The Book That Saved December

December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments

"Winterfrost" by Michelle HoutsReading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.

What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.

I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.

That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.

The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.

They are both a little bit Magic.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny BroomFor starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 3): For the Rebel Princess (Ages 5-8)

December 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Princess in Black" by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale & LeUyen PhamFive years ago, when I learned I was having a girl, I self-righteously vowed that I would bar the door from tiaras and princess costumes and those scary high-heeled plastic dress-up shoes with the sequins on the toes. My daughter won’t equate beauty with Disney-fied princesses! My daughter will read books about trains and science and daring adventures! My daughter won’t be held back by stereotypes of femininity!

Of course, ultimatums rarely work out in parenting—nor are they usually for the best. Those of you with girls already know that The Princess Obsession eventually finds its way into the house—slipping through the gap beneath the front door, if need be. Before my kids watched Frozen, my daughter already knew the words to every song, just from listening to her classmates. Before my son pointed to a hot pink skirt with 20 layers of tulle at Target and said (in the sweetest voice, so how could I resist?), “Oh, Mommy, Emily would just love something like that”—before that, Emily was already coming home from play dates in borrowed glitter-encrusted frocks.

What I failed to anticipate as a new parent, is that there are complex dichotomies at work in the princess fantasies of my daughter and her friends. When playing, Emily is just as likely to wear her tulle skirt on her head than around her waist. She likes to pair her purple metallic slippers with a red superhero cape and an astronaut helmet. « 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 »

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 »

Sibling Play

April 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

One Busy Day by Lola M. Schaefer & Jessica MeserveI’ll never forget the first time it happened. JP was four, Emily was a little over one, and I realized that 45 minutes had passed and there were still only happy voices in the other room. I called a friend: “The kids are playing together! ON THEIR OWN! For like a really long time! I’m just sitting here reading a book!” (Well, technically I was talking on the phone, but the point is that I could have been reading a book.) And that’s when it hit me: this is why some people have more than one kid (or more than one dog, cat, or fish).

Watching siblings play together is one of the most endearing and gratifying experiences for a parent. (Well, until it all goes south—which it inevitably does—usually right at the moment when you have finished the dishes, wiped down the lunch table, dust-bustered the floor, and finally sat down on the sofa to page through a magazine.) But when the stars do align, as they increasingly do with age, it is in these moments that I get the clearest glimpses of my children’s budding personalities, of the people they will someday become. I see tenderness and compromise in my now six and a half year old boy, amidst the bossiness and tendency to escalate play into some form of physical combat. And in my now three and a half year old daughter, I feel her excitement, her sheer pride, in the way she confidently prattles on after her brother agrees, “OK, you can be the mommy bird, and I’ll be the baby bird.” Because, really, is it not the best feeling in the world when that older brother whom you revere in every way decides to drop everything for you?

Imagination is the great equalizer in sibling play. In the world of pretend play, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Enter Lola M. Schaefer and Jessica Meserve’s latest picture book, One Busy Day: A Story for Big Brothers and Sisters (Ages 2-6), in some ways a sequel to their first book, One Special Day, about the moment in which a little boy becomes a big brother. « Read the rest of this entry »

A Tasty New Chapter Series (Sprinkles Included)

March 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie KellerRaise the roof! My favorite fast-talking pastry is back in the house! Now, before you look at me like I have three heads (or 135 sprinkles), I’m referring to Laurie Keller’s new early chapter book series, based on the naive, loquacious, loves-the-limelight chocolate doughnut from her 2003 picture book, Arnie the Doughnut (Ages 4-8). I still remember the hysterics that my staff and I fell into every time we flipped through that first book 11 years ago, about a doughnut who narrowly avoids the fate of being eaten and winds up an unlikely pet (a “doughnut-dog!”) to the lonely but kindly Mr. Bing.

I’ve often wondered why author-illustrator Keller doesn’t get more props from the media and, as a result, remains relatively unknown by parents. Her kooky story lines are peppered with chuckle-inducing sidebars and animated through energetic, googly-eyed sketches. But I have a particular fondness for her ability to keep us parents just as entertained as our children (think puns, references to pop culture, etc.). If you’re not reading Laurie Keller, the world is less fun. It’s as simple as that. (Other non-doughnut-related favorites by Keller are listed at the end of this post.) « Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Candy in the Polar Vortex

January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Please Bring Balloons by Lindsay WardI’m a romantic when it comes to snow. Meaning that the idea of snow (fat, juicy snowflakes blanketing the world in white) is more appealing to me than the reality (school is closed AGAIN?!). The notion of snow days (flying down hills on sleds and decorating snowmen with friends) is always a bit different than the actuality (wait, it’s freezing out, and wait, did my daughter just pee through four layers of clothing and need to be changed on the side of this hill?). Don’t get me wrong: I love snow. It’s the very anticipation of snow that makes the dawning of winter bearable; that breaks up the monotony of short-lived, bare-branched days; that puts a glimmer of excitement in our children’s eyes when they think of what’s to come. But that’s why—more than anything—I love reading about snow. Because the snow in books is always billowy, soft, and pristine white. The snow in books is always perfect.

