Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

March 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

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?

I am halfway through one of the most compelling parenting books I’ve ever read. In The Self-Driven Child, clinical neuropsychologist, William Stixrud, along with motivational coach, Ned Johnson, make a convincing case for what our children need most from us. Drawing from personal experience and brain science, they argue that the main driver behind children’s well-being isn’t grades, or where they go to school, or what things they have. Rather, it’s how much control children perceive as having over their lives. Do they feel they can direct their lives in a meaningful way? Do they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?

“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being,” the book puts forth.

Perhaps more than we realize, we parents get in the way of our children developing their agency. We don’t mean to, of course. It’s just incredibly hard to sit back and watch our kids potentially sabotage friendships, tests, or the chance for future success. Maybe we want them to do what we did because it worked out so well, or maybe we’re hoping to save them from making the same mistakes we did. In any case, Stixrud and Johnson write:

So often, parents want to play Edward Scissorhands and start pruning their child like a tree, but the reality is that your tree has just begun to grow, and you don’t even know what kind of tree it is.

Sometimes, I would add, we “prune” our children without ever saying a word.

A few weeks ago, I attended my seven-year-old daughter’s “student-led conference” at her Montessori school, where she presented some of her recent work. To kick off the night, she shared a written “self-assessment,” in which she had noted her temperament, values, and interests. On one page was a list of “strong likes” and “strong dislikes.” Under the likes column, she had listed her brother, her father, and me (phew)—along with chocolate cake, polar bears, Helen Keller, and a few other things I couldn’t make out. Under dislikes, she had put “peppers.”

“Like spicy peppers?” I asked.

“No, like the peppers I eat for lunch.”

Ok, wait. My daughter packs her own lunch every morning. More often than not, she puts in red peppers. “You don’t like the red peppers you pack for lunch everyday?”

“I hate them,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“Then why do you pack them?” I had to ask.

“You put them on the counter, so I know you want me to. It seems important to you.”

Clearly, in their book, Stixrud and Johnson are talking about bigger things than bringing peppers for lunch. Or are they? What would have happened if my daughter had complained about packing peppers for lunch one morning? Would I have interpreted it as whining and glared at her in exasperation? Would I have passive-aggressively suggested she pack carrots instead, knowing how little she cares for those? Would I have barked, “They’re already out. Just pack them so you can hurry up and eat your breakfast.” Did she have any choice but to wait until we were on her turf to deliver this information?

I immediately thought about the heroine in Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Ages 5-9), the delightfully funny but astutely provocative early chapter book by award-winners Laura Amy Schlitz (three words: The Night Fairy) and Brian Floca. Published last year and enjoyed countless times in our house since then, Princess Cora and the Crocodile suddenly seems like the perfect, if hyperbolic, meditation on what it means to give our kids agency—before they have to go and unleash their inner crocodile.

You might say our protagonist, Princess Cora, has an agency problem. Meaning she has none. Her well-meaning royal parents have micromanaged every aspect of her life, beginning moments after her birth, as soon as they remember she will someday be queen. “They stopped thinking she was perfect and started worrying about what might be wrong with her. By the time she was seven years old, there wasn’t a single minute when Princess Cora wasn’t being trained.” Training, pruning: in this case, it’s the same thing.

As it turns out, Cora has grown increasingly resentful about her life in the royal castle. The nanny insists she takes, not one, but three baths a day. (“The nanny thought that being clean was the most important thing in the world.”) The King, determined that Cora grow up to be physically strong, stands over her with a stop watch, while she jumps rope in circles across the floor of the dungeon-now-gym. (“Princess Cora knew that skipping rope was good for her, but that didn’t make her like it any better.”) And the Queen only allows her to read books about running a successful kingdom. (“The books were so dull that Princess Cora yawned until her eyes were full of tears.”)

Why doesn’t Cora say something? Well, she tries. Sometimes, while reading books, she “asked silly questions, just to liven things up.” But then she’s criticized for being “inappropriate.” Sometimes, while asked to jump rope, she starts to protest. But then her father puts on a sad face and asks her, “Princess Cora, are you being a good girl?” To which it is assumed there should be only one answer.

Where questions of agency are concerned, it seems girls have it all the harder, feeling pressure to bend not only to parental demands, but also to society’s expectations. Girls, after all, are supposed to be “good.” To be polite and well-mannered. To never be loud or bossy or messy or angry. To never hurt feelings.

So, Cora does one of the few things allowed of heroines in fairy tales. She writes to her fairy godmother. In this case, the protocol for contacting one’s fairy godmother—my daughter loves this part—is to write a letter, tear it up, and leave it on the window ledge, where each of the scraps turns into a white butterfly and flies away.

