When the Question Becomes the Answer

September 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

In these early weeks of September, as I catch my son peeling dead skin off the bottom of feet that 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.

At the beginning of each new day, our children have to screw their courage to the sticking-place of the Great Unknown. They get out of the car, get off their bikes, and they walk into this tentative, uncertain thing that is life, hoping to come back with a few more answers.

Perhaps because back-to-school season is itself such an intimidating journey, Dashka Slater’s new picture book, The Antlered Ship (Ages 5-9), strikes a poignant chord. Of course, it could also be the delicate color washes atop brazen graphite and pen by Terry and Eric Fan, who made their exquisite debut last year with The Night Gardener and have now outdone themselves. The book is absolutely gorgeous, right down to the cover, which is printed on such sumptuously thick and textured paper that it might have ruined all other picture books for me. Right off the bat, The Antlered Ship feels like the perfect gift to put into the hands of our young crusaders.

The story is about a young fox with questions. Not the insistent “whys” that my children used to pose as a response to everything I told them (“We need to leave the park now.” “Why?” “Because we have to make dinner.” “Why?” “So you can eat.” “Why?” “Because otherwise you’ll be hungry.” “Why?”). No, the fox’s questions are—like my children’s now—more loaded, hesitant, and thoughtful. They’re also questions which don’t always have an easy or straightforward answer. Or any answer at all.

On the drive home from school the other day, while her older brother was carpooling with another family, my newly seven year old seized this rare opportunity to hold court by asking a series of questions. Whether these questions had just popped into her mind or whether she had been mulling them over all day or all week was unclear. What is clear is that her mind is infinitely expanding—and not linearly. She asked:

How come we can still hear the other cars when we’re inside our own?

How do the moms’ bellies go back in after they push out the babies?

How come when people are shy they can’t just swallow their shyness?

The questions swirling inside the mind of Marco, the anthropomorphized fox in The Antlered Ship, are not dissimilar to my daughter’s, if arguably a bit more poetic. The fox wonders:

Why do some songs make you happy and others make you sad?

Why don’t trees ever talk?

How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?

Marco’s problem is that he can’t find an audience for these questions. When he poses them to his fellow foxes, they look at him blankly and respond, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?”

So when a mysterious wooden ship—carrying seafaring deer and bearing a massive masthead carved in the shape of a stag’s antlers—docks in a harbor looking for a new crew to sail to a distant island, Marco volunteers. He hopes the ship’s destination might land him alongside some foxes who do know the answers to his many questions. Marco and the deer are joined as well by a band of adventure-seeking, checkers-playing pigeons.

Marco may have a clear destination and goal in mind, but he must venture into the Unknown to get there. Like any journey, things are not always smooth sailing—and they often give rise to even more questions. For starters, there are rough storms, with “waves crash[ing] over the sides of the deck.” “Why is water so wet? Marco wondered…”

The deer prove themselves useless at navigating, and the pigeons are full of complaints about the damp crackers. Marco is not immune to crankiness himself, but he decides they all need to “do the best we can.” He begins by throwing together a warm stew from a recipe book he finds and then moves the group towards consensus on navigation.

The fox’s good nature is contagious, and the animals begin to embrace adventure for adventure’s sake, navigating the Maze of Sharp Rocks as a team and later going head to head with a line-up of warring pirates.

At last, the group reaches their destination: an island replete with waving grasses, fruit trees, and plenty of animals willing to listen to the sea crew’s bombastic accounts of their voyage.

Marco, however, doesn’t share the others’ elation. To his despair, he can’t find a single fox. “I have failed,” he tells his shipmates. “No foxes. No one to answer my questions.” The corresponding spread reveals that even in the togetherness on the ship, the fox has been alone. For all his leadership, he has yet to make himself vulnerable, to invite anyone to share in his uncertainty.

And yet, Marco’s mates challenge him. “What questions?” the pigeon asks. And Marco at last screws his courage, takes a deep breath, and begins to ask questions. Including, “‘What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?”’

Then ensues a discussion, as each of the three offers up a thought on friendship. Maybe, Marco offers, “you make friends by asking them questions.” The trio goes on to ask each other more questions: Should they head home? Should they have more adventures? And my favorite:

“Is it better to know what’s going to happen?” wondered Marco. “Or better to be surprised?”

(You could have knocked me over with a feather when my nine year old son, who insists on us telling him in detail where we are going and what we are going to do there, answered without hesitation, “Surprised.”)

There is no end to life’s questioning. Even when we are lucky enough to uncover an answer, another question arises. What Marco hoped to find on the other side of the sea was actually on the ship with him the entire time: not the answers, but the companionship with which to weather the questioning.

