Holiday Gift Guide 2013 (No. 3): Bedtime Stories for the “Goodnight Gorilla”-Obsessed

December 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Mem Fox's Good Night Sleep Tight“How do I break the addiction to Goodnight Gorilla?!” a friend texted me the other day. Whether it’s Goodnight Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, or (my preference) Time for Bed, the lulling, reassuring refrains in these books become quick obsessions with little ones getting ready to tuck in for the night. And, let’s be honest, it can grow a wee bit tedious for the one doing the actual reading. The good news is that, as your child’s attention span develops, you can start incorporating more involved bedtime stories into the mix. I’m not promising it will be love at first sight, and you may have to be a little sneaky (I’ve had great success with the “you pick one and I’ll pick one” approach as a way to introduce new titles). But help is on the way. 2013 has been a rich year for bedtime stories, beginning with Mem Fox’s Good Night, Sleep Tight (Ages 1-4), a small square hardcover illustrated by Judy Horacek—and an instant, no-tricks-necessary favorite with my Emily (the same team created the equally fabulous Where is the Green Sheep?). Think of this new book as a compilation of six classic nursery rhymes (“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,” “This little piggy went to market,” “Star light, star bright,” etc.), only woven into an actual narrative and with a refrain to boot! How are such disparate poems tied together? By the simple premise of a boy and girl being put to bed by their Mother-Goose-loving babysitter, affectionately referred to as “Skinny Doug.” After each of Doug’s enchanting renditions, the children beg for another: “‘We love it! We love it!’ said Bonnie and Ben./ ‘How does it go? Will you sing it again?’/ ‘Some other time,’ said Skinny Doug./ ‘But I’ll tell you another/ I heard from my mother.’ And so on and so forth. Horacek’s whimsical illustrations add an extra layer of charm, projecting the children and their babysitter into the periphery of each rhyme; so we see them picking up their own order at the pat-a-cake bakery or driving by to wave at the piggy squealing “wee wee wee.” An inventive way to feed the nursery rhyme obsession (no 300 page anthology necessary!).

Helen Docherty's The SnatchabookCan you imagine anything worse than a child (or, in this case, a small winged animal who calls himself a “Snatchabook”), who doesn’t have someone to read him a bedtime story each night? I’m sad just thinking about it! But that’s the premise of this affectionate new story about a young rabbit that sets out to discover why books keep disappearing from the forest at night. Helen and Thomas Docherty’s The Snatchabook (Ages 3-6) is filled with twilight-infused illustrations, depicting owls, squirrels, and hedgehogs tucked into trees and burrows, listening to “tales of dragons, spitting flames” and “witches playing spooky games”—and “every child in every bed,/ listened hard to each word said.” When these books start getting snatched, our lupine heroine, Eliza Brown, locates the Snatchabook, sits him down on her lap, and gives him a stern reproach: “You can’t just come and help yourself/ to every book on every shelf.” And yet, Eliza quickly softens when she learns of the Snatchabook’s plight: “I know it’s wrong, but can’t you see—I’ve got no one to read to me!” Together, the two form a plan that meets everyone’s needs: The Snatchabook returns each book (like a little Montessorian, Eliza stands watch to make sure the books are put back on the shelves very neatly). In return, the animals agree that the Snatchabook can join any of their nightly story times. I can’t imagine a better way to end our little ones’ days than with a story filled with such kindness and compassion.

