December 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
“How do I break the addiction to Goodnight Gorilla?!” a friend texted me the other day. Whether it’s Goodnight Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, or (my preference) Time for Bed, the lulling, reassuring refrains in these books become quick obsessions with little ones getting ready to tuck in for the night. And, let’s be honest, it can grow a wee bit tedious for the one doing the actual reading. The good news is that, as your child’s attention span develops, you can start incorporating more involved bedtime stories into the mix. I’m not promising it will be love at first sight, and you may have to be a little sneaky (I’ve had great success with the “you pick one and I’ll pick one” approach as a way to introduce new titles). But help is on the way. 2013 has been a rich year for bedtime stories, beginning with Mem Fox’s Good Night, Sleep Tight (Ages 1-4), a small square hardcover illustrated by Judy Horacek—and an instant, no-tricks-necessary favorite with my Emily (the same team created the equally fabulous Where is the Green Sheep?). Think of this new book as a compilation of six classic nursery rhymes (“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,” “This little piggy went to market,” “Star light, star bright,” etc.), only woven into an actual narrative and with a refrain to boot! How are such disparate poems tied together? By the simple premise of a boy and girl being put to bed by their Mother-Goose-loving babysitter, affectionately referred to as “Skinny Doug.” After each of Doug’s enchanting renditions, the children beg for another: “‘We love it! We love it!’ said Bonnie and Ben./ ‘How does it go? Will you sing it again?’/ ‘Some other time,’ said Skinny Doug./ ‘But I’ll tell you another/ I heard from my mother.’ And so on and so forth. Horacek’s whimsical illustrations add an extra layer of charm, projecting the children and their babysitter into the periphery of each rhyme; so we see them picking up their own order at the pat-a-cake bakery or driving by to wave at the piggy squealing “wee wee wee.” An inventive way to feed the nursery rhyme obsession (no 300 page anthology necessary!).
Can you imagine anything worse than a child (or, in this case, a small winged animal who calls himself a “Snatchabook”), who doesn’t have someone to read him a bedtime story each night? I’m sad just thinking about it! But that’s the premise of this affectionate new story about a young rabbit that sets out to discover why books keep disappearing from the forest at night. Helen and Thomas Docherty’s The Snatchabook (Ages 3-6) is filled with twilight-infused illustrations, depicting owls, squirrels, and hedgehogs tucked into trees and burrows, listening to “tales of dragons, spitting flames” and “witches playing spooky games”—and “every child in every bed,/ listened hard to each word said.” When these books start getting snatched, our lupine heroine, Eliza Brown, locates the Snatchabook, sits him down on her lap, and gives him a stern reproach: “You can’t just come and help yourself/ to every book on every shelf.” And yet, Eliza quickly softens when she learns of the Snatchabook’s plight: “I know it’s wrong, but can’t you see—I’ve got no one to read to me!” Together, the two form a plan that meets everyone’s needs: The Snatchabook returns each book (like a little Montessorian, Eliza stands watch to make sure the books are put back on the shelves very neatly). In return, the animals agree that the Snatchabook can join any of their nightly story times. I can’t imagine a better way to end our little ones’ days than with a story filled with such kindness and compassion.
