A Chapter Series Which Calls Us Home

March 12, 2015 § 6 Comments

"The Cricket in Times Square" by George Selden“Mommy, I like you during the day. But I really love you at night when you read to me.” My son, six years old at the time and still feeling the high of the previous evening’s story time, uttered these words last summer at breakfast. (Yes, it was the Best Breakfast Ever; and no, our mealtimes are not normally this sweet).

JP’s comment came at a time when we were halfway through devouring George Selden’s seven chapter books about a cricket named Chester and his friends, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse. For years, I had been singing the praises to parents of the 1960 novel, The Cricket in Times Square (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud), as a perfect read-aloud chapter book for those eager to follow longer, more complex stories—but not yet in possession of the reading ability to get there themselves. It can be tricky among contemporary literature to find poignant, beautifully written stories that don’t come at the expense of innocent, age-appropriate content. For this age group, The Cricket in Time’s Square stands alongside other wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web (let’s face it: Charlotte’s death—that of a spider at the end of her life—is about as heavy as many people want when reading to their six or seven year old.). « Read the rest of this entry »

Roald Dahl’s Antidote to Screen Time

February 5, 2015 § 10 Comments

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald DahlLast month, we had six mornings where school was delayed because of weather (in Virginia, this translates as a dusting of snow, a threat of snow, or some ice spotted on a road). It will come as no surprise that I spent all six of these mornings reading to my kids. This is equal parts good parenting and pure laziness. When my kids storm my bedroom at 7am and learn that school is delayed by two hours (AGAIN), I want nothing less than to climb out of bed and make them breakfast. Truth be told, I don’t want to do much of anything; but I will happily settle for two soft bodies nestling into either side of me. And, building on our December success, it seems I am on a winning streak of choosing chapter books that appeal to both my four and seven year old.

I decided to begin the year with a Roald Dahl marathon, and we’ve kicked off with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I ask you this: is there a more entertaining read-aloud chapter book?

I mean, it’s quite possibly THE MOST FUN BOOK EVER. « Read the rest of this entry »

Morning at The Met (Courtesy of E.L. Konigsburg)

October 30, 2014 § 5 Comments

"From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. KonigsburgEarlier this fall, JP and I embarked on our annual trip to New York City, where I grew up and where my Mom still lives. Normally on these visits, we are content to plot and rehash the day’s adventures by pouring over the vibrant illustrations in Kathy Jakobsen’s My New York, which my Mom brings down from a closet upon our arrival.

This time, I decided that some advance reading was in order. So, in the weeks leading up to our departure, I read to JP one of the novels I most remember from my childhood: E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud), which won the Newberry Medal in 1968. Through the eyes of two runaway siblings from Greenwich, Connecticut, who secretly live (and sleep) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art for an entire week, we are introduced to this incredible museum with drama and intrigue. The last time I took JP to the Met—albeit he was only five—was a disheartening disaster; he was bored within minutes of my ramblings about Impressionist painters. This time was different. This time, we had purpose: we were following in the steps of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. « Read the rest of this entry »

Where Imagination Reigns

September 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

"The Way to the Zoo" by John BurninghamI’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before. When I was ten, I was obsessed with Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, the award-winning novel about a boy who runs away to live in a hollowed-out tree in the Catskill Mountains. This (naturally) meant that I started pretending that my New York City bedroom, a tiny room off the kitchen, on the opposite end of our apartment from my parents and sister, was actually the top of a mountain, covered with rocky terrain and miles from civilization. When I’d wash my face before bed, in the teeny adjoining bathroom, I’d turn on the cold tap, close my eyes, and imagine that I was splashing myself from an icy mountain stream.

Yes, I was a book nerd (still am). But I’m letting you in on this little secret twenty years later to make a point: for children, bedrooms have always been magical gateways to flights of imagination. Take Where the Wild Things Are, my four-year-old daughter’s current obsession. Is it a coincidence that young Max is sent to his bedroom before the walls fall away and he journeys to the land of the Wild Things? Of course not. The boy’s adventures behind closed doors are entirely his own. They are private. They are bizarre. They are scary. They are magnificent.

I told you recently about how my daughter claims a raccoon visits her each night while she sleeps, making a “racket-tacket” loud enough to wake her up. So I instantly knew that John Burningham’s The Way to the Zoo (Ages 3-7)—a new picture book about a girl who discovers a secret door in her bedroom leading to a zoo, thereby unleashing a slew of nightly visits from different animals—would be a slam dunk for us. « Read the rest of this entry »

An Easter Bunny All Moms Can Get Behind

April 15, 2014 Comments Off on An Easter Bunny All Moms Can Get Behind

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold ShoesWhen JP was three years old, and I went from working full time to staying home full time, these were the thoughts that kept me up at night: What will happen when my children see me as “just a mom” instead of as a mom and a professional? Will they respect the work I do? Will they think of it with the same importance that they bestow upon their father, when he leaves for the office every morning? Will they grow up believing that women aren’t capable of the same career success as men—or entitled to make the same sacrifices, reap the same compensation for comparable work? Will I be a role model for them or merely someone whom they take for granted?