Mary Logue's Sleep Like a TigerConfession: Mary Logue and Pamela Zagarenski’s piercing Sleep Like a Tiger (Ages 3-6) is technically not a new book; it came out in 2012. Not only that, but it received considerable media attention earlier this year when it won a Caldecott Honor. Nonetheless, I am including it here, because 1) I have found that few people actually know it (or, let’s see, their social media circles aren’t dominated by news of children’s books?), and 2) I am completely obsessed with everything about it and have been waiting for the perfect time to tell you. Earlier, I mentioned that kids can be slow to warm up to new titles (an argument for owning books that you feel passionate about). In the case of my kids, my being obsessed with a book is often the Kiss of Death. I’ve learned to feign indifference around a new book in the hopes that my kids will see their picking it up as their idea. But, in the case of Sleep Like a Tiger, I couldn’t suppress my delight—and so, for a long time, my daughter squealed “Noooooo” each time I suggested we read it. But now it is among her most beloved favorites. So what’s so great about this book? Well, for one thing, it’s a little bit weird (in the way that many of the Greats are). It’s suspended somewhere between the real world and the dream world—in that blurred spot where the subconscious comes alive. It’s also filled with the most beautiful observations of the natural world, made by the parents of a crown-sporting little girl, as she stalls (“I’m not sleepy”) by asking questions about different animals’ sleeping habits. We learn that whales sleep while swimming in circles, that snails “curl up like a cinnamon roll inside their shell,” and that grizzlies sleep through the winter (“That’s too long!” the girl exclaims). But it’s the girl herself who reminds her parents that the tiger is the mightiest sleeper of all: “that way he stays strong.” The glorious, restorative spell of sleep eventually overtakes our heroine, and Zagarenski’s incredible mixed-media illustrations (done on wood in the same way as her stunning Red Sings from the Treetops) morph the two worlds into one: the girl wriggles under the covers until she finds the warmest spot like the cat who sleeps by the fire; she “folds her arms like the wings of a bat”; and she rides on the back of the whale in her dreams. And, of course, she curls her back like the tiger. Strong, serene, asleep. Shhhhhhhhhhh. (Now quick: exit the room and congratulate yourself on a job well done.)

Other Favorite Bedtime Stories from 2013:
Rock-a-Bye Room, by Susan Meyers & Amy Bates (Ages 1-3)
Lena’s Sleep Sheep, by Anita Lobel (Ages 2-5)
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 2-6) (OK, technically not a bedtime story, but this sweetest of stories has a gentle, lulling quality, a quiet wordless format, and boasts a bedtime scene in the middle of it…so, there, I’m including it.)

Rethinking Mother Goose

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Mother GooseA customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise). But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose). Many nursery rhymes lend themselves to singing, which was clearly part of the initial appeal for Em (“Baa Baa Black Sheep” is still a favorite), but in time she’s become equally mesmerized by ones that aren’t easily sung (like “One, Two Buckle my Shoe”). Actually, literacy experts say that we as parents should encourage our children to read nursery rhymes (or other rhyming poetry) from an early age: such word play creates an awareness of linguistic sounds and word endings that later translates into learning to read with greater ease and success down the road. (Don’t feel bad if you, like me, missed the boat on this for an earlier child; simply break out some Shel Silverstein at four, five, or six and watch their awareness of language transform before your eyes.)

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

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

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

With Babies, It’s All in the Delivery

June 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

When you’re reading aloud to babies and toddlers, never discount the Performance Factor. I’ve always considered myself a fairly compelling read-aloud-er when it comes to young audiences (I’ve presided over my fair share of story times at my old store in Chicago), but I’ll admit to being humbled the first time I attended story time with my infant daughter at Hooray for Books!, our fabulous independent bookstore here in Alexandria, VA. These bookstore gals can really hold their own against a crowd of antsy toddlers—and they do so by throwing their own inhibitions to the wind, while invoking no shortage of funny voices, animated gestures, and ad lib phrases.

Before I became a regular at these events, I had never given much thought to Lucy Cousins’ Hooray For Fish! (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs), a board book about a Little Fish who meets and greets all kinds of crazy-looking fish before swimming back to his Mommy Fish. Sure, I’ve always appreciated Cousins’ child-accessible art style: her colorful, loosely-decorated fish, coarsely outlined in black, look as if they came from the hand of a child. But, if I’m honest, the subject of fish doesn’t rank terribly high on my excitement meter (give me a farm animal any day); and I can’t say my son ever cared much for Hooray for Fish! when I read it to him on a plane trip down to Florida when he was one.

