fly, this story boasts DroneBug spies, Universal-Strength Peanut Butter Bubble Gum, and an evil chimp who talks in sign language. But lest you think this is just another science fiction romp: nearly every page boasts real science. I’m talking actual neuroscience (how do robots’ brains work?); biophysics (what are the three states of matter, and how do they become antimatter?); chemical equations; and, above all, the power of “asking questions and finding your own answers,” despite trophies or prizes.

Much of this science appears in the form of black-and-white (and red) notebook sketches by popular illustrator Brian Biggs (remember the Everything Goes series?). In this way, Frank Einstein draws on the popularity of books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid—only it sneaks in a good deal more education and sophistication.

One thing we can always count on from Scieszka: he never underestimates the intelligence of his readers (remember Battle Bunny?). When I finished reading Frank Einstein to my seven year old (who, admittedly, is still too young to grasp much of the science), his response was: “Mommy, please leave the book next to my bed, because I want to read it a lot more.” Only, because we were only talking robot by then, it sounded more like, “LEAVE BOOK NEXT TO BED SO WE CAN READ AGAIN THANK YOU GOODNIGHT.”


"The Fourteenth Goldfish" by Jennifer L. HolmIf Scieszka’s book is in-your-face science, then Jennifer Holm’s warmly witty novel, The Fourteenth Goldfish (Ages 9-12), is through-the-back-door science. This is exactly the kind of chapter book I would have loved as a girl, especially a girl who didn’t think she was terribly fond of science and certainly wasn’t looking for a “science book” for fun.

Quiet, grounded, and skeptical sixth-grader Ellie is more peeved than astonished when the acne-dotted boy whom her mom brings home one afternoon turns out to be her grandfather. Sure, her scientist grandfather has discovered a way to reverse aging—only now, as a man turned minor, he can’t live on his own, drive a car, or operate his science lab. Suddenly, Ellie is stuck sharing a bathroom with her adolescent grandfather and helping him navigate the politics of her school cafeteria (all kids have to go to school, even ones with brains responsible for 19 scientific patents). To top it off, Ellie’s best friend is suddenly more interested in her new volleyball friends, and Ellie’s mother has her head in the clouds directing a high school production of Shakespeare.

In the spirit of If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em, Ellie finds herself increasingly drawn into her grandfather’s scientific mind: listening to his pontifications on famous scientists (from Galileo to Jonas Salk), beginning to apply the Scientific Method to everyday life, and later leading the charge to break into her grandfather’s lab to recover the Turritopsis melvinus, the jellyfish species which, when ingested, turns out to be the secret to her grandfather’s age reversal. As Ellie begins to second guess her own assumptions about the aging process, she comes up against the moral implications of eternal youth. Like a modern-day Tuck Everlasting (which had a profound effect on me as a child), The Fourteenth Goldfish ultimately raises difficult and fascinating questions. Is immortality worth achieving? Or is their precious value in our own mortality?


"Star Stuff: Carl Sagan & the Mysteries of the Cosmos" by Stephanie Roth Sisson" Existential questions also lie at the heart of Stephanie Roth Sisson’s new picture book biography, Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos (Ages 5-8), a perfect choice for anyone not ready for the chapter books above. As a boy, Carl Sagan’s curiosity about the night sky—stars like “lightbulbs on long black wires”—leads him to the library, where his “heart beat faster with every page he turned” (a boy after my own heart!). His research into the sun and solar system parlays into his adult work, sending mechanical explorers to nearby planets, where he makes the famous discovery that “the very matter that makes us up was generated long ago and far away in red giant stars.” In other words, we are made of star stuff.

While our house has no shortage of fact-filled treasures about astronomy (see favorites here), I couldn’t resist adding Star Stuff to our collection, for its beautiful and virtually unparalleled simplicity (Jason Chin’s 2014 Gravity would be a close contender). With only a few choice sentences on each page, the economical text allows the scientific content to sink in, to penetrate our children’s minds and set up camp for a long time to come.

But the biggest draw is Sisson’s art, blending expanses of watercolor washes with bold black lines. I especially love the way in which she plays with perspective to show children how the sun appears as part of the milky way (a tiny speck); as part of a “neighborhood of stars” (not the biggest, but not the smallest); and, finally, as the center of our own solar system (an enormous fiery ball that dwarfs our own Earth).