Confession: Mary Logue and Pamela Zagarenski’s piercing Sleep Like a Tiger (Ages 3-6) is technically not a new book; it came out in 2012. Not only that, but it received considerable media attention earlier this year when it won a Caldecott Honor. Nonetheless, I am including it here, because 1) I have found that few people actually know it (or, let’s see, their social media circles aren’t dominated by news of children’s books?), and 2) I am completely obsessed with everything about it and have been waiting for the perfect time to tell you. Earlier, I mentioned that kids can be slow to warm up to new titles (an argument for owning books that you feel passionate about). In the case of my kids, my being obsessed with a book is often the Kiss of Death. I’ve learned to feign indifference around a new book in the hopes that my kids will see their picking it up as their idea. But, in the case of Sleep Like a Tiger, I couldn’t suppress my delight—and so, for a long time, my daughter squealed “Noooooo” each time I suggested we read it. But now it is among her most beloved favorites. So what’s so great about this book? Well, for one thing, it’s a little bit weird (in the way that many of the Greats are). It’s suspended somewhere between the real world and the dream world—in that blurred spot where the subconscious comes alive. It’s also filled with the most beautiful observations of the natural world, made by the parents of a crown-sporting little girl, as she stalls (“I’m not sleepy”) by asking questions about different animals’ sleeping habits. We learn that whales sleep while swimming in circles, that snails “curl up like a cinnamon roll inside their shell,” and that grizzlies sleep through the winter (“That’s too long!” the girl exclaims). But it’s the girl herself who reminds her parents that the tiger is the mightiest sleeper of all: “that way he stays strong.” The glorious, restorative spell of sleep eventually overtakes our heroine, and Zagarenski’s incredible mixed-media illustrations (done on wood in the same way as her stunning Red Sings from the Treetops) morph the two worlds into one: the girl wriggles under the covers until she finds the warmest spot like the cat who sleeps by the fire; she “folds her arms like the wings of a bat”; and she rides on the back of the whale in her dreams. And, of course, she curls her back like the tiger. Strong, serene, asleep. Shhhhhhhhhhh. (Now quick: exit the room and congratulate yourself on a job well done.)
Other Favorite Bedtime Stories from 2013:
Rock-a-Bye Room, by Susan Meyers & Amy Bates (Ages 1-3)
Lena’s Sleep Sheep, by Anita Lobel (Ages 2-5)
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 2-6) (OK, technically not a bedtime story, but this sweetest of stories has a gentle, lulling quality, a quiet wordless format, and boasts a bedtime scene in the middle of it…so, there, I’m including it.)
June 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
Summer is naturally a time for children to sharpen their senses and take notice of their bodies. Running barefoot through the freshly cut grass; relishing the pure silence underwater at the pool; feeling the sweat beads on the back of their necks; hearing the crack of thunder that sends them tearing for the house; stretching out on the earth’s back to gaze at a sky full of stars: this is what summer looks, sounds, and feels like to our children. So why not turn these grass-stained knees into a chance to study the human body? And what if we take these bodily lessons further; what if we create an awareness in our children that their bodies aren’t just little planets unto themselves but are connected to the mysteries of the greater universe?
I have long been puzzled by the lack of children’s books that bridge the scientific and natural worlds, so I was thrilled to discover a little gem published last year, written by Elin Kelsey. You Are Stardust (Ages 4-8) is that rare blend of scientific fact and poetic wonder. Beginning with the premise that “every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born,” the book goes on to draw parallels between humans, animals, the earth, and the universe, from the salt water that flows through our tears like it flows through the ocean to the electricity that powers our thoughts like it powers the lightning in the sky. Every fact and connection is intended to shock and awe (and is backed up by scientific evidence). Did you know that the water we drink today is the same water that the dinosaurs drank? Or that “each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant?” (Both of these questions got an audible response from my son: “Is that seriously true?”) One of my favorite things about sharing books with children is that you can never predict exactly what will rock their world. I would never have supposed that the fact which made the greatest impression upon JP was one having to do with continual renewal—specifically, that “you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten.” When he first heard this, JP threw back his head and roared, “I’m not a snake! Kids don’t shed their skin; that’s ridiculous!” “Not all in one piece like a snake, but in little bits at a time,” I told him, and we went on to discuss things like scrapes, sunburn, and dry skin. For the past week, he has now taken to brushing his hand across his arm 10 times a day, while declaring to his sister that “you can’t see it, but my skin is shedding RIGHT NOW!”