In the past four years, I have largely reconciled my angst around these questions. I’m keenly aware that even to have the choice to stay home is a luxury not afforded to all—and one that could abruptly end for me someday. The work that I do every day on behalf of my kids, my husband, and our house makes all of us happy. But I’m also aware that when I did work 9-5, the time that I made for my (at the time only) child was quality, focused time. I got down on the floor and played with my son more than I probably do today, when too often I’m in the kitchen or chatting to other moms on the sidelines of playdates. I think about my own mom, who was around every single day, and how out-of-this-world excited I got when my dad’s car pulled into the driveway at night. There is perhaps some inevitability in taking for granted quantity and romanticizing quality.

But perhaps at no time do I feel greater validation as a mother—stay-at-home or not—than when I take out The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (Ages 4-10) and read Du Bose Heyward’s 1939 classic to my kids each Easter season. As much as the story is a celebration of traditional motherhood, it is also one of the earliest feminist tales—for a simple mother bunny outwits her bigger, stronger, prouder, and more handsome male competitors to earn the coveted position of fifth Easter Bunny. « 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 »

The Best Chapter Books Talk to the Heart

May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

Little Dog, LostI’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.

But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.

Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.

Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)

*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.

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).

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Saving the Trees

April 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

The LoraxEarlier today, in honor of Earth Day, I shared Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Ages 5-10) with the elementary children at my son’s Montessori school. While most people associate Dr. Seuss with the nonsensical but catchy I-Can-Read titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, I would argue that his narrative poems—his longer, more complex, often moralistic stories—were actually his greatest gift to children. Not only do these stories showcase a mastery of rhyme that is virtually unmatched in contemporary children’s literature, but many of them also serve as cautionary tales, introducing children to the dangers of things like running away from your problems (I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew), or prejudice (The Sneetches), or, as in the case of The Lorax, industrialization at the expense of natural resources.

The Lorax, a “brownish,” “mossy,” raspy-voiced creature, who famously utters, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” may have been conjured up by Dr. Seuss in 1971, but his environmental message resonates just as clearly today. And yet, there’s a second hero in this story, one with greater power than The Lorax himself. I’m referring to the unnamed child, who appears at the beginning and the end of the story—the one to whom the Once-ler relates (and repents) his decision to knit every last Truffula Tree into an ambiguous but allegedly multipurpose Thneed, “which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs.” This child, to whom the Once-ler entrusts the very last Truffula seed, along with instructions to nurture it with water and clean air, literally holds the future of the planet in his hands; he is the reader’s hope for a happy ending. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Year That Lies Ahead

January 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

A Child's CalendarOn the morning of January 1, my five year old crawled into our bed and asked with great solemnity, “Is the year of Christmas over?” I’m not entirely sure what he was getting at; did he mean to say month? or season? or was he actually inquiring as to whether the Year of the Great Christmas of 2012 had ended? I’ll never know exactly what was ruminating in his little head, but it was a sweet reminder of how bewildering the concept of time is to children—even to a five year old who has plenty of memories of past years.

We as adults take for granted our assurance about the cyclical nature of time: that all seasons, all holidays, all of nature’s dramatic transformations, will occur again and again with each passing year. It will probably come as no surprise that my instinctual reaction to JP’s question on New Year’s morning was to send him downstairs to fetch some relevant reading material. One of my all-time favorite children’s books (a book so precious to me that it actually resides on the “adult” shelves of our living room library) is A Child’s Calendar (Ages 5-10), a 1965 treasure of poems by John Updike that was later given a ’90s makeover with the addition of award-winning illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

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The “Perfect” Christmas Tree

December 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Mr. Willowby's Christmas TreeThis past weekend, we partook in one of our favorite family traditions: chopping down our Christmas tree and driving it home to trim. We started this tradition five years ago, when JP was one year old. I like the idea of my children understanding where their Christmas tree comes from; plus I enjoy supporting the family-owned tree farms in our area; plus, well, we all know that I love any excuse to unleash my urban children on a farm.

By now, the excursion has become fairy predictable. JP (eager to get his hands on a saw) begins by pointing to the first tree he sees and announcing, “This is the perfect one!” I meander deep into the fields, weaving in and out of the rows, sizing up each possibility and muttering oohs and ahhs. And my husband (who has carefully measured our nook at home and tried to set appropriate expectations before we left the house) rushes after me, chastising, “That one is too big! It won’t fit! You promised this year you’d be reasonable!” He has a point, my husband, but I can’t help myself. Something overcomes me out there in the crisp open air, beautifully manicured trees stretching out on all sides of me, and I WANT BIG.

I guess in this way I’m a lot like Mr. Willowby, the mustached tycoon in one of my favorite Christmas stories to read aloud to my kids (or, in the case of last week, to my son’s preschool class). Originally published in 1963, Robert Barry’s Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (Ages 3-8) was reissued last year with newly colorized pen-and-ink sketches that brim with delight. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree comes straight off the hills—“full and fresh and glistening green—/The biggest tree he had ever seen.”

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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.

