Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot!

May 25, 2017 § 3 Comments

It never fails to astonish me how long my kids can withstand a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Earlier this spring, we waited in line for three hours to get tickets to an art exhibit, and they entertained themselves for at least an hour playing this hand game. Long after myself—and every adult around us—was ready to banish the words “rock,” ‘paper,” and “scissors” from the English language, my kids kept going. Alas, this is not a quiet game.

Perhaps when I could have been pondering nobler pursuits, I have instead been asking myself: What is it about this highly repetitive game (“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot! Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”) that lends itself to such welcome repetition? The answer, I’ve decided, is larger than simply immediate gratification or the apparent thrill of saying “shoot” over and over. RPS is the perfect game of chance. Rock trumps scissors trumps paper trumps rock. (Those are all the Trumps you’ll get out of me.) It’s an equilateral triangle—a closed system, if you will–where each opponent has an equal shot at winning and losing. (Apparently, this is not strictly true, as some professional players—yup, they exist—are able to “recognize and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents’ play.”) « Read the rest of this entry »

Re-Imagining Mistakes

May 18, 2017 § 6 Comments

It is often with trepidation that I watch my daughter prepare to work on a picture or a card. She sets out her paper, her drawing instrument of choice, and animatedly explains her Vision to anyone in the vicinity. “I’m going to draw a bird for my teacher,” she says, “because she loves birds.” I smile, but I try not to look too eager…or too stressed…or too anything. I try to look neutral. I attempt to recede into the kitchen—or, better yet, disappear into the basement to throw in a load of laundry—because I know from experience what likely lies ahead.

There are several minutes of happy humming, her preferred background music while she works. Followed by a sudden, guttural, downright masculine “UHHHHHGGGGGGHHHHHHH!” Followed by the sounds of said drawing instrument being thrown across the room. Followed by great, gasping sobs. “It doesn’t look like a bird at all! Its beak is terrible! It’s THE WORST BEAK IN THE WORLD! I hate this bird! I hate it!” Followed by the sound of paper crumpling, fists slamming, and stomping feet coming to find me. “Why did you tell me to make a bird? Don’t you know I am the WORST DRAWER OF BIRDS?!” (Ummm, I never said…)

My six and a half year old is rarely ruffled. She goes with the flow, handles curve balls with ease, and loves trying new things.

But she cannot handle mistakes. « Read the rest of this entry »

No More Sitting Pretty

April 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Marilyn's Monster" by Michelle Knudsen & Matt PhelanAfter spring break ate up my last two weeks, I’ve found my way back to writing, and I’m especially glad to be back, because I have a very special new book to tell you about. It’s a book that can be enjoyed simply for the fun, quirky, heartwarming story that it is. Or, it’s a book that can be read as a metaphor for one of the most important examples we can provide our children: that when life doesn’t give us what we want, we possess the power to stand up and change it.

It’s a book that boys and girls will enjoy equally, as my two already do. But, it’s also a book that must be shared with our girls. In fact, Marilyn has quickly become one of my favorite picture book heroines OF ALL TIME.

If that hasn’t piqued your interest, consider this: Marilyn’s Monster (Ages 4-8) is written by Michelle Knudsen, the same author who gave us Library Lion (need I say more?!). Marilyn’s Monster showcases the same beautiful fluidity of narration, the same perfectly orchestrated dramatic arc, and engenders the same depth of empathy for its central character. « Read the rest of this entry »

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). « Read the rest of this entry »

Fun With Funny Bears

January 15, 2015 Comments Off on Fun With Funny Bears

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

At Last, Something for the Youngest Sibling

November 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Dory Fantasmagory" by Abby HanlonOne book that all the Book People will be talking about this holiday season is Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory (Ages 5-9), an illustrated early-chapter book featuring one of the spunkiest, most imaginative, most genuinely real six-year-old girls to grace the pages of children’s literature. (After all, it was written by a former first-grade teacher.) If you really want to impress people with how in the know you are, you should buy the book this month, instead of waiting until next month, and then you should give it to everyone you know—regardless of whether it’s their birthday or not. Just a thought.