"Star Stuff" by Stephanie Roth Sisson

There’s humanity present on every page, echoing Sagan’s own passion and approachability. Of particular note is the spread devoted to messages from Earth, which Sagan encapsulated in the Voyager spacecrafts before they were launched into interstellar space in hopes of encountering alien life. A reading of the index is critical to deciphering some of these messages, like the recording of Sagan’s lover’s heartbeat, or a message from his six-year-old son announcing, “Greetings from the children of planet Earth.” How cool to have a conversation with our children about what they would like to say to living creatures elsewhere in the universe? JP’s mind nearly exploded when we read that just last fall, Voyager 1 finally made it beyond our solar system and is now traveling towards distant galaxies!


Science can be robots. It can be inventions or experiments in a garage or a laboratory. It can cure things we didn’t know needed to be cured (and maybe shouldn’t be cured). And it can expand our concept of our place in the universe. But it all starts with curiosity, with asking questions, and with a relentless search for answers. Perhaps it can also start with putting the right book in our children’s hands.

All opinions are my own. 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!

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 2): Three Books for the Linguist (Ages 6-12)

November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.

Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.

"The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus" by Jen Bryant & Melissa SweetJen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page.

The next time your child reports that his day was “fine,” give him a peek at this page:

"The Right Word" by Melissa Sweet

Beginning when he was just a boy, Peter Roget kept a journal—only instead of filling it with stories or autobiographical entries, he made lists of words. He organized these lists by ideas, and every time he thought of another way to say something, he’d add it to a list. “Words, Peter learned, were powerful things. And when he put them in long, neat rows, he felt as if all the world itself clicked into order.”

My seven year old loves lists. As a newly independent reader and writer, there is something inherently non-threatening about a list. Sweet has woven a multitude of word lists into and around Bryant’s narrative: some resemble the actual hand-printed classifications from Roget’s early notebooks, while others are imagined and brought to life with colorful, fanciful typography.

From the first time we read this book together, JP has been excited to read these peripheral lists to me, while I continue the main storyline. One of his favorites is the first in the book, which lists Roget’s life stages from birth to death (and is responsible for introducing a new favorite word in our house: “whippersnapper”).

"The Right Word" by Jen Bryant


"A Snicker of Magic" by Natalie LloydIn the spirit of Peter Roget, comes my new favorite heroine of 2014: the shy, intensely feeling, optimistic, and resilient Felicity Pickle, a sixth-grader with a special affinity for words. While you wouldn’t know it when she opens her mouth (usually tripping over her words, “standing there blinking, openmouthed, like the Queen of Dorkville”), the star of Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic (Ages 9-12) has an inner life that is the picture of eloquence. In the sad Tennessee town of Midnight Gulch, where the washed-up reality is tinged with the tiniest bit of magic and legend, Felicity has a unique power: she collects words. She literally pulls them out of the air—where she sees them hovering over people, or erupting out of a sound—and captures them in a notebook, eventually turning them into poetry to restore the hopes and dreams of a community she comes to love.

Even when she doesn’t realize it, Felicity’s attunement to language paves the way for her to connect with others. Embedded in the words that appear in the air when she meets people, are clues about their past, present, and future (their “word baggage,” if you will). When the uncle she’s never met before shows up on her doorstep with nothing but a guitar, Felicity sees the names of all the places he has traveled circling his head. When she passes a woman hunched over on the side of the street, Felicity might have passed right on by, if it weren’t for the strange and beautiful sequence of words silently emanating out of her: “Magnolia,” “Star root,” “Dragon,” “Luminous.” By the end of the novel, words like “Lonely” and “Clutzerdoodle,” which have followed Felicity around for as long as she can remember, are replaced with “Sunshine dress,” “Blooming,” and “Hearts fold.” If ever there was a book to seduce you into falling in love with language, this is it.


