In the Absence of Words: Why Share Wordless Picture Books With Your Kids

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Journey Trilogy by Aaron BeckerA few days before summer break ended, a giant box arrived from Candlewick publishing, containing a number of advance copies of fall releases. Candlewick is one of my favorite publishers—also one of the most generous supporters of my blog—and the buzz in our house when one of their boxes arrives is akin to Christmas morning. The kids and I tore open the box and quickly identified new installments in some of our favorite series (the new Princess in Black comes out in November, as well as the third in the “hat” stories by the dry-witted Jon Klassen; both are fabulous).

But there was one book that—hands down!—got the loudest squeals and the highest jumps as soon as my kids laid eyes on it. Aaron Becker’s Return (Ages 5-10) is the much-anticipated finale of a wordless trilogy about a girl, her red crayon, and the otherworldly adventures to which her art and her imagination transport her (I wrote about the first title, Journey, back in 2013, before it went on to win a Caldecott Honor).

Wordless books can be a hard sell. They can be an especially hard sell for parents, because what exhausted parent wants the pressure of making up a narrative when the relief of bedtime is so near? How can I read a book with no words? Can’t my kid just look at that on his own?

Hear me out.

For starters, education researchers have long touted the value of wordless picture books as a tool for pre-literacy. When children are learning to read—when they’re caught in that delicate balance of needing to cherish small successes but not fully versed in phonograms and sight words—they can look to pictures for valuable clues about what the text might be saying. (He’s picking up a fork, so that word must be “fork”; there’s a grimace on his face as he’s eating, so that must mean the words are going to be about him not liking it).

When children are forced to extract a narrative from pictures alone, they become well versed at using visual clues to decode text.

I would argue that the value of wordless picture books extends well past the early-reading stage. Wordless books can help make close readers of our children, a vital skill for academic success at every grade level.

Especially in the hands of a visual wizard like Becker, the reader is rewarded for every extra second he or she takes to study the pictures. On nearly every spread in Journey, Quest, and Return, there is mystery, intrigue, wonder, and confusion. Repeated readings only deepen our experience, reveal things that our eyes—in our haste—missed the first time.

Let’s talk about that haste for a minute. (We are listening to Charlotte’s Web in the car these days, so I feel inspired to quote the wise Charlotte: “…with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”)

When my nine year old tears through beloved series like The Hardy Boys, Hazardous Tales, and I Survived, I can’t help but wonder: how carefully does he read? Does he skip over passages when he doesn’t understand? Does he take time to notice the language, the details of a setting, or the way a character is described? Does he have an opinion about the book, other than “It was epic!”?

I try very hard not to scrutinize or judge (outwardly) my children’s reading habits. If my kids are reading, I want them to read—without my asking loaded questions about whether they’ve finished a book or what they are learning from the story or whether they will read aloud parts to me. I want them to read for the love of the thing. I want them to discover their own motivations for reading outside parental or adult pressure.

Instead, I try to model good books and good reading practices. I choose books to read aloud that showcase beautiful language, complex characters, and plots rich in shades of grey and murky emotions. I often share aloud my own feelings about the things we’re reading. I tell them which questions are giving me pause. Much of the time, they are quick to join me in conversation.

As it turns out, I don’t have to be reading books with words to accomplish that.

Weeks back, when that box showed up at our doorstep and my kids jumped up with Return in their hands, then ran through various rooms to locate the first two titles in the trilogy so that we could read all three books straight through, I was reminded that sharing wordless picture books with our children can be another immensely valuable way to teach them to slow down and cherish the intricacies of a story.

It’s a credit to Aaron Becker just how hard my children and I are willing to work to interpret his lantern-hung forests, his purple skies, and the rock-clad walls of his prophetic caves. (Interesting side note: in the author’s bio printed on the jacket cover of the newest book, we learn that the exotic kingdom depicted in the trilogy, with its lavish domes and flowing canals and frenetic kings and emperors, is inspired by Becker’s visit as a child to Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France—the same walled island we all grew to love in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See).

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

Here’s the gist of what my kids and I have surmised from the time we’ve spent with these books.