It’s possible that I’ve lost perspective on this 153-page gem, because I have, by request, read it upwards of ten times to my four year old in the past month (and don’t think that her seven-year-old brother doesn’t listen in at every chance he gets). I’m beginning to feel like Dory (nicknamed Rascal) and Emily are actually the same person (wait, are they?). Both talk to themselves incessantly, invent wild fantasies in their play, wear strange things around the house, and will stop at nothing to get the attention of their older siblings. I don’t think that Emily has a bearded fairy godmother named Mr. Nugget, or that she believes there are at least seven (mostly) hospitable monsters living in our house…but then again, I can’t be sure. « Read the rest of this entry »

When Bigger Really is Better

September 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Runaway Tomato" by Kim Cooley Reeder & Lincoln AgnewOn a Saturday morning towards the end of summer, on our way to go swimming, we swung by our local bookstore, so that I could run in and grab a gift for a birthday party later that day. My kids waited in the car with my husband, and when I returned a few minutes later, they asked with excited curiosity, “What book did you get?” I told them that I had picked a brand new one, by Kim Cooley Reeder, titled The Runaway Tomato (Ages 2-6). “RUNAWAY TOMATO?!” they shrieked, throwing their heads back in laughter. And thus commenced twenty minutes of their regaling us with their own ideas of where a runaway tomato might come from and what it might do.

Perhaps it’s because our attempt at growing tomatoes this year was such an Epic Failure, that my children think the idea of harvesting gigantic tomatoes is pure absurdity. Or perhaps there is just something innately hilarious about stories starring fruits and vegetables gone rogue (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has always been a favorite of JP). Either way, we had to return to the bookstore a week later to get a copy for ourselves. « Read the rest of this entry »

Welcoming Fall with Some Peace and Quiet

September 13, 2014 § 6 Comments

"Otis and the Scarecrow" by Loren LongI may be only seven years into this parenting gig, but one thing about which I’m certain is that I will never adjust to the noise. I’m talking about the incessant chatter; the shrieks of siblings chasing each other around the house; the whining about being hungry 15 minutes after a meal. At no time was this more evident than this past summer, when I was around my kids nearly every waking hour. Don’t get me wrong: I loved our lazy mornings, reading books in our PJs until 11am; I loved feeling a little hand in each of mine as the three of us rounded dirt paths; I loved huddling tight against my son in the last car of a roller coaster whipping around curves. Yes, we had wonderful hours together—hours when the questions and the observations and even the screaming seemed perfectly lovely. But, at some point, there would be this:

Me in the car, driving us home from a packed morning of puppet show, playground, and picnic. The kids are rosy-cheeked, ice-cream-stained, and happy. It’s one of those moments where you think, yup, I’m totally rocking this summer thing. Best. Mom. Ever. And you’re looking forward to a nice relaxing drive, listening to the radio and watching the trees fly by.

JP (from the backseat, as we merge onto the highway): “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (flushed with pride at my sweet, smart son): “That’s right, honey!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Yes, I heard you. And you are absolutely right!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Mmmmmhmmmmm.”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (suddenly seized by the notion that I am trapped in a moving metal box that is simultaneously pressing against the sides of my skull and sucking the oxygen out of my lungs): “What do you want from me? Why on God’s green earth are you saying the same thing over and over? What can I say to make you STOP TALKING FOR JUST ONE SINGLE SECOND OF THIS CAR RIDE SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF THINK??!!” « Read the rest of this entry »

What This July Needs

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetFor all the reading that we intend to do with our children in the summer, many of the days pass instead in a sweaty haze of shifting feet, slamming doors, and long afternoons at the pool. By the time our little ones are ready for bed, their eyelids (and mine, if I’m being honest) are too heavy to sustain more than a few pages.

For this Reading Deficit Disorder that hits right about July, I have just the prescription, which you will want to dish out to your own family, as well as wrap up for all those summer birthday parties. I’m talking about POETRY! Poems are the answer! Allow me to introduce the delightful and timely-titled anthology, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-11), with poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko and spectacular mixed-media illustrations by Melissa Sweet (yes, I’ll say it again: I adore everything that Sweet puts her hands on). « Read the rest of this entry »

Hurry Up, Already

May 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

Sparky! by Jenny OffillMost parents have some part of the morning routine that they dread. For me, it’s not convincing my kids to get dressed; it’s not getting them to sit still long enough to finish their oatmeal; it’s not even brushing their teeth or standing by as they wrestle with any amount of outdoor attire. No, the moment that requires the most patience, that threatens to unravel me almost every day, comes at the very end—ironically, when the finish line is so close that I can almost taste it. It’s the simple, straightforward 10 foot walk from our front door to the car.