"Rain Reign" by Ann M. MartinIn Rain Reign (Ages 9-13), esteemed author Ann M. Martin gives her readers a new lens through which to view language, by allowing them to see the world through the narrative voice of a high-functioning autistic girl. Rose, we quickly learn, retreats from the pain of her home life and her social difficulties at school with a laser-sharp fixation on homonyms (words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings). Rose (homonym: rows) keeps lists of homonyms. She has rules for why one homonym makes it on her list and another one doesn’t. She identifies homonyms in (inn) nearly every exchange she has; and she has a difficult time listening to people without dissecting their sentences for possible new (gnu) homonyms.

Reading this acutely poignant book, I couldn’t help but think about the “letter” to parents going around Facebook right now: a teacher’s plea not to rush to judgment about “that kid” in school, the one who might regularly disrupt your more appropriately-behaved child; a plea to trust in the behind-the-scenes efforts of professionals to strengthen and support these “difficult” children. Rose is that kid. She sits in a mainstream classroom, but she sits beside an aid; she has to take frequent breaks in the hallway when she can’t control her outbursts; and her quirks—like her obsession with homonyms—more often than not estrange her from her classmates.

And yet, Rose wants so much to connect. To connect with her emotionally-distant father; and to connect with her classmates. One day, a hurricane threatens to take away what she loves most: her dog, Rain (homonym Reign). In the compelling adventure that ensues, as Rose searches for her missing dog and uncovers a mystery requiring even more bravery, we get a window into the purity, courage, and humanity that lies within “that kid.” I can’t think of a greater lesson in empathy for any child reader.

The wonderful Annie Dillard once wrote, “She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” Whether our children are conscious of it or not, each time they pick up a book to read, or a pen to write, they are poised with the opportunity to devour language. If they let it, if they really drink it in, then that language has the power to transform them—and, afterwards, to send them back into the world to enrich the lives of others. 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!

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.

Enter Vasily Kandinsky, Father of Abstract Art, creator of some of history’s most famous “scribbles.” Children will easily relate to the child Vasya in The Noisy Paint Box, who spent his Russian youth under constant pressure to be polite and disciplined: “He sat stiff and straight at dressed-up dinners while the grown-ups talked and talked, and talked.”

"The Noisy Paint Box" by Barb Rosenstock

But everything changed the moment his aunt gave him his first paint box (a monumental moment in so many childhoods). Paint unleashed a peculiar sensation within Vasya: he imagined that he heard the colors hiss and sing, and, as he painted, he had the distinct feeling of putting music to canvas. For many years, his parents and teachers condemned his “scribbles,” enrolling him in classes to learn “to draw houses and flowers—just like everyone else.” But Vasya continued to believe that art was about making people—both the artist and the observer—feel things, and that this could take a more abstract form.

Rosenstock’s clear, beautifully worded story is every bit as wonderful as her previous picture books, most notably The Camping Trip That Changed America (another perfect historical selection for summer). In The Noisy Paint Box, though, it’s illustrator Mary Grandpre that truly celebrates the birth of Abstract Art, using acrylic paint and paper collage to contrast the formal world of Russian aristocracy in the 19th century with the freedom and movement of Kandinsky’s personal expression. Grandpre exquisitely blends the singing colors in Vasya’s head with his brushstrokes on canvas. Oftentimes, his “lines and blobs” (Kandinsky’s own words) jump and spill beyond the frame, reminding us that feelings are messy, misshapen things with no clear beginnings or endings. People paint to capture these feelings and to make others feel something, too.  Now, if that isn’t poetic license to let your kids loose at the craft table this summer, then I don’t know what is!

"The Noisy Paint Box" by Barb Rosenstock

Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies of Artists (while these are all great to read at home, they have also been some of my favorite acquisitions for our school’s library!):
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, by Michelle Markel & Amanda Hall (Ages 5-10)
Henri’s Scissors, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-9)
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse, by Marjorie Blain Parker & Holly Berry (Ages 5-10)
Through Georgia’s Eyes, by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez & Julie Paschkis (Ages 5-9)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant & Melissa Sweet (Ages 6-12)
Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, by Tanya Lee Stone & Boris Kulikov (Ages 6-12)
Action Jackson, by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, & Robert Andrew Parker (Ages 6-12)
Frida, by Jonah Winter (Ages 6-12)
Meeting Cezanne, by Michael Morpurgo & Francois Place (Ages 6-12)

“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (My 100th Post!)

