May 7, 2020 § 3 Comments
For many of us following stay-at-home orders, social media is a welcome lifeline to the outside world. And yet, its lure can be as powerful as its trapping. If occasionally I used to fall down the rabbit hole of comparing my children’s accomplishments to those paraded out on Facebook, I now find myself in weaker moments comparing houses. We may be leading similar lives—working, schooling, eating at home—but our backdrops are wildly different. Maybe I’d be going less crazy if I looked out my window and saw mountains. Sure would be nice to have a swimming pool in my backyard. Sure would be nice to have any backyard. Oh man, are they at their river house right now? I’m sure I could homeschool better if we had a creek.
Of course, these thoughts are inane. Inanely unproductive. Inanely indulgent. At no time for my generation has it been more of a blessing to have our health and a roof over our heads. Not to mention money for food and ample time to steer our children through these rocky waters.
Still, I would be lying if I said there aren’t cracks in my resolve to be gracious and mindful.
With our recent move, our living space has been significantly downsized. I can’t spit without hitting another person. Heck, I can hardly do anything without being watched or whined at. My husband gave me grief for packing up no fewer than four boxes of books to bring with us to these temporary digs. But you know what? We are rich in stories. We have stories painted with breathtaking backdrops, stories which quicken our pulse or tug at our heart or seduce us with beauty…all from the cozy confines of our couch. Some days, I look at the piles of books haphazardly lying around and I think, Why does no one clean up? Most days, I look at them and think, We are the luckiest.
One need look no further than Aesop’s fables for proof that stories have long been offering hope in turbulent times. Tales like “The Lion and the Mouse” (or my favorite as a parent, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) have been told and retold around the world for 2,500 years. Until now, I didn’t realize that the allegedly true story of Aesop himself—a slave in Ancient Greece who earned his freedom through storytelling—also bears telling, lending meaningful context to Aesop’s beguiling fables while offering proof that stories are richer than gold.
Ian Lendler’s 63-page trove, The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), luminously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, is not your typical picture book biography. It’s more of an anthology of fables encased in a broader, biographical context. Like an onion, each turn of the page reveals another layer of story and art, the sum of which is one of the most spellbinding books of 2020. It can be read in a single sitting or paged through out of order. If we’re talking about losing ourselves in the sublime for a time, this is just the ticket.
March 5, 2020 § 5 Comments
We are packing up our house to move out for a renovation project. Which means I can no longer ignore the board books still on our shelves, even though my kids, at nine and twelve, are long past paging through them. Only the most beloved of our stash are left, with their faded covers and frayed edges (wait, are those bite marks?). I suppose it is finally time to retire them to a box in the attic, where they’ll sit optimistically until a time when little ones might once again grace our home.
And still. Picking up these books takes me right back to the days of spit up and babble and hair pulling and cuddles so delicious I wondered how I’d ever been happy before. To days when I was so exhausted, I feared I wouldn’t rise to get my screaming infant from her crib. Reading these books to my children sometimes felt like my only lifeline to sanity. A time when a squirming child would succumb to my lap; when the call of laundry and dishes would fade; when alongside my child, I could ride on the back of a rhyme or escape into a picturesque barnyard where everything seemed ordered and wonderful.
There were also those times when one child would be playing in the next room, and the sounds of wooden drums and plastic trucks would suddenly stop; and I’d peek in to see a mess of books, with little hands turning pages and the sweetest voice singing out remembered phrases. Like watching my heart beat outside my body.
So, before I pack up these treasures, stamped indelibly on my heart, I thought I’d bid farewell to a few specific titles, in case you haven’t happened upon them in your own quest for sanity.
February 7, 2019 Comments Off on There’s A New Pippi in Town
Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 1, 2018 § 6 Comments
Our family doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah, and I’m by no means an authority on Jewish children’s literature (I recommend this excellent source). That said, I could be considered something of an authority on Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, published in the 1950s and featuring a Jewish immigrant family with five daughters living in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. As a child, I could not get enough of these books. As a parent, I listened to all of them in the car with my kids and…yup, just as wonderful.
If you heard a squeal echoing across the universe over Thanksgiving break, it was because I wandered into Books of Wonder in New York and discovered there is a now a picture book based on Taylor’s classic chapter books. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.
Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments
Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
« Read the rest of this entry »
September 7, 2017 § 4 Comments
Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.
So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.
Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
When I was around the same age my children are now, my father used to play Kick the Can with my sister and me in the backyard after dinner on summer nights. Sweaty and exhausted—and probably owing to the giant glass of milk my mother insisted we drink with dinner—the time would predictably come when I would have to go to the bathroom. I would be crouched in my hiding position behind a bush, trying to keep quiet, but mostly trying not to pee. I could easily have run inside, used the bathroom, and come out again. But I didn’t dare. I would rather have hopped about, wincing with every step, risking an accident (and there were some)—all because I never wanted these moments to end. I never wanted to break the spell. The only thing better than the anticipation of my father coming home was the joy of being with him.