But now, four years later, listening to it being read aloud by a bookseller who has obvious passion for made-up fish names like “gripy fish” and “ele-fish” and “twin fin-fin fish,” I realize that it’s all in the delivery. And, being the mindful student that I am, I’m proud to say that I have now adopted the necessary flair this book requires; lo and behold, it is now one of my daughter’s favorites. We both wave enthusiastically each time Little Fish says “Hello” to a new fish; we take our fingers and trace the spiral that is “shelly fish”; we make our scariest faces for “scary fish”; we cover our heads for “shy fish” and flap our fins like “fly fish.”

But the finale is where we break out all the stops: “Where’s the one I love the best, even more than all the rest? [turn page with exaggerated suspense] Hello, Mom. Hello, Little Fish. [more excited waving] Kiss, kiss, kiss, hooray for fish! [throw arms up in air and cover each other with kisses].” Hooray for books that make us adults remember that being silly is a sure way to get undivided attention from our little ones.

Other Favorites That Can Be Dramatically Read Aloud to Little Ones:
Cows in the Kitchen, by Arlie Anderson (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs)
Clip-Clop, by Nikola Smee (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
What Shall We Do with the Boo Hoo Baby?, by Cressida Cowell & Ingrid Godon (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
Barnyard Dance!, by Sandra Boynton (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, by Bob Shea (Ages 1-3)
Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle & Jill McElmurry (Ages 1-3)
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Helen Oxenbury (Ages 1-4)

Make Way for “Hippopposites”

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

If there was ever a children’s book destined for the Museum of Modern Art, this would be it. Until then, Janik Coat’s newly published Hippopposites (Ages 18 mos-5 yrs) will find a perfect home alongside the Oeuf cribs and Tripp Trapp Chairs of today’s urban nurseries. From the thick oversized board pages, finished in an ultra high gloss, to the bold die-cut silhouettes, this book is a tour de force in graphic design. But artistic achievement aside, what impressed me most when I encountered this gem on the shelves of my local bookstore is: FINALLY, a book that actually teaches the concept of opposites. There are lots of fun rhyming read-alouds that make use of opposites to tell their stories (see my list below), but they’re equal part silliness. Until now, I’m going to bet that kids have never mastered their opposites from reading books. Enter Hippopposites, where on each double spread, two hippos are contrasted with a simple text word beneath each one; props and background scenery are used sparingly, providing just the right amount of detail to get the point across. The usual suspects are touched on in the early pages: “small” versus “large” (with the first hippo miniaturized next to a skyscraper); and “light” versus “dark” (with the second almost completely obscured by a black background). But we quickly advance into more exciting territory, with “thin” versus “thick” (denoted by the width of the silhouetted line), “opaque” versus “transparent,” “dotted” versus “striped,” “invisible” versus “visible,” and “alone” versus “together” (in this last pairing, the only difference is that the hippo in the second picture has a bird perched on its back). The book’s artsy publisher, Abrams, doesn’t miss an opportunity for some seriously cool touch-and-feel action: the “soft” versus “rough” page makes use of delicate pink chenille and a woven burlap sack. Don’t let the board book format fool you: this book will hold its own with older preschoolers, introducing concepts like “squared” versus “rounded,” as well as “left” versus “right.” Now if I could only pry the book out of my husband’s hands, I could actually read it to my children…

Other Favorites With Opposites (albeit of the goofier, less educational sort):
Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox (Ages 1-3)
Big Little and Quiet Loud, by Leslie Patricelli (Ages 1-3)
Go Dog Go, by P.D. Eastman (Ages 2-4)