Prior to discovering You Are Stardust, my favorite “metaphysical” book for kids, although on a much simpler, toddler-targeted level, has been Molly Bang’s All of Me: A Book of Thanks (Ages 2-4). With loving, economical text, Bang pays tribute first to a child’s body (“thank you, hands, for gripping and throwing and patting and holding”); then to his senses (“my mouth tastes all my food before it slides down here, into my tummy”); then to his feelings (“today I felt curious, and excited, and angry, and brave…”); and, finally, to the way in which he is part of “this whole wide world…and this whole universe is inside…all of me!”). In a sense, what All of Me starts, You Are Stardust expands on for the older child, grounding wondrous observations about the body-universe connection with scientific data (the book’s afterward also cites a website for those who want to learn more about the science behind the book). Perhaps not just coincidentally, both Bang and Kelsey’s books are illustrated with collage, a fitting medium for a lesson on how we are greater than the sum of our parts. The collages in You Are Stardust, done by Soyeon Kim, are actually dioramas, combining rocks, dried flowers, painted leaves, string, tissue paper, and watercolor cut-outs to create a tactile, three-dimensional effect. The illustrations feel youthful and free-form, and I think my son immediately connected with them as something he could approximate with materials gathered from our backyard. I would love for my children (as the author similarly wishes in her afterward) to cart this book outside all summer long, to read it by flashlight in their tee-pee or while propped up on their elbows in the grass. I would like for them to look at the trees and the birds and the snails and the clouds—and to feel their own heartbeat answering back.
Other Favorites for a More In-Depth Study of the Human Body (and with a more traditionally fact-based presentation):
The Skeleton Inside You; Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup and Yawn; A Drop of Blood; Hear Your Heart; My Five Senses, all part of the wonderful Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science Series (Ages 4-8)
See Inside Your Body, by Usborne Publishing (Ages 5-10)
First Human Body Encyclopedia, by DK Pubishing (Ages 6-12)
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work, by Steve Jenkins (Ages 6-12)
Picture This! Human Body, by Margaret Hynes (Ages 8-14)
May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
I’m often asked to recommend chapter books that lend themselves to reading aloud, either for a classroom setting or for a parent reading to an elementary-aged child. This is no small order: you need something where the subject matter isn’t too frightening or mature for the 5-8 year old set; you need something that’s going to engage the adult reader as much as the child (there’s no law that says this can’t be enjoyable for us!); and you need something that transcends the plot-driven, early-reader books that kids are reading on their own and helps them develop a taste for the kind of diverse language and emotionally-rich storytelling that will hopefully influence their reading choices in the future. This past winter, we read to my son the classic Little House on the Prairie series, which I adored as a child and whose themes feel just as timeless and important as ever (family values, the rewards of hard work, celebrating the non-material joys in life). But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing can also be quite tedious to read aloud, packed with lengthy explanations (twenty pages devoted to smoking a pig?) and repetitive sentence structures. There were moments when I could feel JP’s attention wandering, despite his avid assurance each night that he wanted to read more, more, more.
But then we finished that series and began Marion Dane Bauer’s stand-alone novel Little Dog, Lost (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), published just last year, and it felt like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a book where not a single word is wasted, a book whose text flows off the tongue with such buttery smoothness that most of the time I couldn’t bring myself to stop when I got to the end of a chapter (that’s right, I was actually choosing in those moments to delay bedtime). Bauer achieves this incredible richness of language by breaking with a major narrative tradition: she writes her novel in free verse, creating chapters out of short, staccato poems, which loosely string together and sometimes even repeat words and phrases, all the while telling a very clear and cohesive story. There are 44 of these untitled poem-chapters; and they switch off narrating from the viewpoints of children, adults, and animals—all of whom live in a small contemporary town called Erthly and whose lives are forever touched by an incident involving a lost dog searching for someone to love him.