Getting my children into the car is like herding sloths. To look at them, you would think they had never stepped foot in the Great Outdoors before, the way they suddenly stop, stare off blankly into space, and eventually fix upon some object (a leaf, a truck, a worm misplaced from last night’s rainstorm), which inevitably prompts 25 questions Of The Utmost and Immediate Importance. At some point, they will begin to walk ever so slowly to the car, wedging themselves through the open car door with their overstuffed backpacks still on (will it ever occur to them to take off the bag before climbing in?), then struggling with car straps in some kind of slow-motion agony (my youngest: “You do it! No, I do it! Wait, what day is it?”), until finally 94 minutes have passed (which in actuality is only 4 minutes but feels like 94) and you pull out of the driveway. I adore my children. But.

Perhaps given my children’s tendency to stallllllllll, or perhaps just because it’s a darling story from start to finish, I am totally taken with Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhans’ Sparky! (Ages 4-8), a new picture book about a girl’s ambivalence surrounding her pet sloth’s inability to perform on command (or, frankly, do much of anything). « Read the rest of this entry »

Cue the James Bond Music

April 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

Weasels by Elys DolanI’m sure you don’t know any kids like this, but if you did know, say, a boy who might choose the superlatives of a Calvin and Hobbes comic over the subtle description of a Great Classic; or prefer chasing his sister around with a kitchen-whisk-turned-laser over sitting civilly for tea parties; or who furiously scribbles submarines-into-blasters-into-blazing-balls-of-fire instead of serenely shading rainbows…well, let’s just say that I can promise this child—assuming you might know someone like him—the perfect present.

The brand new Weasels (Ages 4-7), by young British author-illustrator Elys Dolan, is dripping with satire—the likes of which we’ve seen glimmers of in past favorites like Battle Bunny and (most recently) Arnie the Doughnut: Invasion of the UFONUTS. Here, though, Dolan is calling out the subject matter for what it is: sheer Megalomania. (“What is that?” my six year old asked. “That is believing that you are the center of the universe and that everyone should do as you say,” I replied, refraining from adding, “That is the Deluded State of Being of All Six Year Olds.”) « Read the rest of this entry »

Seasonal Inspiration from a Zen Master

March 7, 2014 § 3 Comments

Hi, Koo: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. MuthNormally, I’m all for aspiring to live in the moment. But not right now. Not this week. Because, it’s March, people, and the ground is once again covered in snow; we’ve lost another two days of school; it’s grey and cold and, frankly, there’s nothing to be gained from living in this moment.

Instead, our family is busy making plans for the future—and living in the delicious anticipation of those plans. My kids are dreaming up the giant sandcastles they intend to make on our upcoming trip to Florida (I am dreaming up the cocktails I intend to make). We are gazing out the window at the trees we planted last fall, wondering what they are going to look like with new, green leaves. JP is plotting how much money he might make selling freshly-squeezed lemonade on the hottest of summer days. And, because September is only six months away, both kids are beginning the daily debate about what their birthday parties should entail. Normally, I might interject a dismissive, “well, we’ll have lots of time to discuss that when it’s closer to the date”; but, right now, what else do I have to do? Sure, let’s talk about how the cake needs to have your name on it (“so everyone knows it’s my birthday”) and how the balloons need to be tied down just right so that they don’t blow away (“like that one time”). Bring it.

I’m betting that others are in the same boat. And that’s why I’m betting that Jon J. Muth’s brand new Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons (Ages 3-8) will be a sure bet for anyone in need of some assurance that spring (and summer) are just around the corner. « Read the rest of this entry »

November’s Birthday Pick Battle

November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

Battle BunnySix year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:

Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”

JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”

Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”

JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”

Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”

JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”

Friend: “Cool!”

We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Rules of Play

October 10, 2013 § 2 Comments

Tea Party RulesAs parents, we are continually hounded by parenting experts about the importance of getting down on the floor and playing with our children. I’m fairly easily wooed when it comes to playing Candy Land or doing a giant floor puzzle or even painting alongside my kids; but when it comes to imaginative play, a little part of me wants to scream, “Please don’t make me do it!!!!” Why, you ask? Or maybe you don’t need to ask, because you already know about ALL THE RULES that our children arbitrarily force upon us from start to finish during these games. And nowhere is this more evident than when my daughter wants to play tea party.

