October 3, 2019 § 1 Comment
“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” said Anne of Green Gables. And so am I. No month is more bountiful. It smells fresh. It crunches beneath your feet. It’s resplendent with a beauty so striking it almost hurts.
But, even with all its treasures, October is a time of loss. Loss of light. Loss of color. Loss of those long, lazy days of summer which (thank you, September) suddenly seem like a lifetime ago. Right now in our family, this October feels riper than usual with loss, as I prepare to say goodbye to my grandmother, a woman I have loved since she first touched her nose to mine.
So, while I love books whose pages celebrate fall’s wonders (like this, this, this, and this), I also have a soft spot for books that speak to the shadows cast by fall. Beth Ferry’s quiet new picture book, The Scarecrow, gorgeously illustrated by The Fan Brothers (we would expect nothing less after this), plants the reader squarely in the push-pull of fall. Although, in fact, fall plays only a small role in the story.
September 21, 2017 Comments Off on When the Question Becomes the Answer
In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet which have spent the last three months in and around a swimming pool, it occurs to me that my children are shedding their summer skin in more ways than one. (And not all of them are gross.) They are preparing for the great mental and emotional journey that a new school year demands. They’re working to put aside the comfortable, unhurried, joyful freedom of summer for stricter routines, increased expectations, and long days of scrutiny. As first and fourth graders, they know they will be doing real work, work that others will oversee and critique, work that might one moment feel exciting and the next feel tedious or overwhelming or downright scary. They know they will be navigating new social terrain, new faces among peers and teachers, perhaps even new behaviors from old friends.
They know, but they don’t know. They know that they don’t know. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 6, 2016 Comments Off on Celebrating Yellow Time
There is a row of ginkgo trees that the kids and I used to pass every morning on our drive to school. For six years, beginning in early October, we would watch as the trees’ leaves transformed into a beguiling bright yellow—one of the purest, most saturated articulations of yellow that I have ever come across in the natural world. And still, we quivered in anticipation, because we knew that the best part was still to come.
Every ginkgo yields to the mysterious fate of losing all its leaves at the exact same moment. If you can catch the release—and we were lucky enough to do so on a few occasions—it is like a delicate rainfall of sunshine. If you miss it, you still have a few hours to catch the luminous carpet of gold that billows on the sidewalk beneath the bare boughs. It is infectious. It is magical. It softens the blow of winter’s coming and returns us to the present of fall, the most impressively beautiful of the seasons. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 3, 2015 § 1 Comment
Have truer words ever been uttered about one’s sibling?
Perhaps at no other time than summer is the sibling relationship so poked, prodded, and pushed. There have been long stretches this summer when the only kids at my children’s disposal have been each other. Having so much unstructured time together requires more than a little adjustment. As a parent, witnessing my children re-connect, re-establish boundaries, and re-attune their imaginations with one another, is equal parts mesmerizing and maddening.
Still, take away the bossing and the tattling and the unprovoked hitting (WHY DO THEY DO THIS?), and I am still smiling about the dinosaur dance party I walked in on…or the day my daughter appeared for lunch dragging her big brother on all fours by a dog collar…or the time I eavesdropped on them whispering conspiratorially under the bed. Nor will I forget the tears that welled up in my eyes when, after what seemed like hours of yelling and bickering, I came down from a shower to find the two of them sprawled on the living room floor, telling made-up stories to each another.
I would argue that, in recent years, no picture book artist has captured the young sibling relationship more astutely and adorably than Lori Nichols. Tracking the relationship between two sisters, Nichols first gave us Maple, where Maple (named for the tree her parents planted when pregnant) learns that her parents are expecting a second child. Then came Maple and Willow Together, where the storming and norming of sibling play reaches full fantastic force. Now, in this fall’s latest installment, Maple and Willow Apart (Ages 2-6), Maple’s departure for kindergarten throws both girls for a loop. This new angst is hardly surprising, given that the two sibs have just spent the entire summer playing together (in and around trees and while speaking in their secret nonsensical language—two favorite themes that run through all the books).
Ah, but which is the greater plight for a sibling: the one doing the leaving, or the one getting left behind?
While it has been two years since Emily watched her brother walk up the steps into school without her, this is the first fall that Emily will stay for a full day like JP. Boy oh boy, has she longed for this day. The question of what the school children do between the hours of 1pm and 3pm has been nothing short of an obsession for her these past two years. “I think they get to play special games!” “I think the teacher sneaks them special snacks!” One night, as I tucked her into bed, she whispered in my ear, “Mommy, I think in the afternoon is when the kids learn to read.”