Freed from the confines of conventional narration, Bauer is able to cut straight to the emotional core of her characters—and the result is a story that children will feel deep in their hearts. Animal stories inherently engender sympathy from children (not coincidentally, some of JP’s favorite moments in the Little House books revolve around the Ingalls’ faithful dog, Jack). At the center of Little Dog, Lost is Buddy, an orphaned dog with “ears like airplane wings,” who “dances” along the sidewalk, longing for a home with “chasing balls,/ ear scratches,/ kisses.” Children will easily relate to Mark, a young boy “who had wanted a dog for as long as he could remember./ He had asked for a dog./ He had begged for a dog./ He had pleaded and prayed and whined for a dog./ Once he’d even tried barking for a dog.” And who wouldn’t be intrigued by a mysterious old man named Charles Larue, who lives alone in a pointy-towered mansion and never speaks to anyone? Throughout the story’s suspenseful twists and turns, even amidst the humorous touches (many coming from a bossy tabby cat who thinks he’s a dog), the story never strays from the hopes and dreams of its relatable, big-hearted characters. It’s fair to say that my son had a full-body experience while listening to this book. He chuckled, gasped, and emitted little exasperated grunts; he covered his eyes and held his breath; he beat his fists on the bed; he cheered; he hugged my arm to pieces; and he shed more than a tear or two (as he says, “I have a little water in my eyes right now because I’m so happy.”). Now that’s a chapter book.
Other Favorite Read-Aloud Chapter Books With Animals & Lots of Heart:
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (Ages 5 & up*)
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White (Ages 5 & up)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard Atwater (Ages 5 & up)
Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes (Ages 6 & up)
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate & Patricia Castelao (Ages 6 & up)
*Please note that these ages are assuming the reading is being done by an adult. For a child reading independently, the age range would be closer to eight and up.
March 23, 2013 § 3 Comments
“It’s bud season! It’s bud season!” chanted my children earlier this week, after some long-awaited warm sunshine had beckoned us into the backyard. Thankfully, they were referring not to the beer (although my son’s soccer team does call themselves the Silver Bullets) but rather to the discovery of tiny little green bursts on the ends of our hydrangea bushes and crape myrtles. Since this is the first spring in our new house, our backyard is full of surprises, including yellow daffodils and purple crocuses and little red berries, all of which the children were delighted to point out to me as they raced back and forth across the lawn. Their springtime exuberance is exactly why I love Ashley Wolff’s Baby Bear Sees Blue (Ages 1-4), about a baby bear venturing forth from his den to discover the colors of the world. “Who is warming me, Mama?” asks Baby Bear. “That is the sun,” Mama says, as Baby Bear steps into a pool of brilliant yellow; “Baby Bear sees yellow.” And so begins a series of introductions to different colors, from the blue of the jays to the red of the strawberries to the grey of an approaching storm cloud. For months now, I have been trying (and failing) to teach my two year old her colors; at two and a half, she knows the names of all the colors and loves to exclaim “that’s purple!” or “that’s red!” for things that are, in fact, green or blue. I’m not obsessing about this, having drunk the Montessori Kool-Aid that she’ll learn on her own time (either that or someone will eventually tell me she’s color blind). But I figured it couldn’t hurt to start reading her books about colors, a rich topic in children’s literature (see my complete list of favorites at the end of this post).
Consequently, Emily and I are entranced with Baby Bear Sees Blue. For starters, there’s the child-centric way in which Baby Bear approaches the world, convinced that everything from birds to butterflies exists for the sole purpose of entertaining him. Secondly, there’s the mother and baby dynamic, which Emily is keenly aware of on every page, especially when the mother is not pictured. “Where is Baby Bear’s mommy?” she will ask when she can’t readily spot her; and I answer, “She’s there, she’s just off the page.” “She’s there? She’s off the page?” she’ll parrot back to me, and I like to think she’s making a parallel to her own separation experiences (like kissing me goodbye during her two mornings a week at preschool and learning to trust that I will return). But for all the book’s wonder and charm, it’s the artistic choices that make Baby Bear Sees Blue an exceptional tool to introduce color to children. I have always loved wood-block illustrations for the classic charm they lend a picture book (This Little Chick being a long-time favorite and an excellent way to teach animal sounds at that). Here, Wolff has applied linoleum blocks in black and then hand colored them with watercolors. The result is a stunning juxtaposition of hard outlines exploding with soft, vibrant color. There’s even a glorious rainbow that follows the brief rain shower in the book. But here’s the best part. The other day, after finishing up a quick shower of my own, I went hunting through the house to find Emily. I discovered her on the floor in her bedroom, surrounded by books, each one open to reveal the endpapers just inside the covers. Expanses of solid colors were everywhere, and Emily was running her hand over each one in turn: “This is yellow!” “This is blue!” “This is orange!” I quietly observed until I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer: “Honey! You know your colors!” She turned, saw me in the doorway, and smiled triumphantly. Baby Girl had finally seen her colors. (All I had to do was leave the room.)