I lost my father when I was eighteen—much too young, by all accounts. And yet, the experience of being with my dad still feels as tangible to me as if it took place yesterday. As a parent now myself—one more tired and distracted and grumpy than I sometimes care to admit—what impresses most upon me is how my father seemed when he was with us. He was not merely present when we were together. He delighted in our presence. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 2, 2017 Comments Off on Wiggly Teeth
My oldest lost his first tooth on a playground zip line. He dismounted victoriously, grinned zealously, accepted congrats from strangers, and posed for photographs. Had he taken a bow, it would have felt fitting.
When my daughter lost hers, two days ago, it played out very differently. In the preceding weeks, she had boasted about her “wiggly tooth.” We thought she was down with the program, having watched her brother embark on this rite of passage. As a parent, I see now that I may have committed an all-too-common slight against the youngest: I failed to give her, well, any information. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 9, 2017 § 10 Comments
In keeping with my tradition of recommending friendship-themed stories for Valentine’s Day (see past posts here and here and here, last year’s exception aside), I am hearkening back to a cherished series from my own childhood. If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, it’s as resonant as ever.
When I was six years old—a quiet girl with mouse-brown hair held neatly between two plastic barrettes—I rode a school bus to my first day at public school in the inner-city of Milwaukee. I remember nothing about the bus ride, nothing about what was on the aluminum lunch box and Thermos which I remember being proud to have in my backpack, and nothing about the inside of my classroom.
What I remember is the playground: a vast sea of grey concrete and black asphalt, populated by masses of children who towered over me, whose games of kickball and double-dutch and hopscotch seemed enshrined in the shouts and shrieks of a coded language. I stood trembling along the edge. Large red rubber balls whizzed by the side of my face.
Probably I wouldn’t remember those details—they would have faded like the colorful posters that probably adorned my classroom walls—would it not have been for what happened next. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 12, 2017 § 4 Comments
Back when my children were nearing three and six years old, I started a family tradition which might be considered creatively brilliant or utterly insane. You can be the judge. This was during a time when my daughter liked to pretend she was a dog during mealtimes, bowing her chin to her food and licking her plate. I can’t remember what my son was doing across the table, because I’ve evidently blocked it out. What I do know is that no pontification on the importance of table manners seemed to make a speck of difference.
And so, one evening, I announced to my children (and my skeptical husband) that, once per season, we were going to have Bad Manners Dinner, whereupon everyone at the table could eat with wild abandon.
The only catch was that, during all the other days of the year, they had to show appropriate table manners. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
I am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”
So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment
Like many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.
But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.
“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.
How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves? « Read the rest of this entry »
June 9, 2016 Comments Off on Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)
Last year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.
But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.” « Read the rest of this entry »
March 10, 2016 § 3 Comments
The setting in which a book is read can create magic beyond the words on the page. I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, to my children on a long weekend last month. We were nestled beside a roaring fire in the lobby of a grand, historic inn in the mountains, while the snow that would strand us for an extra day of vacation came down in big, soft flakes outside the tall arched windows. With my children pressed against me in rapt attention, it didn’t seem like life could get much better.
Little did I know that even more magic would come in the weeks ahead, when we brought the book back home and continued reading it while the first hints of spring began to transform the earth outside our front door. And that’s when it hit me: The Secret Garden (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)—and, in particular, artist Inga Moore’s enchantingly illustrated unabridged gift edition—may be the BEST WAY EVER to usher in spring. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 14, 2016 § 4 Comments
In preparation for taking my kids to the Kennedy Center last week to see the national tour of Matilda the Musical, I spent the final day of winter break reading Roald Dahl’s beloved novel to them. That’s right. Seven and a half hours of reading out loud (with a break to bike to lunch and back). It was my maternal Swan Song, a last hurrah before depositing my kids at the front door of their school the next morning and returning home to a (blissfully) quiet house.
It was actually their second time listening to Matilda—the first time was during a car trip last summer—and I almost didn’t opt for a second round. But, in the end, I wanted it to be fresh in all of our minds before we took our seats in the theater (plus, it made for one of the best family dinners later that night, picking apart the differences between the book and the play). But, really, who would pass up a chance to re-read one of the greatest children’s books ever written? « Read the rest of this entry »
December 17, 2015 § 4 Comments
One of my favorite memories of last December (read my post here) was reading Winterfrost to my children. Amidst the hustle and bustle and never-ending to-dos of the holiday season, the three of us set aside time each night to savor the enchanting story of a child kidnapped by a nisse (Danish “house gnome”) on Christmas night and the sister who goes off to rescue her.
