Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

March 8, 2018 Comments Off on Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?

When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp? « Read the rest of this entry »

Long Live the National Parks

April 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

Last summer, we vacationed in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our family’s first foray into one of the major National Parks, and we had gotten the idea six months earlier while watching National Parks Adventure, the astoundingly beautiful and nail-biting IMAX movie (can we talk about those mountain bikers?!), directed by Greg MacGillivray and narrated by Robert Redford. All four of us left the Smithsonian theater feeling like we were missing out. Our regular hikes around our local wetlands preserve—beloved as they are—suddenly didn’t feel like…enough. Turns out we were right. In Acadia, after days of hiking around sparkling lakes and in and out of deliciously fragrant pine forests, of scrambling over vast expanses of rocks flanked by crashing waves, my son exclaimed, “This is what we should do on every vacation! Which National Park should we visit next?”

Next week is our spring break, and we’ll be stay-cationing. But, while our feet will be traversing our neighborhood parks, our imaginations will be taking flight on the adventures in the mountain of spring releases that have recently landed on our doorstep. Of all the new spring titles, probably the one I’ve most anticipated is Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon (Ages 9-13), a staggering and richly informative window into the ecology, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon. « Read the rest of this entry »

Less Creepy, More Crawly

October 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

"I Don't Like Snakes" by Nicola DaviesAt a time of year when people (ahem, my husband) seem to think it’s funny to leave plastic rats lying casually around the house, I thought there might be some value in remembering that even the creepiest and crawliest of creatures have some pretty awe-inspiring merits. Or, at least, maybe we don’t need to run screaming all the time.

Recently, I’ve been noticing that there seems to be a new kind of science picture book afoot—a refreshing companion to the National Geographic-types, which pair a myriad of facts with in-your-face photography. Don’t get me wrong: my son loves himself a fat, meaty information-packed book. My daughter, on the other hand, won’t touch one with a ten foot pole. Maybe it’s that she’s only five; maybe it’s a gender thing; or maybe it’s just that she’s wired differently. But I tend to think she craves the same kind of information—just in a different format.

Allow me to introduce two books in this new genre, which for lack of a more official term I am calling Conversational Non-Fiction. These are picture books with disarming first-person narrators, whimsical illustrations, a hefty dose of humor, and loads of true and fascinating facts slipped casually between the pages. These books—at least the two I’m about to discuss—are also the first informational picture books that my daughter has ever requested to hear again and again.

It’s no surprise that the first of these new books, I Don’t Like Snakes (Ages 5-10), is written by Nicola Davies, who has always had a gentle, narrative touch when it comes to non-fiction. (Heck, she made MICROBES both interesting and comprehensible to me (I mean, my children) with last year’s exceptional Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes.)

I Don’t Like Snakes stars a hair-bow-toting, fashionably-dressed little girl, whose Nightmare Come True is that she lives with a family that has snakes—lots of snakes—as  pets. (I, for one, totally feel her horror: I’m still recovering from the time I was nine and slept over at my friend Joanna’s house, and she had a boa constrictor that slithered right up to MY SLEEPING BAG. Nope. No thank you. No can do snakes as pets.)

As our heroine stares disbelieving at her family, casually adorned with snakes curled around their neck, she informs them for the 100th time, “I really, really, REALLY don’t like snakes.” Her father, mother, and brother ask her the only possible question: WHY?

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

For every one of the girl’s responses (They slither! They’re slimy! They have flicky tongues and creepy eyes!), her family offers a simple but intriguing explanation. “Snakes HAVE to slither,” said my mom. “They don’t have legs, so they bend like an S and use their ribs and scales to grip. It’s the only way they can move.” Illustrator Luciano Lozano then gives us the first of many full-page factual asides, this one about the three different types of slithering.

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

A snake’s skin is surprisingly dry; it only looks slimy because of its “shiny, see-through outer skin,” which it sheds, “like your old clothes that get too scruffy or too small.” It turns out this is exactly the kind of language that connects with both my daughter and the girl in the book. Her dad even sits down and draws mosaics with her, to illustrate the different warning and camouflage patterns of a snake’s scales.

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

“OK,” I said. “Maybe now that I know something about them, I do like snakes—just a little bit.” And that’s when Brother sees his opening. “Well, in that case, I’ll tell you something that’ll really scare you—how they kill things.” And here ensues an appropriately gruesome exposition on poison and strangulation.

"I (Don't) Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

In the book’s final pages, our heroine reveals a surprise of her own for her family. She shares her research on a subject of personal interest: the different ways that snakes have babies. It turns out that everyone brings something to the table in the name of science, and through understanding comes greater appreciation all around.

"I Don't Like Snakes" by Nicola Davies

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany BartonThe (unseen) narrator of Bethany Barton’s equally charming—albeit more boisterous—I’m Trying to Love Spiders (Ages 4-8), doesn’t prove quite as easy to convince as our snake girl, but she (or he) does make many valiant attempts. In this case, the narrator already knows quite a bit about arachnids—for instance, they’ve been around for millions of years, and their web-swinging skills make them “like bug ninjas.” She reminds herself of these and many other talents, as she stares down each one that scurries across the page.

Before inadvertently squishing it to death.

Not surprisingly, the most fun for the reader comes from helping the narrator smoosh these eight-legged, eight-eyed monstrosities; there’s even the outline of a human hand to show where the reader is intended to put hers. (I can’t help but have flashbacks to my children’s shrieks of laughter each time I read them Ethan Long’s inane Tickle the Duck when they were toddlers—blessedly out of print now—where the narrator keeps taunting the reader, whatever you do, don’t tickle the duck…).