E: “Mommy, let’s have a tea party!”
Me: “OK, where should I sit?” (I’ve learned better than to presume.)
E: “Right here”
Me. “OK’ (Sitting down.)
E: “No, you don’t sit like that! You have to cross your leg.”
Me: (making adjustments) “OK, I’m ready for my tea now.”
E: “No! First we are having a snack.”
Me: “OK, what’s for snack?”
E: “You don’t ask the question! You wait and I bring you the snack.”
Me (minutes later after being served a wooden egg and a plastic cucumber) “Mmmmm, thank you, this is so tasty!”
E: “MOMMY! It’s not time to eat yet! You have to wait for your tea!”
Me (an eternity later, when pretend tea is finally served): “Mmmmm, this tea is toasty warm.”
E: “It’s COLD tea!”
Me: “This tea is nice and refreshing. I think I’ll put some sugar in it.”
E: “That’s honey!”
Me: “I’m putting in some honey.”
E: “NO! You don’t pour it in, you have to use a SPPPOOOOOON!”

Thank you, but I will stick with Candy Land. « Read the rest of this entry »

Party Planning Angst

September 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

Xander's Panda PartyJP turned six today. As you may recall, we are All About Birthdays this month, having just celebrated my daughter’s third birthday two weeks ago. At some point over the summer, my kids realized that their birthdays were (sort of) approaching, and many of their conversations turned to what kind of parties they wanted to have (“Snakes and a pinata!” from JP; “Balloons and flowers!” from Emily) and whom they wanted to invite.

This latter debate became increasingly complicated for my youngest, because in addition to her now having a few similarly aged friends, she still claims most of her brother’s friends as her own (having been toted around to his play dates for three years). Back when JP turned three, we had exactly three children over for a nice, contained party. When Emily turned three, we found ourselves with 25 kids running around our backyard. Throw in a giant inflatable bounce house, a craft station, and soccer goals, and it would appear that my husband and I have finally embraced this moving-to-the-‘burbs thing. But I digress. « Read the rest of this entry »

Growing Pains

September 10, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little MouseMy youngest turns three today. Lately, everywhere I turn, I am reminded of how fast she is growing. “Mommy, Mommy, my toes are sticking out of my sandals!” she cried jubilantly one morning a few weeks ago; “I growed into a big girl!”

It’s no wonder, then, that she immediately fell in love with Alison Murray’s precious new picture book, Little Mouse (Ages 18 mos-4 yrs), where a little girl proclaims that she is no longer her Mommy’s “little mouse”;  on the contrary, she is tall (like a giraffe), strong (like a bull), hungry (like a horse), and brave (in the face of a lion). On top of that, she can make her voice and her body do amazing things, from trumpeting (like an elephant) to pumping high on the big girl swing (like a bird). « Read the rest of this entry »

August’s Birthday Pick

August 8, 2013 Comments Off on August’s Birthday Pick

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

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

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

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

Keeping Cool Under the Sea

July 26, 2013 Comments Off on Keeping Cool Under the Sea

Octopus AloneI know, I know, I’ve left you high and dry without reading material for nearly a month (vacation will do that); plus, I neglected to give you a birthday pick for July’s parties. So, in order to make it up to you, I am not only going to recommend a fabulous, brand-spanking-new book that you can give to everyone celebrating a birthday this summer, but I’m going to end with an EXTRA-LONG LIST OF THEMATICALLY SIMILAR BOOKS for you to read to your own kids (heck, you could even bundle some for an extra-special gift, like I did for a friend earlier this month). Are you ready?

Much like reading about snow in the winter, one of my favorite things about summertime reading is the excuse to read books about the sea (it’s no coincidence that I featured an octopus story for last summer’s birthday pick as well). Whether you’re spending time on the beach or simply looking for a mental escape from the heat, summer is the perfect time to introduce children to underwater worlds: landscapes so different from ours that they have their own inhabitants and laws, their own colors and sounds, their own unique set of experiences and problems. And yet, much of the best sea-themed fiction immerses kids in these foreign worlds while at the same time drawing parallels between their own emotional lives and the lives of the fishy dwellers within.