In Journey, a girl escapes boredom by drawing a doorway into a magical land and inadvertently finding herself in the center of an enslavement plot. Her creativity, along with the artistic aid of a like-minded boy, guides her safely home again, while at the same time giving her the companionship she has been seeking.

"Journey" by Aaron Becker

In Quest, Becker’s second book, the girl with the red crayon and her new friend with the purple crayon are drawn back into the mysterious world, where greater intrigue and suspense greet them. We learn that their crayons are part of a larger set of six that, in the right hands, can return color and freedom and prosperity to this grey and conflict-laden kingdom.

"Quest" by Aaron Becker

Now at last, in Return, we are given the final pieces of the puzzle. It was my son who came up with the idea that the bad guys aren’t simply after the crayons; they’re after art. Or, rather, they’re out to destroy the transformative power of making art. It was also my son who pointed out details that I initially missed: how the green emanating from the emperor’s boat is a sickly, unnatural green, a slime green, a green that somehow instinctively identifies him as evil.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

Our reading of these books is full of “Wait, look at that!” and “Oh, now I get it,” and “But what it THAT?” Three heads huddled over the same book. Three sets of fingers pointing. Three voices contributing to one shared understanding.

Perhaps there’s a third, even more powerful benefit that comes from sharing wordless picture books with our children—and that’s the opportunity to collaborate with them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, as we make the difficult transition into the rigidity of fall routines: of rushing to school, of rushing home from school, of trying to get dinner on the table and everyone to bed at an early hour so that we can make some semblance of an attempt at doing it all over again the next day.

Too often, I parent from a place of authority rather than a place of collaboration. But how can I insist that my children develop flexibility unless I am willing to demonstrate It myself? Wordless picture book, like the Journey trilogy (and I’ve listed other favorites at the end of this post), present a rare gift for us parents to embrace the benefits of honoring our children as partners, rather than progeny.

Appropriately, this happens to be precisely how the trilogy concludes. If the first book casts a less-than-favorable light on the girl’s parents—her mother chatting on the phone while cooking, her father too busy on his computer to respond to the girl’s entreaties to play—the third book spins a more optimistic narrative.

Return begins when the father looks up from his work and, seeing his daughter’s kite dropped at his feet, goes in search of her.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

When he finds her red door, he ducks and enters—until he, too, is a character in the vivid magical world that has bewitched his daughter on so many occasions. As it turns out, and as the girl only recognizes once she has forgiven his indifference and welcomed him into her imagination, the father has a critical role to play in the unfolding drama. The two share an adventure which, not only brings them closer together, but reveals a secret about the father’s own history with art and imagination. A door once closed has opened again for him.

"Return" by Aaron Becker

We do not need words on a page to comprehend the sheer joy on the girl’s face at the realization that she has an accomplice in her beloved parent. (Hint: see if your child picks up on the subtle change in the endpapers from the beginning of Return to the end; my daughter had to show me, and I almost broke down sobbing, so close to home did it hit.)

In a few months—and at a time when we aren’t rushing—I plan to get out these books again and encourage my kids to look at them alongside me with fresh eyes. I imagine they won’t need convincing. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can discover and interpret and learn from these sensational pages.

Updated Nov 2017: The Journey trilogy BOX SET is now available: gorgeously packaged and including a never-before-released print!

Other Favorite Wordless Picture Books:
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 3-6)
Flashlight, by Lizi Boyd (Ages 3-6)
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee (Ages 4-8; I challenge you to get through this story of connection without tearing up.)
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Ages 4-8)
Pool, by Jihyeon Lee (Ages 4-8, reviewed by me here)
The Girl and the Bicycle and The Boy and the Airplane, by Mark Prett (Ages 4-8)
Fox’s Garden, by Princesse Camcam (Ages 4-8)

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. 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!