Other Favorites About Color:
Butterfly Butterfly: A Book of Colors, by Petr Horacek (Ages 1-3)
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle (Ages 1-3)
Red is a Dragon: A Book of Colors, by Roseanne Thong (Ages 3-6)
A Color of His Own, by Leo Lionni (Ages 3-7)
A World of Food: Discover Magical Lands Made of Things You Can Eat, by Carl Werner (Ages 3-7)
Little Blue and Little Yellow, by Leo Lionni (4-8)
P.S. Don’t stop reading books about color just because your child knows his colors! My five year old has lately been loving Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s simple but breathtaking masterpiece, Green (Ages 3-6), which is a wonderful way to talk about the different shades of colors and the creative labels that can be applied to them.
March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments
I was wrong. Occasionally, this happens (my husband would probably debate the word “occasionally,” but this isn’t his blog and, besides, I am usually right when it comes to books). Shortly after Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose (Ages 4-8) was published last year, I hastily thumbed through it at a bookstore and thought, “Another alphabet book…rudimentary drawings…simplistic-seeming text…a Bullwinkle-style moose…I’ll pass.” Then, in January, right after the Caldecott winners were announced, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about this book: top children’s book critics were outraged that Zelinsky’s book got passed up for an award, and some went so far as to argue that it was the most revolutionary book published in 2012. “Huh?” I thought. So when I happened to come across the book a second time (this time at our local library), I picked it up, brought it home, and read it to my kids. I’ll say it again: I was wrong. In my haste to judge a book by its cover, I completely blew past its cleverness, its hilarity, and its brilliant way of turning conventional alphabet books on their head. This is not your run-of-the-mill alphabet book; it is not going to teach your child the alphabet. It’s a book best read to a child that knows his alphabet and is ready to play with it (the joke begins with the title: kids have to be able to recognize that “Moose” does not begin with “Z”). The basic premise is this: a zebra is trying to stage a very basic book (hence the rudimentary drawings) about the alphabet—only he’s constantly interrupted by a moose who’s eager for the letter “M” to have its turn and then furious when that turn arrives and the zebra chooses a “Mouse” to take the spotlight. No narrative explanation is present (we as readers are left to fill that in). Instead, the action itself tells the story, via the argumentative speech bubbles between Moose and the Zebra or the rebellious graffiti that the former inflicts across certain pages in protest. Repeated readings reveal delightfully subversive details at every turn: perfectly square borders around the pages get bent as Moose brazenly rushes past them; an “O” on the book’s cover is askew from Moose’s protruding antlers. Zelinsky has exploited the very idea of a picture book, calling children’s attention not only to how such works might be constructed but also to how that process could go terribly wrong.
But for all its artistic prowess, Z is for Moose’s tell-tale sign of success is the reader’s reaction: MY KIDS THINK THIS IS THE FUNNIEST BOOK THEY HAVE EVER READ (to be fair, my two year old daughter has no idea what she’s laughing at, but the fact that her five-year-old big brother tips his head back and roars loudly on most pages makes for equally good entertainment for her). What child cannot relate to an impatient, foot-stomping Moose who is denied the justice he feels he deserves? At the same time, what child cannot relate to Zebra’s mission to do things in a certain way without anyone messing them up? And then there’s the ending—every parent’s sigh of relief—when Zebra yields a little control, Moose adjusts his vision of success, and the two friends end up sharing the spotlight under the caption “Z is for Zebra’s Friend Moose.” After all, everyone makes mistakes. Thank goodness for second chances.