Trust me, you will want to dive straight into the pages of Divya Srinivasan’s Octopus Alone (Ages 3-6), where a bright orange octopus is set against an enticing palette of turquoise, seafoam green, and bright pink. I first fell in love with Srinivasan’s unique stylized graphics in Little Owl’s Night (reviewed here). Now, in the much longer Octopus Alone, we are treated to a more involved plot alongside her vivid art. I can’t say that Srinivasan’s narrative voice is as strong or coherent as her illustrations; and yet, the story’s theme—venturing outside one’s comfort level and finding the reward of new friendships—resonated loudly with both my kids. Any child who has felt overwhelmed walking into a preschool classroom or has stood on the periphery watching older kids at the playground will see a little of herself in the bashful octopus, who is so uncomfortable around the outgoing seahorses that she initially retreats from the coral reef into the deeper, darker, lonelier waters. Any child who often stands silently amidst others (but doesn’t shut up at home) will see a little of herself in the octopus, who imitates the dancing moves of the seahorses in private before allowing herself to see how much fun it might be to dance with others.

Like any great sea-themed book, there are countless opportunities for underwater discovery in Octopus Alone. Our family’s favorite would have to be the indisputably charming endpapers, which label (in cursive!) each of the sea creatures that make an appearance in the book (my son is prone to the “puffer fish,” while my daughter’s finger goes straight to the “butterfly fish”). My kids giggle every time Octopus releases her ink to “hide her blushing” or to escape the hungry eel, a nice reminder of aquatic adaptation. The book even makes some (albeit subtle) references to the complex ecosystem of coral reefs, like cleaner shrimp eating algae off the back of a nurse shark or baby dominoes playing hide and seek in the “swaying anemones.” (Older kids can build on these with Jason Chin’s equally stunning and richly informative non-fiction picture book, Coral Reefs…sorry, couldn’t wait until the end to plug that one.)

Our oceans and lakes, our sandy tide pools and rocky bluffs, can be a source of endless fascination for our kids. We have the power to channel this fascination into imagination, education, and hopefully even conservation. So go ahead: dip their toes in the water and start reading.

Other Favorite Under-the-Sea Stories (from youngest to oldest ages):
Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef, by Marianne Berkes & Jeanette Canyon (Ages 1-3; board book)
I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean! by Kevin Sherry (Ages 1-4)
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6; ONE OF MY ALL TIME FAVS)
The Pout Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen & Daniel X. Hanna (Ages 3-6; best read in the style of the blues!)
Swimmy, by Leo Lionni (Ages 3-6)
Big Al, by Andrew Clements & Yoshi (Ages 4-7)
If You Want to See a Whale, by Julie Fogliano & Erin Stead (Ages 4-7; also brand new)
Kermit the Hermit, by Bill Peet (Ages 4-8)
Jangles: A Fish Story, by David Shannon (Ages 4-8)

Some Favorite Sea-Themed Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Voyage of Turtle Rex, by Kurt Cyrus (Ages 4-8)
Coral Reefs, by Jason Chin (Ages 5-10)
Island: A Story of the Galapagos, by Jason Chin (Ages 6-12)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, by Jennifer Berne (Ages 5-10)
Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas, by Molly Bang (Ages 6-12)

June’s Birthday Pick

June 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

Water in the ParkLast Friday, after a long week of 90 degree days, the kids and I were driving around struggling to fill the few hours between school and dinner. I suddenly remembered that earlier that day, I’d picked up a stack of just-published books at the store, and so I proposed that we head home to read in the AC. “Reading Party! Reading Party!” my son immediately began chanting, a phrase left over from when his sister was a baby and I would coax him into lying down with me while she took her morning nap in the other room, under the pretense that he could load up the bed with books and we’d have a “Reading Party” (true, my motivation was entirely selfish—must lay head down—but I’m also a big believer that, as parents, our excitement around reading rubs off on our kids).

So, as we sat down to read last Friday, I thought I’d use my kids’ reactions to decide which title to make my birthday pick for the month. I had all my money on Mini Grey’s new Toys in Space, because it’s hard to go wrong with a story involving a fleet of misplaced toys, a spaceship, a conflicted alien, a Wonderdoll blessed with storytelling prowess, and Grey’s hilarious (if occasionally crass) speech bubbles. (Incidentally, I chose another Mini Grey book for last July’s birthday pick, so there must be something about warm temperatures that puts me in the mind of Toys Coming Alive). As expected, Toys in Space captivated my kids and elicited no shortage of laughs. But when all was said and done, it was the final book in our pile that they asked to read a second and a third time—and which they both chose as their favorite.