This December, I wanted to re-create that holiday magic with my children. I wanted something that called us away from the overt materialism of the holiday season, that tapped into feelings of love and togetherness, of gratitude for what we have and generosity of spirit.
I took a stab in the dark and grabbed Betty MacDonald’s 1952 novel, Nancy and Plum (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), off the shelf at the library.
Holy holiday wonderfulness. A BETTER BOOK I COULD NOT HAVE CHOSEN. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 19, 2015 § 8 Comments
A. A. Milne’s iconic classic, Winnie the Pooh, the collected tales of a stuffed-bear-come-to-life and his friends, was one of those books I was most excited as a new parent to read to my children. I still have the copy that once belonged to my own mother and her brothers: a water-stained hardback with their own handwritten improvisations along the way.
While I vaguely recollect reading and enjoying this classic as a child myself, I’ll admit that my more prominent memories are of decorating friends’ yearbooks with A.A. Milne quotations (“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” said Piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered.) Pooh and his friends, it seems, have an enduring resonance.
When it came to cracking the spine on this treasure for my firstborn, I didn’t anticipate how surprisingly sophisticated A.A. Milne’s writing is. I first tried to read Winnie the Pooh to JP when he was only three and a half. Big mistake. The dry humor was over his head (it’s hard to find Owl’s misspellings funny when you don’t know how to spell yourself); and the sudden jumps in narration were jarring (one minute we’re in the 100 Acre Wood, the next we’re in Christopher Robin’s bedroom hearing about the 100 Acre Wood). I would be erupting in giggles, while JP would be eyeing me as if to say, This is funny why?
We tried again when JP was six, with much greater success, although I think the beauty of Pooh (in the vein of other classics, like The Little Prince) is that it can be re-read at almost every age from here on out for different gain. The 100 Acre Wood is like a microcosm for the world. In it, we encounter the same personalities that we do on the outside. Look at bossy pants over there, hopping around like ‘ol Rabbit. Cool it with the Kanga-like cheerleading, kay? I need a lunch date with my Piglet.
September 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
The Greatest Thing has happened. The Richard Scarry book that I most loved as a child is BACK IN PRINT! That’s right, I no longer have to lie awake at night, debating whether to drop $100 on eBay so that my kids can share in my childhood nostalgia. There I was, casually browsing the aisles of my neighborhood bookstore, when I caught sight of a double decker London bus, packed with a menagerie of dressed-up animals. I let out an audible squeal, snatched up every copy on the shelf, and ran directly to the counter to buy them all. (Yes, I have a problem, but there are worse addictions to have…right?)
You might think you already have enough Richard Scarry in your life. Sure, I get it. You might have read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go so many times (like I did, when my son was two and waking up at 5:15am every single day), that you have had to “misplace” it on occasion. Or, you might feel like you have already lost years of your life talking about a certain worm who lives in a Busy, Busy Town and walks upright wearing a single shoe.
But you might also remember that, sometimes, the only reason you can answer your child’s 700 daily questions stems from your proficient readings of What Do People Do All Day? (After all, when you became a parent, you didn’t know you would need a working knowledge of how streets are paved and houses are built and paper is made and a mailed letter gets from one place to another.) You might also take a moment to reflect how, when your children were younger and people commented on their impressive vocabulary, you might owe more than you think to the hours you spent—at their request, of course—pointing at items on supermarket shelves in the Best Word Book Ever.
In the spirit of outing my children’s addiction within my addiction, I am here to confess to you that we own TWENTY NINE different Richard Scarry books (calm down, I’ve only listed my favorites at the end of this post). For the past eight years, Richard Scarry has topped our “most often read” lists more than any other books. I trip over them more than any Lego or baby doll. Yes, I have sometimes buried my face in my hands and lamented to my children that I just don’t have it in me to read another 72-page book that’s heavy on words and light on plot. But, most of the time, I oblige. Because it makes them so darn happy.
And because I remember how much I adored these books as a child.
Which brings me to the recent republication (in honor of its 50th anniversary) of Busy, Busy World (Ages 4-8), one more Richard Scarry title that you ABSOLUTELY WILL NEED TO ADD TO YOUR COLLECTION. As I’ve said, my love affair with this anthology of 33 internationally-themed two-page stories—think of it as Busy, Busy Town goes global—began as a child myself.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that my love of travel originated with this book, which makes pit stops in cities like London, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, and in countries like India, Israel, Mexico, and Egypt.