Like Emily, Willow discovers that she, too, can fall back on her imagination during the quiet hours at home while Maple is at school. When Maple comes home—chatting incessantly (and not a little bossily) about everything she has learned, everything she did on the playground, everything her teacher said—Willow lets her big sister in on a little secret of her own.
“Pip?” Maple asks. “Who’s Pip?”
“Pip is my new friend,” said Willow. “He has a bumpy head and he is afraid of squirrels.”
Pip is, of course, an acorn. But he is not just an acorn. Through the vivid escapades that Willow paints for her sister—they ride snails! they nap in bird nests!—Pip becomes elevated to something greater than simply Willow’s imaginary friend; he becomes a signifier for both girls of the Change that’s taking place in front of their eyes. Suddenly, Maple isn’t so sure that she wants to go to school and miss out on the adventures to be had in her own backyard. For a brief second, she isn’t sure she wants to grow up.
The solution that’s offered up (and I won’t ruin the surprise) is nothing short of delightful. It’s also realistic—as are all three of Nichols’ books. But the best and most unexpected part is that this solution comes from Willow, the younger sibling. It turns out that big sisters still need their little sisters. It turns out that little sisters know just how to make their big sisters feel better.
Beginning next week, even though my children will enter and exit school together, they will likely ignore each other for most of the day, perhaps granting a brief wave or smile as they pass in the hall. They’ll still have evenings and weekends together. But it’s not the same. They’ll grow and stretch and circle back and grow some more…and then, with luck, next summer will come and they’ll find their way back to each other again. There will most definitely be squabbling. But I like to think that I’ll choose instead to notice the other stuff. The laughter. The whispering. The heads pressed together. The scampering in unison. The casual, unforced gestures of affection.
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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
June 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
Last June, on the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, I wrote a post about a picture book titled Following Papa’s Song, a beautiful metaphor for the delicate dance that we perform with our children, of when and how to let go (and pull back, and let go again), so that our children might grow up to be their own persons. This year, I was all set to write about David Ezra Stein’s Tad and Dad, which brings a more rambunctious and funny treatment to a similar discussion of boundaries: a toddler frog is so enamored with his Dad—the very best swimmer and hopper and burpper in THE WORLD—that, naturally, he wants to sleep in the same bed as said Dad every night.
Then yesterday, when I arrived home, I found on my doorstep Ask Me (Ages 3-6), an upcoming new picture book by the late Bernard Waber (sadly, not coming out until next month, so think of it as an all-year-round read and not as a Father’s Day gift, per se). Everything changed when I read that book. There was no going back. It’s not just because I grew up with and adore Waber’s classics (in fact, our Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile treasury happens to be my son’s go-to reading material when he’s trying to distract himself during a thunderstorm). It’s not just because the pencil illustrations are by the amazing Suzy Lee, who blends her South Korean sensibility with English training (and we know how I swoon over British and Asian illustrators). And it’s not just that the cover features a little girl skipping alongside her father, her hand clasped firmly in his, a smile on both of their faces, as if there is no other place they’d rather be.
What really hit home about this simple, poetic, and stunning picture book is that it speaks to the greatest gift my Dad gave me when he was alive. He listened. He listened to everything I told him—and I told him A LOT. As a child, I would save up everything that happened to me during the day (including the plot of whatever book I was reading); and then, when Dad got home, I would relay it all to him, including every single mind-numbing detail (I add the “mind-numbing” part all these years later, since as a parent myself, I have SEEN THE LIGHT). I would sit on the window ledge on our second floor landing, overlooking the driveway, and strain to see his car lights. All the while, the words would be collecting in my mouth, burning on my tongue, jittery with excitement at the prospect of spilling out.
(It is perhaps the greatest testament to his character that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I even considered whether he was as fascinated by these largely one-way conversations as he always seemed at the time.)
As a child, if I had a thought, I thought only of sharing it with my Dad. As if any thought wasn’t entirely real until I spoke it aloud—until it had been listened to with the greatest patience, the softest expression, the keenest interest.
Much like the father and daughter in the book, we walked. And walked. And walked. On the weekends, we’d stroll down the street, stopping to pick up chestnuts, stopping for ice cream at the pavilion in the middle of the park, stopping to study the cloud shapes in the sky. Me always talking. He always listening.