A Tasty New Chapter Series (Sprinkles Included)

March 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

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

But back to Arnie. As original and humorous as that 2003 picture book is, I’ve always felt that a precocious and paranoid pastry would really take off among the emerging reader crowd. My wish came true last fall, when Keller kicked off a chapter book series, beginning with The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut: Bowling Alley Bandit (Ages 5-7 if reading aloud; 7-9 if reading independently). The series picks up where the picture book leaves off, and each installment is concerned with a different predicament (translate: mishap) that Arnie falls into in his life with Mr. Bing. (Before you ask, no, you don’t have to read the picture book to dive into the chapter series.) Bowling Alley Bandit is an uproarious story filled with a bowling rivalry, a talking slice of pizza (Arnie’s BFF), numerous rounds of karaoke, and jealous, scheming bowling balls.

My six year old has literally been counting the days until the release of Arnie’s next adventure, this one titled The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut: Invasion of the UFONUTS (same ages). And now that it is here, the payoff has exceeded our wildest expectations. What could be better than a wise-cracking doughnut? How about a wise-cracking doughnut who gets hijacked by alien doughnuts?! As usual, the joke is on Arnie, who finds himself, not in the center of an inter-galactic conspiracy to put doughnut stores out of business, as he initially assumes—but, rather, in the starring role of a feature film, directed by his friend Peezo, the talking pizza slice. Speaking of friends, in case you think Keller is all fluff, she’s not. Buried amidst Hollywood humor, flying cups and saucers, and random George Washington asides, Invasion of the UFONUTS is a story about two friends who argue, make up, and learn a thing or two about the danger of jumping to conclusions.

Bowling Alley Bandit and Invasion of the UFONUTS are perfect read-aloud chapter books, designed to ignite both the imagination and a love for reading. At first glance, the large, graphic-styled text might seem like it’s targeted at a beginning reader. But both Keller’s vocabulary and her humor are quite sophisticated; and it will take several readings by a parent before a newish reader will want to take these on independently. But that’s what I love about them. I envision these books having a very long shelf life. With a dozen short chapters, they are long enough to split into multiple sittings, yet short enough to read straight through on a drizzly, Saturday morning. They’re the kind of books that can be read on multiple levels (a young reader might start by reading all the highly entertaining speech bubbles). And they’re the kind of books that, when our blossoming readers do take them on in their entirety, they will surprise and delight with new details every single time.

We’ve read Invasion several times since getting it last week, but I’ve deliberately left out the Afterward, a quirky little section called “How to Speak UFONUT” (the language of the alien doughnuts—apparently, “like speaking Pig Latin, only instead of words ending in AY or WAY, they end in UT or NUT”). Down the road, I look forward to JP discovering this bonus material on his own and leaving mysterious notes around the house for me to decode. Like I said, life with Laurie Keller is just more fun.

Other Favorites by Laurie Keller (note that even though these are picture books, their content and humor is great for the elementary set!):
The Scrambled States of America (Ages 5-10)
The Scrambled States of America Talent Show (Ages 5-10)
Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners (Ages 5-10)
Plus, while I never plug TV here, you really must check out the Scholastic DVD of the original Arnie the Doughnut–the accents are fantastic. This has been my family’s favorite thing to watch on car trips for years!

Eye Candy in the Polar Vortex

January 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

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

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

The story begins with a piece of loose leaf that a little girl discovers tucked into the saddle of the polar bear at her local merry-go-round. On the paper, in hastily drawn pencil, are the words “please bring,” along with a picture of a balloon. When young Emma shows up with a single red polka-dotted balloon, she finds another note: “Bring more.” And here’s where the Eye Candy begins. Ward, a cut-paper artist (who made her picture book debut a few years ago with the darling New York-themed story When Blue Met Egg), has created bouquets of balloons from intricate floral, dotted, lettered, and textured papers (she must live at Paper Source). Each time we read the book, my Emily runs her fingers over the balloons, pointing out her favorites and discovering new ones at every turn. The balloons are sufficiently numerous to breathe buoyancy and life into the polar bear, who leaps off the carousel with Emma on his back—and flies with her all the way to the Arctic, where they frolic in the snow alongside other jubilant polar bears. The juxtaposition of the midnight, star-studded sky against the white icebergs and knee-deep snow is again enhanced by the use of collage: maps of the North Pole, white washed by Ward, stand in for the landforms. Snowflakes gently “kiss” Emma’s nose as they fall, and she has only to pull up her hood and snuggle into the bear’s back to keep herself warm. Like I said, snow in books is perfect.