As a child, the colorful settings captivated me: the spires of castles in Denmark, the dikes in Holland, the palm trees in Rio de Janeiro. How I wanted to ride that double decker bus across the London bridge, or sail in a gondola down the canals of Venice. I was even fascinated by the different international flags on the book’s back cover.
I remember, at the beginning of each story, flipping to the map inside the book’s cover to pinpoint exactly where that particular story took place. (Incidentally, my children immediately started doing this same thing the first time we read the book, with no prompting from me.)
Of course, as any fan of Richard Scarry’s stories knows, the eclectic, goofy, sometimes downright absurd cast of anthropomorphic animals are wherein lies the real irresistible charm. STARTING WITH THEIR NAMES. (For the record, I’m not oblivious to the overt 1960s cultural stereotyping implicit in names like “Schmudge, the German Chimney Sweep” or “Ukulele Louie, the Hawaiian Fisherman,” or “Dr. Krunchchew, the Russian Dentist”…I’m simply pointing out that these names are tremendously entertaining to read aloud.)
These animal-people are forever getting themselves into pickles (I’m referring to both meanings of the word). Despite their best intentions, these characters are virtually unstoppable in their ability to get into trouble. They crash into pie trucks, they drive off raised drawbridges, and they hide in pots of soup.
Richard Scarry was forever embedding his stories with morals and lessons (manners are first and foremost)—and here is no exception. Know someone who doesn’t like to clean up? Perhaps you should introduce them to Schtoompah, the Austrian tuba player, who “was not very tidy. Instead of putting things away neatly, he would just throw things in a closet.” In preparation for a concert, Schtoompah spends two days looking through his closet for his tuba. Once on stage, his first blow unearths a plethora of forgotten household items and appliances, sending them raining down into the audience. (My kids die over this one.)
Slapstick humor aside, some of the best laughs come from misunderstandings that the characters fail to see but which are obvious to the reader. It took a a minute for my kids to get the pun in one of my personal favorites, “Professor Dig and His Egyptian Mummy.” Fresh off excavating an ancient mummy, Professor Dig stops at a restaurant and asks the proprietor to “watch my mummy for a few minutes while I sit and drink a cold glass of lemonade.” The restaurant owner mistakes the mummy for the professor’s mommy—and proceeds to spend the next hour trying to get her to talk and ballroom dance with him. (I die over this one.)
OK, moment of truth: When I’m reading this book to my kids, can I honestly separate my own visceral reaction—the wash of memories it brings back to me—from my ability to weigh this book objectively against more contemporary offerings? Perhaps not. Are the stories at times bizarre, chauvinist, and culturally stereotyped? Yup. Does the writing occasionally fall flat or feel tedious or actually make no sense at all? Afraid so.
Does any of that matter in terms of the sheer enjoyment this book provides? Not for a second.
In the six weeks that we’ve had Busy, Busy World, my kids have relished flipping through it, picking out which stories they want me to read, and arguing over which ones are their favorites. It has been a joyful trip down memory lane and around the world for all of us; and I only hope that my kids will hang on to this new copy so that their own little ones can enjoy it someday.
Other Favorites by Richard Scarry:
Best Word Book Ever (Ages 1-3)
Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (Ages 2-5)
Busy, Busy Town (Ages 2-6)
A Day at the Airport (Ages 2-5; this book has inspired many a rainy afternoon hanging out at the airport)
A Day at the Police Station (Ages 2-5)
A Day at the Fire Station (Ages 2-5)
Please and Thank You Book (Ages 2-5)
What Do People Do All Day? (Ages 3-6)
The Animals’ Merry Christmas (Ages 4-10)
The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries (Ages 4-8; yes, Richard Scarry did something for older kids!)
Finally, did I mention how much we love the Busytown: Eye Found It cooperative board game? See, just a little obsessed…
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
April 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
There was a point earlier this year, when I was recovering from the flu and still not up and about, that I found myself lying in bed, reading aloud to my kids—both of whom, instead of tucked in beside me, were at the foot of the bed, running in place on my foam roller. If you’ve ever tried running in place on a foam roller, you’ll know that it is not possible. Hence, as I was lying there reading, little heads kept disappearing from sight and then popping back up again. Normally, as a reader, this would have driven me insane. Except that this particular shenanigan seemed perfectly fitting for the reading material at hand.
It is downright impossible to sit demurely while listening to The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (Ages 5-8 if reading aloud, older if reading independently). This beautifully bound anthology combines three of Astrid Lindgren’s unabridged 1950s chapter books (Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes on Board, and Pippi in the South Seas) with the ebullient, contemporary pen-and-ink illustrations of Michael Chesworth.
You see, there’s just something about Pippi—one of children’s literature’s most infamous, compelling, and downright hilarious young heroines—that invites physical participation from her audience. « Read the rest of this entry »