A Chomp Through Berryland

May 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

Today’s excursion to pick strawberries at Shlagel Farm in Maryland was the perfect excuse to break out an old favorite: Jamberry (Ages 1-3), by Bruce Degen. Not that we need an excuse to read this rollicking rhyme of a boy and a bear romping through fields and down streams on a quest for every kind of berry. But as the kids and I were filling our buckets with the plumpest, juiciest strawberries I’ve ever tasted, our fingers and shirts and mouths stained red, I couldn’t help but hear in my head: “Three berry/ Four berry/ Hayberry/ Strawberry/ Finger and pawberry/ My berry, your berry/ Strawberry ponies/ Strawberry lambs/ Dancing in meadows/ Of strawberry jam.” We didn’t encounter any strawberry lambs (although there were goats and some very vocal chickens), and my children are likely to eat all the strawberries before I get a chance to make them into jam, but the spirit of the book was very much alive as we chomped our way through the farm. Our excitement continued to build, as we got deeper into the patch, launching ourselves into uncharted territory wherein (as we imagined it) lay the biggest berries. Bruce Degen escalates his rhyme, too, taking it further into the realm of the fantastical and the silly: the boy and the bear fill a train with blackberries, then ride it to Berryland, where they dance alongside a jazz band of rabbits, watch elephants skate on raspberry jam, and finally lift off in a hot air balloon propelled by a giant boysenberry. “Mountains and fountains/ Rain down on me/ Buried in berries/ What a jam jamboree!” Indeed.
Don’t Miss My Other Favorite Berry-Picking Book:
Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey

How do I get my squirmy-wormy baby to love books?

May 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve been fortunate that my kids have loved books from the very beginning. I’ll admit that part of my design was purely selfish: I’d rather read to my children than do almost anything else with them (read: sitting for hours on the floor making train sounds). So they quickly learned that Quality Time With Mom meant listening to stories.

During the years that I worked in retail, I was always surprised when a customer, shopping for a baby gift, would say, “I’m not going to buy a book for someone who can’t even talk! How would they understand it?” Who said anything about understanding?! In the beginning, books are simply stimuli: things to touch, to feel, to explore, to eat. They present an opportunity for little ones to listen uninterrupted to a parent’s voice, a sound babies are born loving. And they make for the best snuggle time EVER.

But don’t be fooled: the past decade of child development research tells us that, even while they’re hanging out of drooling mouths, books are wielding their magic on babies’ brains, laying the groundwork for early language development and, yes, even lifelong intelligence. So how do you get your squirmy-wormy baby to love books?

1. Start with board books: they fit in Baby’s hands and hold up to copious drooling.

2. Surround Baby’s environment with books from Day One, so they don’t know any different.

3. Store books at Baby’s eye level (baskets work great) so they can dump them out, spread them around, and (my personal favorite) “read them” upside down.

4. Not all books are created equal! When they’re newborns, they might sit through anything, but by the time they’re five or six months old, they’re only going to sit still for Certain Books.

5. What Works for the Under One Set: Anything that invites physical interaction, like a finger puppet that pops through each page, flaps that open and shut, anything with a mirror, or touch-and-feel pages. Bright, simple illustrations (or photographs) with clear, high contrast. Sing-songy rhymes that make your voice interesting; same goes with text that encourages you to be loud then quiet, or make animal sounds, or just-plain-silly noises. Books that you can sing. Also books with photographs of babies (before she ever said “mommy,” my daughter said “baby”).

6. What’s Out for Under One: Illustrations heavy in pastels or cartoonish drawings. Books where the pictures look the same on every page. Books with more than a single sentence or phrase on each page. Books that don’t excite YOU (because, yes, your enthusiasm is a big part in all this).

7. Don’t shelve a book for too long. Babies under two are incredibly fickle: what they push away one week becomes their Obsession the next. Keep trying!

Some Favorite Board Books for the First Year:
Hello, Animals: Black & White Sparklers, by Smriti Prasadam (Ages 0-6 mos)
In My Tree, by Sara Gillingham (Ages 0-1 yrs)
Where is Baby’s Belly Button?, by Karen Katz (Ages 0-2 yrs)
This Little Chick, by John Lawrence (Ages 0-2 yrs)
Quiet Loud, by Leslie Patricelli (Ages 0-2 yrs)
I Went Walking, by Sue Williams & Julie Vivas (Ages 0-2 yrs)
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, by Bill Martin Jr. & Eric Carle (Ages 0-2 yrs)

Emily and her Books (at 12 mos)

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