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Rain, Rain, Here for a Day (Or Two…)

May 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

As a mom of young children, I will admit to feeling a little dread, even a touch of panic, when I wake up and it’s raining. Trapped inside with my kids? Anything but that! Naturally, my kids think it is a treat, since they have activities reserved for rainy days (“Pillows off the couch! Pillows off the couch!”). Over time, I’ve discovered that if I can live in the moment and give in to the calm and quiet of a rainy day (and, yes, the subsequent moments of cooped-up mania), then there is much to be gained for me as well.

And if not, well, there are always rainy day books to read inside our blanket forts! A good rain book should make you feel wet and cozy at the same time. Uri Shulevitz does this to perfection in his 1969 gem Rain Rain Rivers (Ages 2-6), where pen and ink drawings mix with watercolors in an almost haunting monochromatic exhibit of rain, first falling outside a little girl’s bedroom window, then (as she imagines it) trailing through the city streets, out into the countryside, and into the open, swelling oceans.

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Send-Off for Sendak

May 8, 2012 Comments Off on Send-Off for Sendak

Today we remember Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), arguably the most game-changing children’s author and illustrator of the 20th century; he took age-old storytelling conventions and turned them on their head (or, rather, sent them on a wild rumpus through the forest). His beloved Where the Wild Things Are has topped more recommended book lists than any other children’s book in history—as much for its glorious depiction of a boy’s uninhibited reign over his imagination as for its foray into previously shushed subjects like parental abandonment and night terrors. Sendak’s later books took even more risks, got simultaneously darker and more brilliant (and not without their fair share of controversy).

But for me and my family, Sendak’s “sweet spot” lies in his earliest works–no less memorable, even if they didn’t upset the status quo at the time. Before his characters were banished to their rooms without supper or left to wander the streets of New York without clothes, there were the deliciously sweet, make-me-want-to-read-to-my-children-all-day-long moments between a little bear, his parents, and a quirky ensemble of friends. I’m referring, of course, to the Little Bear books (Ages 3-7) by Else Holmelund Minarik, which Sendak illustrated in his 30s.

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Curious George: Every Story Has a Beginning (Part 2)

May 7, 2012 Comments Off on Curious George: Every Story Has a Beginning (Part 2)

A continuation of yesterday’s post
H.A. Rey, the German-born creator of Curious George more than 100 years ago, was a master of episodic storytelling, and his original books possess a level of wit, ingenuity, and “meatiness” that the derivative stories published in the last 10 years don’t quite match, even if the illustrations give them a very close look and feel (I’m referring to the stories included in such newer anthologies as A Treasury of Curious George).

Every story has a beginning, and many don’t know that H.A. Rey’s very first book about Curious George was titled Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys (Ages 2.5-5). It’s a story about how George, still living in Africa with his brothers and sisters, came to live with (and befriend) a lonely giraffe named Cecily G. (who, incidentally, bears a striking similarity to the “Sophie the Giraffe” rattle that’s become something of a fashion accessory to today’s urban baby set). It turns out that when you’re a monkey, playing with a giraffe affords all kinds of unusual delights: you can ski down her neck, parachute off her head with an umbrella, and even sail on her back.

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Curious George, Alter Ego (Part 1)

May 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

When JP was two, I read him his first Curious George book (Curious George Goes to the Hospital, by Margret & H.A. Rey). Two and a half years later, still not a day goes by that we’re not reading about him, watching him on TV, or singing about him (Oh, you’re not familiar with the Curious George songs, the ones my husband and I are forced to make up EVERY SINGLE NIGHT before JP will go to sleep?).

My mother-in-law is a bit troubled that my son has chosen as his hero in life a monkey who spends a lot of time getting into a lot of trouble; she seems to think perhaps there are better role models than ones who can manage to knock over a bottle of ink, flood the house, release a herd of pigs, and knock over an entire dinosaur exhibit at a museum—all in a single day (Curious George Gets a Medal). But children are rarely that literal, and I like to think that it’s not George’s actions that inspire JP (though he laughs hysterically at them) but rather the motivation behind those actions: his insatiable, uncontainable curiosity. I might even claim that Curious George is a kind of Alter Ego for my son–and for scores of other boys and girls as well (I too was obsessed with him as a little girl).

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Chapter-a-Night Adventure

May 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

How do chewing gum, hair ribbons, and six magnifying glasses help a little boy rescue an enslaved baby dragon on a wild island of ferocious talking animals? There are few early chapter books written with as much wit, cleverness, and heart as Ruth Stiles Gannett’s beloved trilogy, first published over 60 years ago: My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, & The Dragons of Blueland (Ages 4-9). With short digestible chapters, about 200 words per page, and enchanting black-and-white sketches peppered throughout, they are perfect for reading aloud.

JP and I started these books on a recent train ride to New York and finished them a few days later, only to start them over again. At the heart of the stories is the relationship between Elmer and his dragon, an evolving friendship that brings out the best in both parties. But the real draw for kids is the adventure (no shortage of “close-calls”) and the magic (who doesn’t love thinking about riding on the back of a flying dragon?).

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