Still, our narrator is determined to suppress her squashing instinct, at least occasionally. After each unsuccessful attempt, we are treated to more surprisingly interesting facts about spiders, like their different web construction techniques, or their absence of teeth (“spiders rely on their venom to dissolve their dinners, making bugs soft and slurpable!”).

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton

The most amount of time is spent on the question of just how poisonous spiders really are to humans, and this got the attention of my kids BIG TIME. As it turns out, only a few spiders—the female black widow and the brown recluse—“are poisonous enough to ruin your day.” My weather-obsessed son’s favorite takeaway from the book: “fatal spider bites are so rare, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning!”

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton

Come on, now, let’s try to pet the spider.

"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton


"I'm Trying to Love Spiders" by Bethany Barton

As luck would have it, just when the narrator finally comes around on the topic of spiders—after watching one make quick work of the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats buzzing in circles around the page—she is confronted by a new “frenemy” in town: the American cockroach. Whether there are any redeeming characteristics of the cockroach, though, is left for another day (in the meantime, get your shoe ready).

So, this Halloween, when you’re out trick or treating with your kids and some hairy animatronic spider jumps out at you, or you hear a rattling sound from behind a bush, or those freakin’ plastic rats keep showing up under your pillow, do your kids a favor and try not to scream. Too loud.

Because there’s a new PSA in town. I’m calling it Conversational Non-Fiction. And it just might get your kids to give ophiology or entomology or arachnology or creepology a chance.

Other Favorites About Taking the Creepy Out of the Crawly:
Disgusting Critters Early-Reader Series: The Spider, The Worm, The Slug, The Fly, Head Lice & The Rat, by Elise Gravel (super fantastic, and you’ll notice there isn’t one about the roach)

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Review copy provided by Candlewick and Penguin, respectively. All opinions are my own. affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Hibernating with Poetry (Joyce Sidman Style)

February 26, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick AllenNews flash: right now, under your very own backyard or front porch, there could be as many as 20,000 garter snakes huddled together, using the body warmth of one another to wait out these cold winter months. SAY WHAT? If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. And now you, too, can be reminded of said news flash by your seven year old every morning as you leave the house. All thanks to one of twelve poems in Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold (Ages 6-12), the latest lyrical and visual masterpiece by poet Joyce Sidman and printmaker Rick Allen.

Thankfully, Winter Bees IS a masterpiece, so you won’t mind reading about snakes, which may or may not be lurking in “hibernaculums” beneath the ground on which you tread (if you remember, our snake obsession started here). Thankfully, too, most of the poems in Winter Bees are more beautiful than creepy, inspiring awe for animals like tundra swans, moose, beavers, moles, and chickadees, as well as frosty events, like ice crystal formation. « Read the rest of this entry »

Digging for Dinosaurs

January 6, 2014 § 4 Comments

Dinosaur MuseumThe last week of my winter break was spent in a cloud of plaster dust. No, we’re not putting an addition on our house; and no, my husband did not finally repair our bedroom ceiling. I’m referring to the Excavation Kits that my son received for Christmas, the kind that come with kid-sized tools for chipping away at blocks of pink plaster, in an attempt to unearth miniature replicas of prehistoric bones. We are talking about a six year old engaged in hours upon hours of independent, uninterrupted work. Are you hearing this, my fellow parents? You need to get Santa to come back. Right now. And you won’t even mind the mess—in fact, you’ll never be happier to clean plaster dust off the floor.

There are kids so obsessed with dinosaurs that they not only know the names of them, but they can pronounce them correctly, tell you in which periods they lived, and rattle off lists of what they ate. JP is not one of those kids. He might be able to identify 15 dinosaurs, despite our reading extensively about them over the years (and I wouldn’t fare much better). For him, the lure lies in the process of dinosaur discovery, the means by which fossilized bones get from some remote dusty location to the pristine museum halls. I’ve mentioned before how much we love Jessie Hartland’s How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum (Ages 4-8), arguably one of the simplest and best introductions to the science of paleontology. And don’t even get me started on the downright fascinating portrayal of field work in Barnum’s Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World (Ages 5-10), by Tracey Fern and Boris Kulikov.

But (and I do apologize for this) I’ve been holding out on telling you about another of our favorites: the Pièce de Résistance of Dinosaur Books. I’m talking about National Geographic’s The Dinosaur Museum: An Unforgettable, Interactive, Virtual Tour Through Dinosaur History (Ages 5-10). « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: 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). « Read the rest of this entry »

Party Planning Angst

September 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

Xander's Panda PartyJP turned six today. As you may recall, we are All About Birthdays this month, having just celebrated my daughter’s third birthday two weeks ago. At some point over the summer, my kids realized that their birthdays were (sort of) approaching, and many of their conversations turned to what kind of parties they wanted to have (“Snakes and a pinata!” from JP; “Balloons and flowers!” from Emily) and whom they wanted to invite.

This latter debate became increasingly complicated for my youngest, because in addition to her now having a few similarly aged friends, she still claims most of her brother’s friends as her own (having been toted around to his play dates for three years). Back when JP turned three, we had exactly three children over for a nice, contained party. When Emily turned three, we found ourselves with 25 kids running around our backyard. Throw in a giant inflatable bounce house, a craft station, and soccer goals, and it would appear that my husband and I have finally embraced this moving-to-the-‘burbs thing. But I digress. « Read the rest of this entry »

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