February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Thomas Jefferson by Maira KalmanMy wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).

Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both). Like in Lincoln, one gets the impression that the narrator guiding us on this tour is a passionate and well-studied child: “What was he interested in? Everything. I mean it. Everything.” Happily, my favorite quirky detail of Jefferson’s personality (which I remember learning on a tour of Monticello) is included: that he slept sitting up, ready to spring into action. In fact, an entire double spread is dedicated to Jefferson’s twin-sized bed, strategically placed between two rooms so that he could exit the covers on one side into his study—“or he could get out of bed on the other side, jump into his boots and go outside.”

Not to worry: Kalman does eventually find her way into political milestones, including Jefferson’s place in relation to the Founding Fathers (great mention of George Washington’s teeth here), his authorship of the Declaration, his election as third President of the United States, his legacy in separating church and state, and the Louisiana Purchase and expedition of Lewis and Clark. Each subject is given only the briefest introduction (with more details provided in the book’s index); but the beautiful prose, combined with Kalman’s signature oil paintings—brilliant explosions of color and life at every turn (oh, to have any of these paintings on my own walls!)—make Kalman an absolute master at piquing the interest of young readers. I can’t think of a better author-illustrator when it comes to planting seeds for more in-depth, independent research in classrooms and homes. (Speaking of seeds, somewhere in my possession if I can ever find them, are four seeds from Jefferson’s own line of beans that he bred at Monticello, a gift from a friend when we moved to Virginia four years ago. The time is ripe…)

And yet, no discussion of the man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” (and said of slavery, “this abomination must end”) would be complete without an acknowledgment of the paradoxes in Jefferson’s personal life. Kalman handles this topic gently but poignantly, painting one of the sparse and cramped rooms in which Jefferson’s 150 slaves lived, along with the juxtaposition of a kitchen full of toiling slave women (“look, there’s a baby on the floor!” my kids quickly pointed out) beside a formal dining room set with the “best of everything,” including nine types of pudding! An excerpt from Jefferson’s farm book lists the names of his slaves; and Kalman calls specific attention to “the beautiful Sally Hemings,” a slave with which Jefferson allegedly had several children after his wife died. But what is unique here is Kalman’s mention of “racial passing,” a phenomenon that gets little attention in elementary history books, whereby light-skinned black people (here, the children of Jefferson and Hemings) would “hide the fact that [they] were partially black,” because “in such a prejudiced land” it was easier to have society believe you were white. “To hide your background is a very sad thing,” our young narrator writes, opening the way for further conversations on this fascinating and too-often-neglected part of our country’s history.

Jefferson’s gravestone, bearing the epitaph that Jefferson himself wrote before he died, oddly does not list President as among his achievements. “I wonder why,” our narrator ponders, just enough to get our own wheels turning. Perhaps Jefferson was all too aware of the discrepancies between his beliefs and his actions; perhaps he felt conflicted by his legacy as a Great Leader. But a formative leader he was, and his flaws are no reason not to share this exceptional book with your children—nor to take them to the “Museum of the Mind,” which Jefferson called home. For, in Kalman’s words:

If you want to understand
this country and its people
and what it means to be optimistic
and complex and tragic and wrong and
courageous, you need to go to Monticello.

Other Favorite Picture Books About Thomas Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, by Barb Rosenstock & John O’Brien (Ages 6-12)
Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the True Story of an American Feud, by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain & Larry Day (Ages 6-12)