This lovely story challenges our own children’s assumptions. Do we really need all the answers to feel better, to feel more secure in the uncertainty around us? Maybe what we need—what we really, really need—are people to whom we can ask our questions. People with whom we can sit, musing aloud, in the comfort of a car, or on a twirl across the playground, or as we are being tucked into the covers at night. These people don’t have to be related to us, they don’t even have to look like us or talk like us. They only need to listen—and, possibly, to offer up some questions of their own.

Don’t worry, my little crusaders. The world will be big and scary, but you don’t have to figure it out to be in good company.

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Book published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 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!

Celebrating Yellow Time

October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Yellow Time" by Lauren StringerThere 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.

Blink and you’ll miss it, though. Which is why we have to be ready to savor the fleeting beauty. Before we know it, the leaves dry up and clear out. The damp, crisp air sets in, and the darkness infringes on our after-school hours. The pumpkins on the doorsteps decay, if they don’t get eaten by squirrels first. The only apples left on the trees are too high for us to reach.

Lauren Stringer coins autumn Yellow Time in her lush and lovely new picture book, which beams with the essence of this magnificent season as seen through the eyes of children (Ages 3-6). It’s a cover that catches your eye across the bookstore and beckons you over (at least, it did me). Stringer is no novice to capturing the spirit of the seasons (nothing sends my kids straight to the pantry for hot cocoa faster than Winter is the Warmest Season­). Nor is she a stranger to glorious monochromatic aesthetics, which we might remember from the washes of green against which a girl dances in the sublime Deer Dancer.

E.B. White wrote a letter to a class of sixth graders in 1973, thanking them for sending him their creative essays (bear with me: our household is E.B. White Obsessed right now, in no small part owing to Melissa Sweet’s new illustrated biography—more about this in upcoming weeks). White concluded his letter, “I was pleased that so many of you felt the beauty and goodness of the world. If we can feel that when we are young, then there is great hope for us when we grow older.”

Lauren Stringer makes children see the natural world and love every bit of it.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

In Yellow Time, Stringer is concerned with the moment just before and just after the leaves fall, the period of time in which the crows are cawing but the “geese have already gone,” and the squirrels are “too busy to notice.” That moment when the leaves surrender their grip on the branches and swirl to the ground, leaving little hands to explore and rake and gather them up to press between pages of books.

Children run in
the yellow air.
They let it catch their hair
and cover their sweaters.
They jump and turn
in yellow time.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

Stringer’s loose, poetic prose mirrors the sleepy, dream-like quality of fall. Much like the way we feel when we catch the filtered sunlight hitting a bale of hay after a busy afternoon spent picking (golden-delicious) apples.

Just before yellow time,
the air smells different.
Like wet mud and dry grass
with a sprinkle of sugar.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

I was so struck by the loveliness of this book that I decided to donate a copy to my daughter’s Montessori classroom, in the spirit of Emily’s recent fall birthday. At six years of age, Emily works alongside three, four, and five year olds, and the rainbow of skin tones and hair colors in her classroom is a beautiful sight. Stringer’s book echoes the diversity of our American communities, where neighborhood children of different ages and ethnicities take to the streets in a shared enjoyment of fall.

Yellow Time reminds us and our children that the fleetingness of fall magic will soon be upon us. The book reminds us to be alert, to open our eyes, to run outside while we can still be parka-less and twirl in the cascades of yellow (and red and orange and, yes, even brown). As the wind picks up, we will pull up our sweatshirt hoods and breathe in giant gulps of it.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

This fall, with both children at a new school, a different morning commute means that we no longer drive by the ginkgo trees. I nearly forgot about them until I opened these pages for my children, and my son reminded me. “You’re right,” I replied, suddenly crest-fallen, recalling the delightful anticipation in our car when we would turn onto the ginkgos’ street. I considered, briefly and silently, how fall is as much about change and loss as it is about precious rituals and awe-inspiring beauty.

But my daughter was quick to reassure me: “Don’t be sad, Mommy. We’re going to keep our eyes peeled and find lots of new yellow.” And, truth to told, the yellow mums on our porch are already looking pretty great.

Get ready.

It only comes
once a year.

"Yellow Time" by Lauren Stringer

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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!

When Big Sis Starts School

September 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori NicholsSeconds before I heard the door to his room slam shut, I heard my son bellowing these words to his little sister: “Emily, sometimes you are the best of all people, and sometimes you are THE WORST!”

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?

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
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.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
“I had fun, too,” said Willow. “I played with Pip.”

“Pip?” Maple asks. “Who’s Pip?”

“Pip is my new friend,” said Willow. “He has a bumpy head and he is afraid of squirrels.”

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols IMG_2831
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.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

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.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

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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!

Quality Time with Dad

June 18, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Ask Me" by Bernard WaberLast 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?)