Lindsay Ward's Please Bring Balloons

In every one of Emma’s gestures, I see my Emily. The way she fiercely squeezes the neck of the bear in a burst of joy; the way she throws her hands in front of her as she walks through the snow; the way she grins from ear to ear as the bear spins her around in circles. But what I love most is the way she embodies the spirit of adventures, of optimism, that every child inherently possesses. “The next morning, Emma went to the carousel to find everything as it always was. No sign of any balloons. ‘Even if it wasn’t real, it was the best adventure I’ve ever had,’ Emma whispered as she hugged the polar bear.” We all need to romanticize a bit in our heads. It’s what keeps us smiling in the Polar Vortex. We don’t have to wait until spring to dance. We can do it right now in our imagination.

Other Favorite Arctic (& Antarctic) Adventures:
Polar Bear Night, by Lauren Thompson & Stephen Savage (Ages 1-4)
Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers (Ages 3-6)
A Penguin Story, by Antoinette Portis (Ages 2-5)
Little Dog Lost: The True Story of a Brave Dog Named Baltic, by Monica Carnesi (Ages 3-6)

Holiday Gift Guide 2013 (No. 5): Illustrated Chapter Books for the Adventure Seeker

December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments

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

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

I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. This story, along with the others discussed below, would be gift-worthy in their own right; but all three books benefit from the bonus of illustration. Like the energetic pen-and-ink sketches that Skottie Young did for Fortunately, the Milk, art makes these chapter books accessible to a younger audience (like my JP), while still introducing the child to mature subjects and a rich vocabulary. These books are a gateway, not only to the imagination but—as Gaiman so eloquently reminds us—to opening up our children’s eyes to different perspectives. They take us back in time. They take us around the world. They let us see the world through the eyes of others, be it ambitious mice or misunderstood yetis.

Richard Peck's "The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail"In Richard Peck’s The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (Ages 9-12, younger if reading aloud), we travel back in history to Queen Victoria’s London, where we are privy not only to the happenings in Buckingham Palace, but also (and most importantly) to Britain’s underground world: a parallel society of mice, engaged in their own hierarchy of power and bound to the same traditions as the British humans surrounding them. Peck is no stranger to fantasy (nor to writing about mice—check out last year’s Secrets at Sea), and his brilliance lies in the sheer detail with which he constructs his imaginative worlds. Consider a world whose very existence is so secretive that you have to hide your intelligence, your ability to speak—heck, you even have to shed your clothes—each time you’re in the presence of a human. At the heart of the story is a young mouse, adopted as a baby, who runs away to find out the truth about himself and his heritage. Amidst harrowing adventures with cats, bats, punch bowls, and the Yeomice of the Guard, our protagonist discovers, not only his courage and intelligence, but also that he’s next in line to the throne! Like any great fantasy, no matter how strange or comical the situations (and some of these had JP and I in stitches), the feelings of the characters are deeply familiar to the reader. “Squeak up,” our young hero is constantly told—only it’s hard to be brave when you’re just a tiny creature living in an adult-centric world! A few months ago, when I was nearly finished reading the book to JP, my husband took a business trip to London. One night he called and asked to be put on speakerphone. “I ran by the Mews this morning! They’re right where the book says they are!” (The Mews are the stables for Buckingham Palace and the place where much of the mice action takes place.) I watched JP’s eyes grow wide like saucers. Later, as I was tucking him into bed, he said: “It really could have happened, you know. I mean, Mommy, if we can’t see the mice, we don’t really know for sure that they aren’t doing those things.” Who can argue with that?