Other Favorite Alphabet Books (though of the more conventional kind):
ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, by Alison Jay (Ages 1-5)
The Sleepy Little Alphabet Book, by Judy Sierra & Melissa Sweet (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet City, by Stephen T. Johnson (Ages 3-6)
LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker (Ages 2-6)
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Marin Jr. (Ages 2-6)
Alphabet Adventure, by Audrey and Bruce Wood (Ages 3-7)
February 21, 2013 § 4 Comments
Let me be clear: I am not a snake person. Just ask my husband about the time our former neighbor’s grandson misplaced his yellow and black striped rubber snake in our driveway. My hysteria, combined with the Internet, had half the street convinced that a rare and deadly species of snake (I believe we had landed on the Eastern King Snake) had invaded our DC suburb. My husband finds this an enlightening story about my disposition to overreact (I prefer to think of it as strong survival instincts). All this is to say that if I am telling you that Nic Bishop’s Snakes (Ages 5-12) is not only A-MA-ZING but that I have been volunteering to read this book to my son, then you should take me very, very seriously. You should march straight out to your local bookstore and buy this book (actually, you should buy all the books in Bishop’s series, even those about tamer animals like butterflies and frogs).
For starters, this is some of the most eye-popping wildlife photography I’ve ever seen. JP and I are transfixed by these snakes, nearly all of them shot at eye-level: big, small, neon, metallic, scaly, wet, hissing, resting, attacking, and eating (in the equally fascinating afterward, Bishop tells kids how hard it is to photograph snakes and how he almost lost his hand in the process!). Most non-fiction animal series cram their pages with a plethora of snapshots alongside tiny text-filled boxes. In Bishop’s book, each page reveals a single full-bleed color photograph, giving kids ample time to take in the awe-inspiring detail, from the feathery skin of an African bush viper to the unhinged jaws of an emerald tree boa.
But it’s not just the pictures that makes this book a stand-out: its text reads more like a story than a litany of facts. Highly informative, yet infused with the author’s evident fascination, Bishop’s words lend even more excitement to his photographs. “If you could turn yourself into a snake, you would be about four times longer than you are now, and only a few inches thick. You would have to get around without legs…You would have the same organs as you do now but they would be squeezed tight inside your narrow body.”
Not surprisingly, several pages are devoted to how snakes stalk, catch, and devour their prey (the operative word here is “ambush”). Did you know that snakes can’t see well and don’t have ear holes? Instead, they sense their prey’s presence by feeling vibrations in their jaws and by smelling with their tongues. The Gaboon Viper from Africa has the longest fangs of any snake and yet it looks like a pile of leaves to its unsuspecting victim. JP and I are particularly obsessed with a close-up shot of desert sand, under which you can just make out the lying-in-wait body of the Asian sand viper (now that, boys and girls, is camouflage).
Is there anything about science that you can’t learn from studying snakes?! I’m so fired up right now that I might even get up the nerve to take my son to the reptile room at the National Zoo this weekend. Heck, maybe I’ll even buy him some rubber snakes (oh wait, his aunt already did that and his favorite place to stash them is under his sheets, so that I conveniently stumble upon them while making his bed).
As for my fellow phobic parents, rest assured that my imagination has not been running too wild after multiple readings of this book; I’ve had no irrational fears that the hissing sound in my radiators is actually a snake (well…). Don’t they say that the key to overcoming phobias is to face them straight on? Because I must admit, when viewed through the eyes of Nic Bishop, snakes are pretty darn fantastic.
Other “Favorites” about Snakes (a mix of storybooks and reference):
Snakes are Hunters: A Let’s Read and Find Out Book, by Patricia Lauber & Holly Keller (Ages 4-8)
Verdi, by Janell Cannon (Ages 4-8)
The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash, by Trinka Hakes Noble & Steven Kellogg (Ages 4-8)
About Reptiles: A Guide for Children, by Cathryn & John Sill (Ages 4-8)
The Snake Scientist, by Sy Montgomery & Nic Bishop (Ages 8-15)
February 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
You might expect that my children, living so close to Washington DC, have many opportunities to learn about our nation’s history. But mere proximity does not a future scholar make. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, is consistently celebrated by my five year old as “the place where we picnic in the summer!” If you ask him the name of the president that sits in stone behind him during said picnics, he is likely to throw you a disinterested look and recommence staring out the car window, pointing out other landmarks whose names he boasts correctly but whose significance he understands not. Which begs the question: How do we get our kids to care about the past presidents that have shaped our country? Certainly, the biographies that we read as kids were filled with dry facts and black-and-white photographs that made their content feel all too disconnected from our daily lives; too often we were encouraged to memorize names and dates for tests, only to forget them a week later. Thankfully, our own kids have access to a whole new generation of fresh reading material, including picture books that breathe colorful new life into historic periods and events.