"Ask Me" by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

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.

I remember.

"Ask Me" by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

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?

"Ask Me," by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

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.

"Ask Me" by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

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?

You wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t what?

Forget my birthday.

Not in a million years would I forget your birthday.

How about a billion years?

Not even in a billion years.

That’s better.

"Ask Me," by Bernard Waber

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.

"Ask Me," by Bernard Waber & Suzy Lee

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

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!

The Magic of Fall

October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

"Fall Leaves" by Loretta Holland & Elly MacKayThe 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?).

On the “Leaves Fall” page, children are privy to an especially well-articulated explanation of why leaves turn colors: how the green chlorophyll, which has taken up residence in the leaves all spring and summer, but is no longer needed for winter’s slumber, now drains away to reveal the leaves’ “true colors.” As if the chilly October nights didn’t feel mysterious enough, now the leaves are revealing secrets, too!

"Fall Leaves" by Loretta Holland

I can’t think of a book that better demonstrates for children the versatility of language—specifically, how the meaning of words can change in context, can transform before your eyes (I am waiting until this year’s Holiday Gift Guide to tell you about Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s interpretation of Roget’s invention of the thesaurus in The Right Word). In Fall Leaves, the word “fall” or “leaves” is on every page, in every headline (“Birds Leave,” “Leaves Twist,” “Apples Fall,” “Sun Leaves,” etc.). JP was immensely pleased with himself when he discovered that “fall” and “leaves” were being used alternately as nouns and verbs (and adjectives)—and that “fall leaves” and “leaves fall” mean two (actually, three!) different things simply by reversing their order.

But the power of this beautifully crafted book likes in its illustrations—in pictures that transport, evoke, and envelop us in the magic of fall. As we move from early fall to the dawn of winter, the light transforms from deep gold to a wispy grey; the landscape, once crowded with rich colors and skipping children, begins to betray a hint of melancholy in its starkness. And yet, the children—the same boy and girl on each page—never stop observing and interacting with their natural surroundings.

"Fall Leaves" by Elly MacKay

All this is achieved through watercolor and cut-paper, which have been set up in miniature theaters and then photographed. Unlike most picture book illustrations that arise out of miniatures (see last week’s post on I Am a Witch’s Cat), here photographer Elly MacKay plays liberally with the depth of field in each shot. Most of the time, the foreground and background of each picture are blurred—an effect which not only gives our eye a specific point of focus, but also gives the landscapes an ethereal quality that we instantly recognize as fall. It’s the difference between standing in front of a tree admiring its different shades, and then walking away to watch all the colors melt together. It’s the way fog looks on a chilly fall morning, or the way the first snow flurries obscure our children’s figures outside our window. It’s the fistfuls of leaves that my children bring into the house—waxy, damp, and vibrant one day; and crinkly, dry, and dull the next. Blink and it’s gone.

Like clockwork, winter is approaching. For now, let’s embrace the magic of fall.

"Leaves Fall" by Loretta Holland

Check out MacKay’s website for other shots of her AMAZING art (I am obsessed) and how she puts it all together. http://www.ellymackay.com/portfolio/

Other Favorite Non-Fiction Presentations of Fall:
Winter is Coming, by Tony Johnston & Jim LaMarche (Ages 4-8; also new this fall and absolutely wonderful!)
In November, by Cynthia Rylant (Ages 4-8)
Hello, Harvest Moon, by Ralph Fletcher (Ages 4-8)

September’s Birthday Pick (Welcoming Fall with Some Peace and Quiet)

September 13, 2014 § 6 Comments

"Otis and the Scarecrow" by Loren LongI 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:

Picture 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.”

Me: “Mmmmmhmmmmm.”

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??!!”

It’s little wonder that, weeks later when my kids would at last return to school, I would bask in the deliciousness of silence. I know many of you know just what I mean. Of course, then I come to find out, courtesy of Loren Long’s new installment in his beloved picture book series about a tractor named Otis, that I might have had some moments of silence all along. If only I had thought to make a game of it. In Otis and the Scarecrow (Ages 3-7), Otis challenges his animal friends to a game of who can stay quiet the longest. (Seriously, why did I never think of this?) My kids find the antics involved in the animals trying to outlast each other to be absolutely hilarious: the bull eventually twitches his nose, setting off a chain effect of wiggling duck bottoms and erupting equine giggles, until those few minutes of peace and quiet are once again a thing of the past.

