Farewell to Summer

September 2, 2012 § 4 Comments

"Beach Feet" by Kiyomi & Konagaya & Masamitsu SaitoI have admittedly failed in the creation of baby books for my children. JP’s baby book never got past the “birth story” page, and Emily’s never began at all. But photos—well, on that front I have delivered. And there’s something else I do to celebrate milestones in my kids’ lives: I’ll purchase a picture book that resonates with a particular memory or moment, and then I’ll inscribe it to JP or Emily with an appropriate sentiment.

In our family, this past summer goes down as the summer that Emily finally found her beach feet, so I could not resist buying Kiyomi Konagaya’s new Beach Feet (Ages 2-4) when I came across it at a bookstore in Cape Cod. For Emily, it has been hard to be the little sister of a boy who would prefer to spend his every waking moment of vacation on the beach. A few months earlier, vacationing in Florida, Emily would hold her hands up and scream “uppy-uppy” as soon as we put her down on the sand. And just a few weeks prior to our vacation on the Cape, while we were at my grandmother’s lake house, she would tolerate the feel of sand on her bare feet for only a few minutes at a time, still too tentative to embrace the beach as her playground.

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The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

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

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

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

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

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Hot-Off-the-Press for August’s Birthday Parties

August 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m a bit late with my pick for August birthday parties, but this gift will work equally well heading into the school year, because it’s a book about friendship! In Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always (Ages 4-8), Tao Nyeu is following a great literary legacy of Dynamic Duos (Frog and Toad, George and Martha, to name two favorites from my own childhood). Like her predecessors, Nyeu has packed her stories (there are four, organized as “mini-chapters” in the one picture book) with that winning combination of humor and heart. Squid and Octopus bear a particular resemblance to my son JP and his best buddy Willem: like all great friends, they argue about who is right, they make up by deciding they’re both right, they make each other laugh with silliness no parent can hope to understand, and they give each other lung-compressing squeezes that are supposed to resemble hugs.

What makes Nyeu’s book sing are her fantastical illustrations: pattern-studded silk screens made from water-based ink and colored pencils set against a simple white background. For a book about two cephalopods, living in an underwater universe complete with flower gardens, soup stands, and swing sets, one would expect backgrounds in dizzying shades of blue; but by setting her drawings on white, Nyeu focuses children’s attention on the irresistible quirkiness of the characters themselves. (I won’t say that I’m not totally attracted to the Jonathan Adler-esque color scheme of turquoise and orange as well.) As I was getting ready to write this post, I asked JP what his favorite thing about the book was. Instead of one, I got five enthusiastic points:

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Imagination Turbo Edition

July 3, 2012 Comments Off on Imagination Turbo Edition

When you watch your children practicing yoga moves in their kiddie pool, it’s easy to be struck by how differently today’s children entertain themselves than when we were growing up (yoga?). But then there are the things that never change from one generation to the next—like kids’ uncanny ability to lose themselves in imaginary play, especially if there are action figures involved.

That’s why you can’t go wrong by gifting one of Mini Grey’s picture books about a combat-boots-sporting action figure named Traction Man. In the hands and imagination of one little boy, Traction Man embarks on daring missions with the help of his trusty sidekick Scrubbing Brush. The latest installment in this original series, Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey (Ages 4-7), has just been published and is perfect for your summer birthday gifts (although why not bundle it with the original Traction Man for the Best Gift Ever?).

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Show Me the Moon

June 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Moon” was one of the very first words uttered by both of my children. When they’re playing outside at dusk, they will shriek at the top of their lungs—“MOOOOOOON!”—upon catching sight of it emerging in the still-blue sky.

If the sheer volume of children’s storybooks dedicated to this subject is any indication, my children are not alone in their enthrallment with the moon. It’s nearly impossible for me to choose one favorite story to profile here (see my lengthy list below), so I will simply go with the newest addition to this already impressive repertoire: Red Knit Cap Girl (Ages 2-5), written by first-time author Naoko Stoop. I’ve mentioned before my weakness for Japanese-influenced picture books; and, like so many of her predecessors, Stoop (who grew up in Japan and now lives in Brooklyn) has created a work that holds together like a perfectly wrapped present: each word is chosen with the utmost care, each picture serves a clear purpose. In a wholly original move, Stoop’s expressive, whimsical watercolors of a little girl and her woodland friends, on a quest to speak to the moon, are painted on pieces of plywood; children can actually see the grain of the wood shining through the paintings, an effect which is especially fitting for a story set in the forest.