Eva Ibbotson's "The Abominables"One definitely can’t argue with the convincing premise of Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which reveals yetis as some of the kindest, most compassionate, most smiley creatures on earth—and not, in fact, the terrifying, child-eating monsters that most humans assume they are. So when the tourist industry threatens to encroach upon a family of yetis living peacefully in a secret valley of the Himalayas, two human children take it into their hands to smuggle the yetis across Asia and Europe (readers can track their progress on the map inside the cover) to a safer life in Jolly Old England. (For those who don’t know, the late Ibbotson was a hugely successful British children’s author—but one whom I’d not read until now. After reading this extraordinary book, which was published posthumously this year, I must read everything she wrote!) While the children, along with the help of an accomplice “lorry” driver, are the ones transporting the abominable snowmen across continents in a giant crate, it is the big-hearted yetis that emerge the real heroes of the book, offering valuable life lessons at every turn. We are gently schooled on animal rights, on caring for the environment, and on never turning your back on someone who needs help. At times, the outcry against animal cruelty reminded me of the incredibly moving but deeply sad 2013 Newberry-Award winner, The One and Only Ivan (I think I cried for a week). Better suited for a younger audience, The Abominables managed to keep JP and I smiling amidst its powerful message. After all, there is something infinitely charming about enormous, fur-covered creatures, whose faces sport horns and whose toes point backwards, trying to navigate the human world: apologizing to the plants they eat, powdering their faces in hotel suites, or asking to hear another story about “that bear called Winnie” (a.k.a. Winnie the Pooh). But I think what impressed me most about this story is its profound insistence that, quite often, life’s Most Important Work is done by children. It’s children, after all, who possess the innate ability to see past differences, to find hope in the most unlikely places, and to keep on trying against all odds to get their way. Sometimes, it drives us batty. But sometimes, it actually makes the world a better place.

Holiday Gift Guide 2013 (No. 4): Compelling Non-Fiction For the Animal Lover

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Steve Jenkins' The Animal BookLast year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12). Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). I never tire of marveling at each visual masterpiece, from the reticulated python to the two-foot-long tongue of a giant anteater to the brilliantly colored eggs lined up from smallest to largest. Towards the end is a clearly presented timeline of life, spanning a mere 3.5 billion years. And then there are the just-plain-awesome charts, peppered throughout the book: one showing number and types of eyes (at the top with one eye is the copepod, at the bottom with 1000 eyes is the giant clam); another bar graph shows average gestation periods (an African elephant is pregnant for 640 days?!). Even the book’s appendixes are supreme, including an accessible eleven-page guide for children to make their own animal books! Are you sold yet? Even if you don’t buy one for your family, you might consider donating it to your children’s school library!

Steve Bloom's Polar AnimalsSpeaking of school libraries, one of my greatest thrills is picking out new books for my children’s school, which at only three years old is still building its library from the ground up. Each fall, we hold a fundraiser (at our local independent bookstore), where not only can parents purchase books off the school’s “wish list,” but a percentage of the day’s proceeds go back to the school in the form of store credit. This fall, one of my favorite finds for our school’s “wish list” was two books by wildlife photographer, Steve Bloom: Polar Animals: In Search of Polar Bears, Penguins, Whales and Seals (Ages 5-10) and Big Cats: In Search of Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs and Tigers (Ages 5-10). Pairing National Geographic-esque photographs with animal data is not unique, of course, but what I love about these books (back to my preference for non-fiction that’s presented in a narrative format), is that these read like travel journals. Not unlike the way my son’s elementary class keeps a “work journal” about their activities in the classroom, Polar Animals shows how this technique is used by scientists, in this case tracking Bloom’s voyage from the North to the South Poles and revealing not only what he saw but how he felt. Details about the expeditions range from the team of humpback whales that he surprises (they’re too busy rounding up a school of fish) to the fur-covered toilet he fashions out of ice (“luckily, there’s no one to see me use it”). The captions beside each photograph are concise, engaging, and appropriate for developing readers, and they serve as the perfect introduction to a variety of animals. JP loves bringing his camera with him to the zoo or on a nature walk, and Bloom is just as interested in inspiring kids to take these kinds of photos (he includes ideas in a “photo projects” page at the end), as he is in teaching children about the magnificent creatures they might encounter in the wild.