Holiday Gift Guide 2013 Kicks Off: Other-Worldly Encounters For the Young Artist

December 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

JourneyWhen I was young, one of my favorite picture books was Harold and the Purple Crayon, where a little boy makes his own adventures with the help of a single purple crayon. As a child, I loved to draw, but I think the greater appeal for me lay in Harold’s vivid imagination—an imagination that empowers him with an inner resourcefulness, that entertains him when he can’t fall asleep, that gets him out of any sticky situation (drowning? simply draw a boat). This same spirit echoes across Aaron Becker’s Journey (Ages 4-8), easily the most stunning picture book of 2013 and an inspiration for young artists and adventure-seekers alike. Unlike Harold, a simple visual presentation of purple and white, Journey makes use of a broad palette, although weighted emphasis is given to red, the color of the crayon with which a girl begins her escape by drawing a door (after all, what else can you do when your mom is cooking, your dad is working, and your big sister is too busy?). The little girl finds herself in a fantastical Venetian-styled kingdom with gold domes and winding canals, as well as twinkling lights, air ships, and just the slightest foreboding of something dystopian. Nothing makes complete sense, but that’s half the fun, because Journey is entirely wordless, leaving the storytelling and interpretation up to the child reader. Propelling the plot forward is a mysterious purple bird, who dodges captivity with the help of the little girl and repays her by showing her the way out of her fantasy and into a new (and very real) friendship with a like-minded, drawing-obsessed boy. For your budding artist, this book is a work of art in itself, a hands-down masterpiece.

The First Drawing by Mordicai GersteinIf you want to blow a child’s mind, tell him that there was a time when drawing did not exist, that it had to be invented, just like electricity and toilet paper. Of course, no one knows exactly how the first drawing came to pass, but in 1994 a cave was discovered in Southern France with animal drawings that appear to be more than 30,000 years old; in that same cave, a footprint belonging to an eight year old child (and a wolf) was also found. For author-illustrator Mordicai Gerstein, it makes complete sense that drawing would have been invented by a child. Gerstein’s newest picture book, The First Drawing (Ages 4-8), literally puts the child reader in the driver’s seat of history, painting a child-centric vision of what life was like in the Stone Age: “Imagine you live in a cave with your parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, many cousins, and your wolf, Shadow. It’s a big cave. You love to watch animals. You see them everywhere. You see them at the river where they come to drink: horses, giant elk, reindeer, wooly rhinoceroses, bears, sometimes lions, and more.” This boy—no different than any child of any generation—wants desperately to be understood. When his family doesn’t believe that he saw a wooly mammoth, no matter how much detail he uses to describe it, he simply picks up a burnt stick and begins to project the image in his mind onto the wall of the cave. My six year old loves what comes next: upon seeing the drawing, the boy’s big bearded father grabs his spear and prepares for battle—naturally, he doesn’t recognize art for art’s sake because he has never seen it before! “And you look at what you’ve done. You have made the world’s first drawing…Now everyone can see what you see.” What would our children do without art to give us tiny windows into their puzzling, wondrous little minds?

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look & Meilo SoArtistic discovery doesn’t always have to happen at the arts and craft table. Recent years have seen the publication of fantastic biographies for kids on a range of artists (some from 2013 are listed below). But I’m especially taken with Lenore Look’s new picture book, Brush of the Gods (Ages 5-10), about the legendary life of the ancient Chinese painter, Wu Daozi. Ancient China usually gets shortchanged in children’s literature (Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim, being a notable exception and a favorite message about the importance of education for both sexes). But I have always been amazed by calligraphy—an art form so fluid, so evocative. Wu Daozi is no ordinary calligraphy artist: in fact, he fails at traditional calligraphy and instead uses the brush style to create incredible murals of butterflies, horses, and dragons on the walls of temples and palaces. Much the same way my son’s drawings ebb and flow under his ever-changing vision (“and now the fire is shooting out of the chimney and now it’s zig-zagging back down into the house and the whole house is becoming orange…”), Daozi’s paintings allegedly took on a life of their own. His painted animals were said to move their heads, the bamboo to sway in the background. According to Chinese legend, when it came time for his death, Daozi simply disappeared into one of his landscapes. Meilo So’s illustrations for the book, rendered in watercolor and ink with copious use of strong black brush strokes, are nothing short of magical; they infuse the story with mysticism and abound with rich details begging to be poured over. Now that’s artistic inspiration.

Other Favorite 2013 Picture Books for the Young Artist:
The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers (Ages 4-8)
Henri’s Scissors, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-10)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant & Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-10)

“Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

November 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Tree LadyI’m completely obsessed with trees right now. I know what you’re thinking: this is not news. And, you’re right, I’ve written about my love for trees (and stories featuring trees) here, here, here and here. But I’m really, really obsessed with trees right now—and that’s because I have recently been tree shopping. When my kids were baptized last spring, their grandmother offered to buy each of them a tree to grow up alongside. So, earlier this fall, the kids and I did what we do best: we walked, we scooted, and we drove around our neighborhood looking at trees. How had we missed so many of these beauties before? “How about we get one of each?” my son ventured.