Last month, I posted here about the many powerful picture books surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. In school, my son JP and his classmates listened to the CD that comes with Kadir Nelson’s I Have a Dream and were asked to raise their hands every time they heard the Reverend utter the phrase “I have a dream” (as JP was amazed to report to me that evening, “I had to raise my hand a lot!”). So the other day, as we were once again driving past the Lincoln Memorial, I happened to mention to JP that MLK Jr. delivered his speech from the very steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I could literally see the light bulb going off in his head, immediately followed by a “Can we have another picnic there so I can see exactly where he stood?” This was all the permission I needed to get out the biographical picture book Looking at Lincoln (Ages 5-10), by Maira Kalman. Published just last year, this gem possesses what may be the secret to piquing our children’s interest about historical figures: it humanizes Abraham Lincoln; it makes him feel like a real, relatable person—and it does so by presenting him through the eyes of a young girl. Intrigued by a Lincoln impersonator she passes on the street, this girl heads to the library to research what made Abe so special. What follows are a combination of biographical facts, presented in black typeface, as well as the girl’s own musings, which are rendered in colorful, fanciful typography. These precocious musings are at times funny, at other times serious and profound; all of them could very well have come out of the mouths of JP and his classmates. “I could look at him Forever,” the girl earnestly writes of his unusual face (I kind of agree). On the subject of Lincoln’s wife, our narrator offers, “On the day he was elected, I bet Mary made his favorite vanilla cake. But maybe he forgot to eat his slice. He was often too busy thinking to eat.” (JP was quite keen to point out the apparent similarity between his own dislike of chocolate and Abe’s preference for vanilla.) Our young narrator gives a particularly moving description of a Civil War uniform that she comes across in her research, one with a bullet hole at the heart: “There were fourteen brass buttons on the front of his tunic. One was shot away. Thirteen brass buttons remains…Terrible things happen in a war.”
This book has everything you need to begin a discussion with your children about Lincoln. The Gettysburg address is even printed in its entirety on the book’s endpapers, and there is an index with more information about the visuals on each page. But the text’s brevity allows us as parents to elaborate as much or as little as we want, taking our cues from our little one’s questions and letting them control how much of this (heavy) information they’re ready for. Kalman’s vibrant, Matisse-like gouache paintings breathe color and whimsy into a previously black-and-white subject, grounding the narrative in contemporary life. By the book’s end, Lincoln has become memorable in his very tangibility. I’m perfectly happy if all that my son remembers this Presidents’ Day is that Lincoln liked vanilla cake or had a tall hat where he stuffed his notes. What matters is that his imagination has been sparked, the Lincoln Memorial has started to become more than a picnic spot. Over time, JP will begin to understand the meaning behind the other words in the book, words like democracy and justice and freedom, words from our past that will be just as valuable to our children as they seek to shape our future.
Other Favorite Picture Books about Abraham Lincoln:
Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books, by Kay Winters & Nancy Carpenter (Ages 5-10)
Abe Lincoln’s Dream, by Lane Smith (Ages 6-12)
Abe Lincoln’s Hat, by Martha Brenner & Donald Cook (Ages 5-10)
Abe’s Honest Words, by Doreen Rappaport & Kadir Nelson (Ages 7-12)–NOTE that this amazing book is on super sale right now on amazon!
Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglas: The Story Behind an American Friendship, by Russell Freedman (Ages 9-15)