The Hive DetectivesFor the older and more serious Animal Hunter, the Scientists in the Field series has been a game-changer for engaging the upper elementary crowd in natural science. What sets these books apart is the sheer passion with which they are written. One of the newer books in the series (published in 2010 but available to a larger audience in 2013), The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe, by Loree Griffin Burns (Ages 9-14), interrogates bee keepers and bee scientists around the country in an effort to solve the mystery of the dwindling honey bee population. I am pretty sure that I would have been a lot more interested in non-fiction as a kid if the books had been as compelling as this one, whose highly detailed but ever-engaging narrative is broken up with photographs of real scientists doing real work, excerpts from field journals, and microscopic slides. And, of course, it’s rooted in a true story, when 20 million bees first disappeared from one man’s hives in 2006. En route to solving this mystery, we get lessons in honey production, hive organization, and bee dissection—all in an effort to test out various hypotheses for why bees are dying, including pests, viruses, and pesticides. As we hear from various specialists, we are privy to insider jokes (“We beekeepers like to say that whoever invented the hive tool [used to pry up the honey supers] should get a Nobel Prize…it’s that’s useful”); but we also get a holistic picture of honey bee communities as they are being affected by modern farming practices and environmental shifts. At the end of the book, true to many scientific questions, the bee mystery is not completely solved. It will be up to the next generation—our own budding naturalists—to ask more questions, to get their hands dirty in the field and in the lab, and to educate the world about this beautiful and important species.

Other 2013 Non-Fiction Favorites for the Animal Lover:
Flight of the Honey Bee, by Raymond Huber & Brian Lovelock (Ages 5-9)
Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, by Annette LeBlanc Cate  (Ages 7-12)
Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really Looked Like? by Catherine Thimmesh (Ages 8-12)
The Dolphins of Shark Bay (Scientists in the Field series), by Pamela S. Turner (Ages 9-14)
The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal (Scientists in the Field series), by Sy Montgomery & Nic Bishop (Ages 9-14)
Stronger Than Steel: Spider Silk DNA and the Quest for Better Bulletproof Vests, Sutures, and Parachute Rope (Scientists in the Field series), by Bridget Heos & Andy Commins (Ages 10-15)

Holiday Gift Guide 2013 (No. 3): Bedtime Stories for the “Goodnight Gorilla”-Obsessed

December 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Mem Fox's Good Night Sleep Tight“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!).

Helen Docherty's The SnatchabookCan 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.

Mary Logue's Sleep Like a TigerConfession: 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.)

Holiday Gift Guide 2013 (No. 2): Stories of Perseverance for the Engineer

December 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

Andrea Beaty's Rosie Revere, EngineerIf at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That might be easy to say as a parent, but we have only to remember our own childhoods to know how hard it is to hear. Just the other night, my son was attempting to draw a human profile by following one of those step-by-step guidebooks. Diligently huddled over his paper, he suddenly threw the pencil across the room and yelled, “This isn’t working at all! It doesn’t even look like a person!” Actually, I thought, it does look like a person—just not like the one in the book. Oftentimes, we cannot see our triumphs for what they are. The creative process—its ups, its downs, its just plain hard work—is wonderfully captured in Rosie Revere, Engineer (Ages 5-8), the newest venture by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts, the team that created one of my favorite picture books of all time: Iggy Peck Architect. What black-turtleneck-sporting Iggy Peck did for building designs, red-scarf-sporting Rosie Revere (yes, her namesake is Rosie the Riveter) does for engineering. She makes it look—well—cool. Second grader Rosie isn’t only a clever, resourceful inventor—fashioning scraps of trash into hot dog dispensers and hats that chase away snakes—she does it all with a sense of style, including red patent leather shoes and side-swept hair. The only problem is that she doesn’t realize how great she is—and after suffering some humiliation at the hands of a relative, she begins to hide her talents (come on, Rosie, lean in, lean in!). Fortunately, Rosie’s great-great-aunt, a former engineer herself, shows up to inspire Rosie’s greatest invention: a flying machine. With the likes of some spray cheese, a house fan, and the dismembered head of a baby doll, Rosie’s “heli-o-cheese-copter” soars up into the sky before crashing to pieces (nod to another favorite about a girl with dreams of flight, Violet the Pilot). Our despairing heroine is ready to throw in the towel on engineering until she hears: “‘Yes!’ said her great aunt. ‘It crashed. That is true./ But first it did just what it needed to do/…Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!/  Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!’” The already ultra-hip illustrations (hello, mid-century modern fashion and architecture!) get even sexier when Rosie’s aunt presents her with a journal, containing pages of red graph paper covered with graphite sketches of historic aeronautic achievements by women. Rosie can and should continue to dream big. After all, “the only true failure can come if you quit.”