Eventually, we narrowed down our choices, but then there was the question of how and where to buy the trees. I initially thought, I’ll look for a deal on the Internet. But then my gardening friend reproached me: you need to see a tree before you buy it, need to study its form, need to find one that speaks to you. This is why, one crystal clear November morning, I found myself standing in a wholesale nursery an hour away in Maryland, surrounded by 600 different varieties of trees. I was walking up and down rows of trees, examining curves of trunks and canopy shapes, paying way too many people to follow me around offering their opinions, and starting to feel like I was going to have a hard time explaining to my husband how this simple decision to buy two trees had gotten totally out of hand. Did I mention how much fun I was having?

In the end, I decided on a tree for each child. Emily, my zealously affectionate child got a stewartia pseudocamellia, a slender but strong tree, with two trunks opening up to the sky in a V, as if to kiss the clouds. For JP, I chose a katsura pendula, a weeping tree whose trunk curves back and forth before sprouting profuse branches jutting every which way (not unlike the way his hair looks upon waking). As this tree matures, its branches will extend to the ground and offer JP a mini retreat from the world, a place for thinking Big Thoughts (at least, this is how I envision it).

The day that the trees were delivered and planted was like Christmas morning. “Our trees are coming! Our trees are coming!” the kids squealed, racing around the house and stopping only to press noses against the front windows. When the sound of a truck lumbering down the street reached them, they tore open the door and ran to the curb. “Which one is mine? Which one is mine?” they chanted—and then watched, wide eyed, as five grown men lifted and rolled the trees down onto our lawn. When the kids got home from school later that afternoon, the trees were secure in their new homes. “Nice to meet you,” my daughter said, as she ran her small hand across the variegated peeling bark. JP ran circles around his tree for 20 minutes.

So what does this have to do with books? Well, it just so happens that there is an extraordinary new picture book about the true story of Kate Sessions, the scientist who transformed the city of San Diego in the late 1800s by planting trees and flowering tropical plants in a dry, barren landscape, where previously no one believed that greenery could flourish. Author H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrator Jill McElmurry’s The Tree Lady (Ages 5-10) is like a real life Miss Rumphius. It’s a story of passion and vision, of guts and hard work, beginning with Kate’s childhood love of getting her hands dirty; to her distinction as the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a science degree; to the painstaking research she did as an adult to source and grow plants from all around the world that would thrive in Southern California’s desert climate. Kate is the very definition of a Big Dreamer. She wasn’t content to have a couple of trees in her backyard; she created an entire nursery, raising trees to sell to homeowners in the area and later enlisting volunteers to plant thousands of them in Balboa Park for the Panama-California Exposition, an historic event which officially put San Diego on the map.

I love this illustration of Kate in the front row, hand raised, the only girl in a sea of budding scientists.

I love this illustration of Kate in the front row, hand raised, the only girl in a sea of budding scientists.

I recently read an essay, written by children’s author T.A. Barron, which argued that instilling in our children a love for nature is the surest way to motivate them to care for our depleting natural resources. Only out of this love, Barron argues, can learning commence: “Before kids can be expected to understand the facts about our planet, they need to feel an enduring bond with the marvelous places and trees and birds and animals who share that planet with us. We are emotional beings – so we can’t ask kids to protect and steward something they don’t truly love.” Getting kids out into nature is the best way to nurture their love; but reading stories about women and men who dared in the name of Mother Nature is another valuable way to plant seeds of hope in the next generation. Perhaps my children will someday dream beyond their own backyard. In the meantime, let’s hope we can keep our new trees alive.

Other Favorite Inspiring True Stories of Women Scientists:
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-10)
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World, by Laurie Lawlor (Ages 5-10)
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Ages 4-8)
The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-10)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh & Raul Colon (Ages 5-10)
Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning by Laurence Anholt & Sheila Moxley (Ages 5-10)
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle & Julie Paschkis (Ages 6-12)

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)

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