The entire text of Ask Me consists of a dialogue between a girl and her father, over the course of a single (presumably) weekend day together. There are no quotation marks. What the girl says—inquisitive, insistent, vulnerable—is in black; and how the father responds—deliberate, bemused, attentive—is in blue. (Do I have to tell you that the instances of black far out number the blue?)
It is impossible not to hear my own children’s voices in the girl’s almost stream-of-consciousness chattering. No clean or predictable transition from one subject to the next. Saying whatever thought pops into their heads. Asking questions and then going straight on to give the answers themselves. Struggling to choose the right words: qualifying, changing their minds, emphasizing.
Ask me what else I like.
What else do you like?
I like horses. No, I like riding horses.
You rode a horse?
On the merry-go-round. Remember? You remember.
The father and daughter spend most of the book walking around their neighborhood, exploring playgrounds, fountains, and forests. (Incidentally, this is all thanks to illustrator Suzy Lee’s unique interpretation of Waber’s purposely vague text, which could take place just about anywhere—or even, for that matter, between a girl (or boy) and her (his) mother.) The season is fall, and there is natural beauty to behold everywhere. And yet, the girl is as much in her own imagination as she is in the present. I like sand. I like digging in the sand. I really, really do like digging in the sand. Deep, deep, down, down, down in the sand. And I like seashells. Remember when we collected seashells?
Then, there are times when the girl pauses. When she wants to be the one to listen. When she desires, longs, needs to hear certain things. How come birds build nests? she asks. And her father, accustomed to this game, at first echoes, How come birds build nests? Only this time, the girl breaks her customary pattern. You tell it, she says. And so her father does:
So they will have a safe place to lay their eggs.
I knew that.
Why did you ask?
Because I like to hear you tell it.
Later, as the girl and her father get ready for bed, brushing their teeth side by side, the girl asks her father if he remembers the significance of next Thursday. His responds:
How could I ever forget?
Forget my birthday.
Not in a million years would I forget your birthday.
How about a billion years?
Not even in a billion years.
As children, especially during one-on-one time with the people we love, we have a brief opportunity to feel like Masters of the Universe. We stroll confidently through a carpet of leaves, we twirl beneath the rain, and we feel like the words we say must unquestionably be the Most Important Words Ever.
But only because someone is listening.
As we grow up, we no longer speak our every thought aloud (at least, not to our parents). But, if we are lucky, we still have a parent to call with the most exciting words, or the most disappointing words, or the words that we just can’t get right in our heads. Listening is a gift we give our children. And it’s a gift they never stop needing, even when they’re no longer so little.
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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments
The other evening, after cleaning up from dinner, I walked into the living room to find JP sticking his nose out the mail slot of our front door. “Mommy, I can smell winter coming! I forgot how delicious it smells! I thought I wanted summer to stay, but now I want winter to come!”
Perhaps because of my children’s innate excitement around seasonal transformations, or perhaps because of wanting to sway my own ambivalence about the onset of winter towards something more positive—either way, I have always had a special place in my heart for stories about fall (remember Fletcher and the Falling Leaves?). This year, I have discovered my most favorite presentation to date. It’s not a story. There are no frantic animals preparing for hibernation (see Bear Has a Story to Tell), or children frolicking in pumpkin patches (although you should still read Otis and the Scarecrow). Rather, there is a simple phrase on each page, accompanied by a stunning picture, and the meaning lies in the intersection between the two.
Fall Leaves (Ages 4-8), by Loretta Holland, with illustrations by Elly MacKay, is one of those picture books that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its simplest, it reads as a kind of lyrical, free verse poem, with one line per page. But each phrase is also a kind of headline, with a smaller-print paragraph below, containing detailed and carefully chosen information about a unique aspect of fall, like the migration of birds, the hibernation of perennials, or the heavy downpours (am I the only one who is consistently blind-sided by these rainy days, assuming every morning is going to bring a bright cloudless sky against which to pick apples and pumpkins?). « Read the rest of this entry »
September 13, 2014 § 6 Comments
I may be only seven years into this parenting gig, but one thing about which I’m certain is that I will never adjust to the noise. I’m talking about the incessant chatter; the shrieks of siblings chasing each other around the house; the whining about being hungry 15 minutes after a meal. At no time was this more evident than this past summer, when I was around my kids nearly every waking hour. Don’t get me wrong: I loved our lazy mornings, reading books in our PJs until 11am; I loved feeling a little hand in each of mine as the three of us rounded dirt paths; I loved huddling tight against my son in the last car of a roller coaster whipping around curves. Yes, we had wonderful hours together—hours when the questions and the observations and even the screaming seemed perfectly lovely. But, at some point, there would be this:
Me in the car, driving us home from a packed morning of puppet show, playground, and picnic. The kids are rosy-cheeked, ice-cream-stained, and happy. It’s one of those moments where you think, yup, I’m totally rocking this summer thing. Best. Mom. Ever. And you’re looking forward to a nice relaxing drive, listening to the radio and watching the trees fly by.