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Make Way for “Hippopposites”

June 13, 2012 Comments Off on Make Way for “Hippopposites”

If there was ever a children’s book destined for the Museum of Modern Art, this would be it. Until then, Janik Coat’s newly published Hippopposites (Ages 18 mos-5 yrs) will find a perfect home alongside the Oeuf cribs and Tripp Trapp Chairs of today’s urban nurseries. From the thick oversized board pages, finished in an ultra high gloss, to the bold die-cut silhouettes, this book is a tour de force in graphic design.

But artistic achievement aside, what impressed me most when I encountered this gem on the shelves of my local bookstore is: FINALLY, a book that actually teaches the concept of opposites. There are lots of fun rhyming read-alouds that make use of opposites to tell their stories (see my list below), but they’re equal part silliness. Until now, I’m going to bet that kids have never mastered their opposites from reading books.

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Food: Not Just for Eating

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

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

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

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You Thought You Could Talk on the Phone?

May 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

It’s a situation we moms know all too well: The kids are playing nicely together; it’s quiet, even harmonious. You tiptoe to the other end of the house to make a “quick phone call.” As soon as the person on the other end answers the phone, there’s a tug on your leg. Suddenly, someone needs milk. Another someone is stepping over you trying to pull the scissors down to open a Zappos box (didn’t you leave that package on the porch)? Another someone has decided now is an opportune time to start poking his sister’s eyes. Another someone (or is it the same someone?) would like dinner and would like dinner NOW but not broccoli no way not eating that and why can’t we have mac ‘n cheese like so-and-so does every night and blah blah blah.

So, it’s no surprise that we sympathize with the mom in While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat (Ages 3-6), by newcomers Amy Reichert and Alexandra Boiger (pub. 2012). Bedtime is approaching, so Mama asks her daughter (think Eloise with red hair): “Rose, dear, please get ready for bed while I have a quick chat with your Uncle Fred. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. It’s getting late! I want you in bed by half past eight.” Naturally, Rose is well intentioned and would go straight to bed (truly), but what’s one to do when the doorbell rings and your mom doesn’t hear it and so you open the door and in bursts a team of men with party supplies for a party you didn’t know you were throwing?

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Alison Jay, Cloud Creator

April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments

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

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

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

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Spring is Here!

April 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Perhaps at no other time in our lives than when we are parenting young children are we more attuned to the changing of the seasons. Seen through our children’s eyes, it’s positively magical, nature unfolding in all sorts of surprising ways. Regardless of our “mild” winter, on March 1 our family had a March into Spring around our living room, started giddily discussing planting vegetables and riding bikes to school without jackets–and started reading Spring Books. In my opinion, a picture book about spring should capture the anticipation, the wonder, the thrill, and the hope we feel at the beginning of the season.

Get ready to open your hearts to And Then It’s Spring (Ages 3-6), a 2012 picture book by newcomer poet Julie Fogliano and one of my favorite contemporary illustrators Erin E. Stead (side note: if you don’t already own her zoo-animal masterpiece A Sick Day for Amos McGee, do not delay a second longer). And Then It’s Spring is one of those perfect marriages of words and pictures, where the end result is more than the sum of its parts. Without any illustrations, it’s simply a lovely free verse poem about “first you have brown/ all around you have brown/ then there are seeds/ and a wish for rain” and more waiting and “you worry about those seeds” but it’s still brown—until you wake up one morning and suddenly “it’s green/all around you have green.” Now add to this verse subtly stunning pencil and woodblock illustrations, and suddenly you have a little boy, his dog, a bunny, a bird, and a turtle (sporting a red wool cap)—all moving around a backyard that gets a little less brown every day.

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