"Otis and the Scarecrow" by Loren Long

There’s something fitting, I suppose, about this game hitting its stride, not in summer, but in fall. Long’s evocative pencil and gouache illustrations, bursting with warm oranges and browns, call to mind everything I love about fall, from the pumpkin patches to the crunch of the leaves. It’s a season that naturally demands a bit of quiet, as we watch, smell, or listen to the transformations around us. It’s also a season ripe with new acquaintances and the possibility for new friends. In Otis’ case, the newcomer on the farm is a mysteriously silent scarecrow. Otis and the animals initially take the scarecrow’s silence for disdain and snub him in return (there’s a subtle lesson here about the haste with which we dismiss what we don’t understand). But Otis finds himself increasingly drawn back to the scarecrow, admiring his stoicism in the face of hard rain and pecking crows. As Otis is eventually brave enough to discover, a scarecrow can also kick some serious butt in The Quiet Game.

Fall, with its increasingly dark nights, its jack-o-lanterns, and its natural surprises, seems laced with a kind of magic. I love a book that asks us—parents and children alike—to slow down, to hush up, and to open up ourselves to the very magic unfolding around us. “[A]s Otis watched, he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he might have seen the scarecrow smile.” It’s amazing what a few moments of quiet can do.

Our Other Favorite Otis Books, written and illustrated by Loren Long:
Otis (Ages 3-6)
Otis and the Tornado (Ages 4-7; reviewed here)
Otis and the Puppy (Ages 3-6; reviewed here)
An Otis Christmas (Ages 4-7; reviewed here)

Back to School With Monsters (of the Misunderstood Variety)

September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

"My Teacher is a Monster" by Peter BrownOne 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.” As we learn early on, Ms. Kirby is prone to yelling, stomping, and taking away Bobby’s recess privileges on account of his paper airplane shenanigans. She is also more monster than human, with green skin and exaggerated facial features, including sharp, protruding teeth and flared nostrils. And yet, what is quietly revealed as the story develops, is that this picture of Ms. Kirby lies entirely in the eye of her beholder; we are seeing Ms. Kirby exactly as Bobby himself sees her. Only after a chance encounter with his teacher in the park one weekend afternoon, does Bobby begin to glimpse what lies beneath that rough exterior.

Peter Brown (whose equally spectacular Mr. Tiger Goes Wild was, coincidentally, my back-to-school pick for last year) is a master at creating picture books that, at first glance, appear deceptively simple. In fact, though, their minimal text invites maximum interaction from the child reader, as he or she must glean as much of the story’s meaning from the illustrations—from what is not said—than from the words themselves. In this case, most of the plot is advanced through speech bubbles, bringing to mind some of Brown’s earlier works, like You Will Be My Friend! and Children Make Terrible Pets. The animated conversation is highly entertaining to read aloud by parents and early readers alike. Take, for example, the below conversation, when Bobby initially stumbles upon his teacher in the park and begrudgingly sits down beside her (personally, I can remember like it was yesterday that very bizarre sensation of running into my elementary teacher outside the classroom—wait, they have a life?):

"My Teacher is a Monster" by Peter Brown

Teachers, as it turns out, can be quite silly. Ms. Kirby, as Bobby discovers, enjoys quacking alongside ducks. Teachers can also—wait for it—feel things, like panic and distress, when “my dear old granny’s” wide-brimmed hat flies away (thankfully, Bobby heroically snatches it before it blows into the water). Later, when Bobby leads Ms. Kirby to his favorite spot, high atop a rocky hill, she bestows on him a piece of paper to launch the “single greatest paper airplane flight in history!”

"My Teacher is a Monster" by Peter Brown

Throughout these exchanges, we as readers become privy to a slow, subtle alteration in Ms. Kirby’s appearance: her face becomes softer, her coloring more peach-toned; and one by one her pointy teeth drop off and are replaced with something resembling a smile. (Side note: I have yet to read this book with my kids without them demanding “wait, go back, I need to see something!”—so delighted are they by the sneaky changes taking place.) Later, this transformation extends into the classroom, where Ms. Kirby’s monstrous qualities surface only some of the time, in her justified moments of frustration (we’ve all been there). But there’s another equally important (albeit more subtle) transformation at work here: that of the misunderstood student. In Ms. Kirby’s eyes, Bobby goes from being a kid who drives her crazy, to a kid who drives her crazy and is sweet, creative, and capable of hard work.

Whether you apply these lessons inside or outside the school year, Peter Brown gives us parents an immensely valuable tool for helping our children see beyond the unfamiliar, the intimidating, and the alien; to resist the temptation to judge off what we see; to seek out commonalities and to connect as human beings. While we’re at it, we would do well to take a few tips for ourselves.

Please note: due to the current standoff between Amazon and Hachette Publishing, you will get any of Peter Brown’s books a lot quicker if you head for your neighborhood bookstore (which, I might add, you should be doing anyway). If you’d like to read Peter Brown’s impassioned post about the independent bookstore in light of Amazon’s shifting policies, click here.

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