Candace Fleming's Papa's Mechanical FishSpeaking of never giving up no matter how crazy you seem to everyone around you, Candace Fleming’s Papa’s Mechanical Fish (Ages 4-8) is an enchanting fictionalized account of an eccentric, real life inventor from the 1950s: a man named Lodner Phillips, who was obsessed with building a submarine in which his family could traverse the bottom of Lake Michigan. Behind every great mind is a muse—and, in Phillips’ case, Fleming imagines this person to be his daughter. With the sinking of each prototype, young Virena casually but coyly drops hints, like “Papa, how do fish move through the water?” (the next model features a motorized fin and tail), and “Papa, how do fish stay dry?” (voilà, waterproof copper!). The exuberant but gentle dialogue between family members is a joy to read aloud, but the real draw here are the illustrations by Boris Kulikov, a prolific Russian=trained artist who excels at expressive faces and dramatic contortions of scale, both perfectly suited to this story about a larger-than-life figure embarking on a larger-than-life “mechanical fish.” “It almost worked,” Papa is fond of repeating throughout the book, and given the intensity in his wide eyes, the joyful anticipation that spreads across his face with each unveiling, his frenzied returns to the studio, and his family’s celebratory dances on the docks, we too can’t help but cheer for him. My son’s favorite page comes toward the end, when the four children, their mother, and their bulldog Rex are standing on various contraptions, trying to see through the newspapered windows of Papa’s garage studio (actually, the dog is cleverly trying to dig underneath the garage). Lest we forget the enormity of the task at hand, Kulikov’s illustrations are augmented with torn pages of Papa’s journal, revealing highly intricate black-and-white sketches of his inventions (very Leonardo da Vinci). After all, the man built submarines in his garage. And you know what? One of them actually worked.

Lynne Berry's What Floats in a MoatLearning through experimentation gets a delightful dose of humor in Lynne Berry’s new picture book, What Floats in a Moat? (Ages 4-8), an introduction for children to the displacement of water, a discovery first made by the ancient Greek scientist, Archimedes. If that sounds over your child’s head, it isn’t. For starters, you have to love a story about a knighted goat named Archie (the Afterward makes the historic connection) and his sidekick, Skinny the Hen. Then there’s the fantastically absurd premise: en route to deliver three barrels of buttermilk to the Queen’s castle, the two decide to take an unconventional detour “in the name of science!” Why go across the drawbridge when you can go across the moat on a barrel—and test out a few hypotheses along the way? As with any entertaining literary duo, there is a natural-born leader (read: bossy) and a skeptical accomplice (read: sucker), and the dialogue between Archie and Skinny does not disappoint (nor do Matthew Cordell’s whimsical sketches). After the first failed attempt on a full barrel of buttermilk, which quickly sinks to the bottom of the moat, Archie considers a new angle:

“‘Aha! To cross the moat,’ pronounced the goat, ‘an empty barrel might float!’

‘Empty?’ said Skinny.

‘Empty,’ said Archie. ‘Drink, Skinny, drink!’

‘Drink buttermilk?’ asked Skinny.

‘Indeed,’ said Archie. ‘For science!’

‘Ha!’ said Skinny. ‘YOU are the scientist.’

‘Ah,’ said Archie, ‘but YOU are skinny.’”

At this point, my children are already laughing their heads off, but the fun goes on as the now empty barrel spins and rolls around on top of the water, leaving Archie once again at the bottom of the moat. More sketching and hammering and tinkering ensues until the third time proves a charm: a half-full barrel displaces just enough water to float without spinning. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (Funny how that sounds so much better when it comes from a book!)

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