Last January, I wrote about my favorite snow books, each one conjuring up a romantic notion of snow. But this winter, in addition to having more snow on the ground, we’re living in a so-called Polar Vortex, a little thing that’s threatening the very core of our “we can handle winter” attitude (suddenly, our lives seem right out of the pages of Eileen Spinelli’s Cold Snap). Let’s say we could all use a dose of Eye Candy right now. I’m referring to Lindsay Ward’s Please Bring Balloons (Ages 2-5), which came out at the end of last year, and which I pulled out of my Secret Stash earlier this week (a secret stash which is rapidly dwindling in light of these snow days). Three of my daughter’s Favorite Things make an appearance in this book: carousels, balloons, and furry animals. Reminiscent of another 2013 favorite, Dream Friends, both books are about a make-believe adventure starring a girl and her four-legged friend. In Please Bring Balloons, this adventure is polar-bound. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Illustrated Chapter Books for the Adventure Seeker

December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments

Neil Gaiman's "Fortunately, the Milk"Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. « Read the rest of this entry »

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

December 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

JourneyWhen I was young, one of my favorite picture books was Harold and the Purple Crayon, where a little boy makes his own adventures with the help of a single purple crayon. As a child, I loved to draw, but I think the greater appeal for me lay in Harold’s vivid imagination—an imagination that empowers him with an inner resourcefulness, that entertains him when he can’t fall asleep, that gets him out of any sticky situation (drowning? simply draw a boat).

This same spirit echoes across Aaron Becker’s Journey (Ages 4-8), easily the most stunning picture book of 2013 and an inspiration for young artists and adventure-seekers alike. Unlike Harold, a simple visual presentation of purple and white, Journey makes use of a broad palette, although weighted emphasis is given to red, the color of the crayon with which a girl begins her escape by drawing a door (after all, what else can you do when your mom is cooking, your dad is working, and your big sister is too busy?). « 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 »

March’s Hot-Off-the-Press Birthday Pick

March 6, 2013 Comments Off on March’s Hot-Off-the-Press Birthday Pick

Dream FriendsThis one goes out to all the little girls out there—or rather, to their little friends who have spring birthdays. Debut author-illustrator You Byun’s brand new Dream Friends (Ages 2.5-6) is full of the stuff of little girls’ dreams. I’m talking about sugar and spice and everything nice—or, more specifically, bunny rabbits and tea parties and baby chicks and Santa Claus and cupcakes and flowers and, of course, friendship.

Melody has a friend, a best friend, only he’s not your typical friend: for starters, he’s big and white and furry (an ambiguous but lovable dog-cat-raccoon looking thing that my daughter has taken to kissing on the nose each time he makes an appearance). The bigger problem is that this magical friend only visits the little girl in her dreams (although these dreams are filled with such delights as dancing on flower-shaped clouds or watching fireworks explode in the shape of ice cream cones and lollipops).

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Thinking Outside the Box This Valentine’s Day

February 5, 2013 § 4 Comments

Lovabye DragonIs there a better way to shower our children with love this Valentine’s Day than by snuggling under a blanket with them and sharing a new story? And yet, I’m never thrilled with the list of books that the media typically puts forth as gift ideas for V-Day. Chances are you already have your fair share of books about parental affection (the Guess How Much I love You? sort). If I’m being totally honest, I feel a tad exploited by these lovey-dovey books about hugging and kissing and eternal love; too often they’re lacking in imagination and art and feel instead like a cheap move by publishers to go after our vulnerability as parents (I’ll get off my soapbox now). There are some wonderful classics, like Judith Viorst’s Rosie and Michael and Sandal Stoddard Warbug’s I Like You, but their content is arguably more appropriate for grown-ups to give one another.

So when it comes to Valentine’s Day, I like to think outside the box. In the past, I’ve given my son the glorious Red Sings from the Treetops (hey, there’s red in the title) and The Jolly Postman (Valentines are like letters, right?). But this year, I have an especially good one pegged for my two-year-old daughter; I’ve been hiding it under my bed since it came out last fall and biding my time to spring it on her.

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My Good Pal Mo (I Like to Pretend We’re On a First Name Basis)

November 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

No one gets straight to the heart of kids like Mo Willems. It seems almost criminal that I’ve been at this blog for several months now and have yet to sing the praises of one of the most original author-illustrators of all time. While he’s best known for the Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus series (which, despite its popularity, is not my or my children’s favorite), Mo is at his best with one-off masterpieces, like Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct and Leonardo the Terrible Monster (see my complete list at the end). And now we get to add his newest creation, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (Ages 4-8), in which three scheming dinosaurs lure Goldilocks into the wrong fairy tale in an effort to make “chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons” out of her.