JP (from the backseat, as we merge onto the highway): “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
Me (flushed with pride at my sweet, smart son): “That’s right, honey!”
JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
Me: “Yes, I heard you. And you are absolutely right!”
JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
Me (suddenly seized by the notion that I am trapped in a moving metal box that is simultaneously pressing against the sides of my skull and sucking the oxygen out of my lungs): “What do you want from me? Why on God’s green earth are you saying the same thing over and over? What can I say to make you STOP TALKING FOR JUST ONE SINGLE SECOND OF THIS CAR RIDE SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF THINK??!!” « Read the rest of this entry »
September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments
One of my favorite books as a kid was James Marhsall’s Miss Nelson is Missing, a picture book about a smiley, mild-tempered teacher, who, fed up with the rude and rambunctious behavior of her students, dons a pointy nose, a wig, and a black dress to become the witchy, ultra-strict substitute named Viola Swamp; within a few weeks, the children have reformed their ways and are begging for Miss Nelson’s return. The story is a playful reminder that we’re not always grateful for what we have until it’s gone.
As a kid, though, my obsession with the book stemmed from the fact that Viola Swamp’s true identity eludes, not only her students, but us readers as well—that is, until the final page, when we get a glimpse of the familiar black dress hanging in Miss Nelson’s bedroom closet. Once we’re in on the secret, we can’t help but want to read the book again and again, picking up on clues that we missed the first time around, stunned that the truth was right in front of our eyes the whole time. If only we (alongside Miss Nelson’s students) hadn’t been so quick to settle for first impressions, we would have seen that Miss Nelson wasn’t just a sweet face, oblivious to the spitballs flying at her. Nor was Viola Swamp the monstrous outsider we assumed her to be.
Now, forty years after James Marshall published his book, Peter Brown again turns the conventional teacher-student relationship on its head in his infectiously-titled new picture book, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.) (Ages 5-9). “Bobby had a big problem at school. Her name was Ms. Kirby.” « Read the rest of this entry »
October 12, 2013 Comments Off on Counting Down to Halloween
Our decorations are up, the kids’ costumes are ordered, and earlier this week, right on cue, a streak of stormy weather moved in. All in all, the perfect time for getting out our Halloween-themed books and sharing tales of ghosts and goblins with my revved up trick-or-treaters (it’s not just about the sugar, my sugars). Honestly, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this year’s Halloween offerings. Of course, last year was particularly exceptional: we were treated to Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina—all three brilliant and all three enjoyed (since none actually mention Halloween) long past pumpkin-carving season. But speaking of pumpkins, it has been a long time since a great pumpkin book has entered the scene, and this year of slim pickings has at least given us that.
Stephen Savage’s Ten Orange Pumpkins (Ages 2-6) is billed as a counting book—and it’s true that there are opportunities to count on every page, as ten pumpkins become nine, become eight, and so on. But the “trick” of the book lies in how each pumpkin disappears, and the answers are (often quite subtly) revealed in the striking illustrations. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
My five year old loves to tell stories. Most of the time, his stories are a blend of autobiographical truth and nonsensical make-believe, and most of the time they are his way of working through whatever he’s trying to make sense of in the world (“There was this hurricane, and the winds were swirling around outside like a tornado, and then the roofs of the houses blasted off to Outerspace, and then…). As a parent, I know that I’m supposed to dedicate my ears to him when he’s narrating life’s inexplicable phenomena, but golly if his stories don’t always seem to come at a time when I’m desperately trying to corral him into putting on his coat or swallowing a few bites of food (the fork goes up, then stops, millimeters from the mouth, then comes down again: “Mommy, you know what?”). But I get it. I do. We all want to narrate our lives, and we all want an appreciative audience.
That’s why I’m not surprised that JP’s sister, now a full-fledged two year old, has decided that she too has verbal musings of her own to share. Suddenly, our family dinners are filled with Emily’s terrorizing screams—“I talking here!”—followed by JP’s despairing moans, “Emil-ee, I haven’t finished my story yet!”