Emily Jenkins and Stephanie Graegin’s Water in the Park: A Book About Water & the Times of the Day is a quiet, unassuming, lyrical portrait of the transformations that take place in a city park over the course of a typical hot summer day, from the early-morning canine visitors to the tottering babies putting their hands in sprinklers to the adults taking their lunch breaks on shady benches to the evening strollers that get caught in the cooling rain. Of course, there are lots of obvious reasons why my kids (and your kids) would like this book, most especially because it fits entirely into their frame of reference (dogs! swings! parents! nannies! boo-boos! containers of apple slices! tears over leaving the park!). In a season where the heat can make being outside feel oppressive, it’s nice to celebrate that water can be poured into sandboxes to make moats or drizzled down scorching metal slides; that a stray cat can enjoy a sip in a lingering puddle; and that a timid dog might finally decide to wade into the pond. One also can’t ignore the widespread and very natural representation of diversity among the children and adults at the park (Jenkins took her inspiration from weeks spent observing Prospect Park in Brooklyn).

But I think the biggest reason why my kids love this book (and why you shouldn’t hesitate to give it for your next birthday gift) is the sheer comfort that comes from reading a story that’s grounded in the natural progression of a day, whose very text echoes a predictable rhythm of dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, and night. Very early on, children develop a fascination for time, but it’s not for many years that they truly grasp the meaning of “ten o’clock” or “noon,” that they recognize patterns not only in their own day but in the strangers and animals around them (gasp: the park has a life even when I’m not there?!). There’s a wonderful calm that comes from reading a story that helps to make sense of the order of things. And when the rainstorm descends to cool us all off, there’s comfort in knowing that the sun will shine again.

Water in the Park

“Around one o’clock, grown-ups wander in, squinting from their shops and office buildings…Two old people stand [near the pond] with a bag of bread crumbs…On very hot days, the ice cream truck comes early…Children get soft-serve cones and bright Popsicles…Sticky fingers and faces are rinsed in the sprinkler.”

A Story to Grow Up On

May 7, 2013 Comments Off on A Story to Grow Up On

Miss Maple's SeedsIf you’re big into symbolism (or if you, like me, tear up when inscribing books for gifts), then you’re going to want to give Miss Maple’s Seeds to all the young seedlings celebrating birthdays this spring. There are lots of wonderful picture books about seeds (Jean Richards’ A Fruit is a Suitcase for Seeds and Bonnie Christensen’s Plant a Little Seed are two favorites), but none have the magical realism of Miss Maple’s Seeds (Ages 3-7), written and illustrated by newcomer Eliza Wheeler.

Miss Maple is an eccentric, not-quite-of-this-world sort (a bit like my neighbor, who converses with chipmunks in her backyard). Out of her home inside a hundred-year-old Maple tree, she runs a kind of orphanage for lost seeds, dividing her time between searching for “seeds that got lost during the spring planting” and caring for those seeds until they’re strong enough to lay down roots of their own. “‘Take care, my little ones…for the world is big and you are small,’” she continually reminds her seeds—all the while bathing them, taking them on educational outings to learn about different soil types, reading to them “by firefly light,” and giving them chances to practice “burrowing down into the muddy ground” during thunderstorms. “She’s taking care of them like they’re her babies!” my son was quick to point out, an observation that quickly captured the attention of his younger, doll-obsessed sister.

The story’s prose is unquestionably beautiful: lyrical, concise, and easy to connect back to our own children and the figures (parents, relatives, teachers) who so lovingly and carefully nurture their growth. But it is Wheeler’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations, light and airy and with just a touch of whimsy, which make this gem soar. Sporting a willow weed hat, pointed nose, and delicate slit eyes, Miss Maple epitomizes tenderness in all that she does, whether sweeping her hearth to welcome new seeds or bidding each one farewell as she sends them down the river in lantern-lit leaf boats to find new homes.

One of our favorite illustrations looks like something out of a naturalist’s guide, depicting twenty seeds with their species’ names captioned below in cursive writing (presumably from the hand of Miss Maple). From the fat acorn to the oval pumpkin seed to the single grain of wild rice, the page exhibits not only the visual diversity of nature’s seeds but also the magic which seems to lie within (a giant sunflower grows out of THAT minuscule thing?).

We could all use some of Miss Maple’s tenderness in our own relationship with the Earth, just like our own children need the reassurance that “even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.” I dare you not to tear up when you copy that quote inside the cover of this book for your next gift.

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