During the 46 times that I’ve been asked by my son to read this book in the past month, I’ve started to put my finger on what it is that unites Mo’s seemingly disparate stories. Mo gives children A LOT of credit (probably more than us parents do). He doesn’t employ traditional literary devices (in fact, in Goldilocks he actually turns them on their head), and he offers few explanations; instead, he writes with the expectation that kids will pick up on the subtlety, the irony, the little side jokes, and the sophisticated vocabulary through their repeated readings. Over the years, I’ve had more than one person ask me whether Mo’s multi-layered storytelling is accessible enough to children or simply intended to amuse the parent who’s reading it. In response, let me give you an account of how my five year old experienced Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs:

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September’s Birthday Pick (Arthurian Style)

September 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

What do you buy the rough-and-tumble kid (the kid that turns everything into a sword)? And how do you simultaneously appeal to his mom, who grows a bit weary of this violent play-acting?

Never fear: everyone wins with the newly-published King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson, by Kenneth Kraegel (Ages 4-7), which is equal parts perfect for child and parent.

On the morning of his sixth birthday, Henry Alfred Grummorson is determined to honor his heritage as the “great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson” of King Arthur, “the noblest knight ever to wield a sword.” Armed and seated on the back of his trusty donkey Knuckles, our precocious protagonist sets off to battle the great and terrible monsters of the British countryside.

The appeal to kids is obvious. You’ve got a knight in shining armor (with a sword). You’ve got a fire-breathing dragon (and a Cyclops and a Griffin). You’ve got ten fanciful ways to say “fight” (as in, “Now unsheathe your claws and let us have ado!”). And you’ve got large amounts of text in all-caps, demanding only the most dramatic of readings (“BEHOLD, VILE WORM! I, HENRY ALFRED GRUMMORSON, A KNIGHT OF KING ARTHUR’S BLOOD, DO HEREBY CHALLENGE YOU TO A FIGHT TO THE UTTERMOST!”).

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The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

August 30, 2012 Comments Off on The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about traditional fairy tales. True, I buy into the argument made by many literary and child development scholars that our children are reassured by seeing young heroes and heroines persevere through creepy, frightening situations. True, out of the hundreds of books I loved as a kid, it was a fairy tale—Hansel and Gretel, to be precise—that made the most lasting impression on me. And yet, with the sheer wealth of original, high quality children’s books being published today, I tend to forget about reading fairy tales to my kids.

Until I remember what may be the very best reason to read them: if your kids don’t know the original stories, how will they appreciate all the fantastic fractured versions that have popped up in recent years? My new favorite is one that was actually discovered by my husband (that’s right, he recently took the kids to a bookstore and managed to buy a book that I didn’t know about—and a brilliant one at that!).

Hot off the presses, it’s an urbanized retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, titled Jack and the Baked Beanstalk, by Colin Stimpson (Ages 4-8). This debut author-illustrator is a Brit (like him already) and a former art director for Walt Disney; the latter is relevant because his impressive cinematic illustrations combine the grittiness of a cityscape with a Disney-esque glossiness.

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Food: Not Just for Eating

June 1, 2012 Comments Off on Food: Not Just for Eating

What do you get the kid who has everything (including an extensive library filled with storybooks)? How about a brand new book that’s unlike any other, a rhyme-filled romp through magical lands made entirely out of—wait for it—FOOD! Carol Warner, a London-based still-life photographer, has created a clever and engaging picture book, titled A World of Food (Ages 2.5-8).

I like food. My kids like food. Really now, who doesn’t like looking at gorgeous photographs of food? Organized by color, each double-page spread reveals a fantastical scene where watermelons become boats (with asparagus as masts), dried cornflakes resemble falling foliage, chocolate KitKat bars stand in for train tracks, and pork ribs morph into jagged mountains (OK, you might want to pass this up for your vegetarian friends).

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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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Alison Jay, Cloud Creator

April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments

If you haven’t discovered the amazing British children’s artist Alison Jay, you’re in for a real treat. Or, if you’re as obsessed with her as I am, you’ll love her latest masterpiece, a fairy tale of sorts titled The Cloud Spinner (Ages 3-6), by Michael Catchpool (a fellow Brit).

The Brits have an unparalleled knack for creating books that feel Quintessentially Childlike, seamlessly blending fantasy with realism, and sprinkling on a quirkiness that makes these stories memorable for a lifetime. Alison Jay’s artistic signature, which she employs in all her work, is a “crackle finish” layered over her paintings, a technique which gives them a vintage look. In contrast, her animals, landscapes, and people feel anything but old-fashioned (here’s where that endearing quirkiness comes into play).

It seems that Jay’s artistic style has not gone unnoticed by JP, my four year old. Our favorite alphabet book is Jay’s ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, which I’ve been reading to him since he was a baby (and which is jam packed with hidden surprises), along with a handful of her other storybooks (see my list at the end). A few months ago, while perusing the shelves at our local library, JP stumbled upon an Alison Jay book he’d never seen before (William and the Night Train), and he called out, “Look Mommy, it’s one of those books with the crazy clouds!” I had never thought of it that way before, but he was right: Alison Jay does have a very specific way of painting clouds.

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