Alas, tonight seemed like a good time to introduce my clan to the latest treasure from Philip and Erin Stead, the husband and wife duo that wrote and illustrated two of my all-time favorites, A Sick Day for Amos McGee and And Then It’s Spring. Their newest gem, Bear Has a Story to Tell (Ages 2-6), has all of the subtle charm, all of the understated quietness, of their earlier works, and this makes it perfectly suited for the subject at hand: hibernation.
October 24, 2012 Comments Off on The Leaves, They Are a-Falling
To young children, fall can be a time of bewilderment (what is happening to the leaves on my trees?!). As they get older and can remember previous falls, some of that mystery transforms into magic: soon fall becomes a season to embrace for the very changeability that was once so puzzling.
My two children are on opposite ends of this spectrum of discovery. On the one hand, there’s two-year-old Emily, who at times can’t refrain from picking up and examining every leaf she comes across. On our walks to school, I’ll point out a magnificent crimson maple leaf lying on the ground, freshly fallen and perfectly preserved in its flatness and shape: “Look at that huge red leaf—let’s grab it!” I’ll encourage. But she’ll stop short and pick up part of a shriveled brown leaf, holey from bugs and tinged with black spots. She’ll gaze at it with a furrowed brow before proudly handing it to me and demanding that I put it in her backpack. On the other hand, there’s five-year-old JP, whose seasoned eye searches out only the most unusual spectacles: “Whoa, that tree is totally orange! It looks like fire exploding out of a rocket ship!”
Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, their excitement about fall is contagious. Tonight, the kids and I curled up together in our jammies to read my all-time favorite picture book about fall: Fletcher and the Falling Leaves (Ages 2.5-6), with text by Julia Rawlinson and watercolors by Tiphanie Beeke (side note: if you fall deeply in love with this book, as I know you will, make sure to get your hands on the sequels, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas and Fletcher and the Springtime Blossoms, which are equally captivating).
September 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
In addition to making little botanists out of your children (see my previous post), apple picking can inspire some fascinating historical and cultural discussions, especially for the older set. As a quintessentially American pastime dating back to frontier life, apple picking speaks to some of our country’s core values.
Enter Johnny Appleseed, that larger-than-life figure who was allegedly responsible for planting and distributing the seeds for many of our country’s apple trees (that’s right, boys and girls, that apple you’re eating might have descended from a seed this guy planted!). September 26 marks the birth of Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman). Last year at this time, I searched the libraries for a book about Chapman to bring to JP’s school; but while there are no shortage of kids books written on this topic, most struck me as inaccessible—a portrait of an historical figure presented without any meaningful context.
This fall, however, the topic has gotten a facelift by Esme Raji Codell and Lynne Rae Perkins, in their newly published and utterly captivating Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman (Ages 5-10). What Seed by Seed does that no one has thought to do before is to set the stage by giving kids an up-close-and-personal account of the sights, smells, and sounds of early frontier life.
September 11, 2012 § 3 Comments
In our family—more than back-to-school, more than lightweight jackets, even more than colorful leaves—fall means apple picking! I’ve already established my obsession with using farms as a classroom for my children. Now add to that curriculum some apple picking (complete with wagon rides, ladders, and pie), and you’ve got a hands-on opportunity for kids to participate in the selection of their own food—while at the same time learning where that food comes from.
When JP turned one, we had his birthday party at an apple orchard outside Chicago. I can still envision him gripping the top of our full basket on his wobbly little legs, removing one apple at a time, taking a bite, returning it to the basket with a single set of teeth marks, and then picking up another and another—until he’d put his teeth on nearly every apple he could reach. We lost a lot of apples that year, but it seemed a small price to pay for a love of apples that has stayed with him since.
For the youngest apple pickers, my favorite introduction to the topic is One Red Apple (Ages 2-4), by Harriet Ziefert, with evocative paintings by Karla Gudeon. The book begins with a single red apple, ripe on the branch of the fall apple tree; it goes on to trace its life cycle, as it’s picked, eaten, dropped, and released back into the earth to sprout a new tree. Children are drawn into the action, as each of the single sentences comprising each page begins with an active verb: “Pick a red apple from a tree.” “Leave an apple core for the birds to eat.” “Watch tiny apple seeds scatter in the wind.” “See small sprouts peek out from the earth.”