Cora writes specifically of her wish for a dog (“a dog wouldn’t tell her what to do”), but she finds something much larger at the foot of her bed the next morning. A crocodile. And not just any crocodile. A crocodile who triumphantly exclaims, “I’ve come to rescue you from your awful parents and your mean nanny.” A crocodile who seems every bit the opposite of the neat, quiet, polite princess. (Or is he?) Did I mention this crocodile bites? That he leaves a wake of destruction in his path? That he says things which are very, very rude? That he demands cream puffs all day and night?

The princess and the crocodile hatch a plan: Cora will run away and experience life outside the castle walls, while the crocodile will stand in for her, donning a dress and a mop for hair. (Cora assures him her parents aren’t very observant.)

What follows is a most entertaining juxtaposition: the sweet revelations of Cora’s tromp through nature, interspersed with the uproarious physical comedy of the crocodile wreaking havoc back home. While we might guess where this is going, the delight comes from the delicious details in Schlitz’s narrative and the whimsy of Floca’s drawings.

Cora climbs trees, stuffs herself full of freshly-picked strawberries, and walks barefoot through cow patties (at first thought, “Ew ew ew;” at second thought, “I’m having an adventure!”). Her petticoats rip and her cheeks pink up.

Back at the castle, the crocodile starts by turning the bathroom into a water slide and tossing Nanny into the bath. Later, bored of his reading lesson (the Queen initially assumes she is talking to Cora), he balances the ink pot on his nose until black splotches cover the table; swings from the chandelier; taunts the Queen with “bad rhymes;” and nips at her ankles. Finally, he chases the King around in circles and ties him up with the skipping rope.

“I don’t want to be a good little girl,” the crocodile declares. “I want to be a bad crocodile. And what’s more, I am one!” And that, of course, is when we realize that the crocodile is none other than a metaphor for the anger and rebellion—the maleness, if you will—which good girl Cora has tried so many years to repress.

As we expect, Cora eventually realizes that she misses her parents, and she decides to return to the castle. Only this time, it’s on her terms. As it turns out, the King and Queen and Nanny have also had a change of heart. (After getting locked in the library, the Queen realizes just how boring her books are and throws them out the window.) The grown-ups begin to do something they have never done before: they begin to listen to Cora. This time, she talks clearly, convincingly, and assertively. (“This time Cora didn’t hang her head or turn red or burst into tears.”) Cora speaks of her interest in reading about “sharks and tigers and fairies”; in climbing trees and learning how to juggle; in taking baths but only after getting very, very dirty. To their surprise, her parents discover that Cora’s overall goals for herself aren’t dramatically different from the ones they have for her; it’s only that she has different ideas about how to achieve them.

The Self-Driven Child raises the unsettling question, “If we’re unable to accept our kids as they are, how can we expect them to accept themselves?” The authors challenge us to listen, really listen to our children. They suggest, what if instead of steering our children down a path we deem best, we begin seeing our job as one of “consultant”—helping our children see the pros and cons of a decision but then, ultimately, leaving that decision up to them? After all, if we accept our children as they are, perhaps they won’t feel the need to unleash their inner crocodile just to get our attention. Perhaps they can embrace all aspects of their personality, not just the ones society tells them are most “appropriate.”

After a brief hiatus, Emily has started packing peppers again in her lunch. Maybe her hatred is softening, or maybe it’s just on her terms now.

(And no, I’m not going to tell you what becomes of the crocodile.)


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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. 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!

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.

Jason Chin is one of my favorite contemporary writers and illustrators of non-fiction picture books for older children, in large part because of his unique narrative and artistic style of “dropping” us into the center of the action. If there was ever a case to be made for owning books, look no further. Each of Chin’s Coral Reefs, Redwoods, and Island: A Story of the Galapagos (the latter being an intro into evolution for kids) begs to be read over and over, with new eyes and ears for information missed the first several times. I am never more in awe of the natural world than when I read Jason Chin to my kids.

Truthfully, as a destination, the Grand Canyon has never been high on my list. For some reason, I pictured crowds, a few (awesome) photo opps, a nerve-wracking drop off, and a whole lot of rock. Still, I suspected that Jason Chin would change my mind. Because, well, he’s Jason Chin. And I was correct.

What I also knew is that my nine year old wouldn’t need any convincing to dive into Grand Canyon with me. An oversized book chock full of maps, scientific diagrams, and rocks? Have I mentioned that the floor of JP’s closet is piled high with shoe boxes overflowing with rocks? On any beautiful day, JP is as likely to be using his rock hammer in the backyard as anything else.

JP and I each had the same reaction upon opening Grand Canyon to the first endpaper, a pencil-shaded map of the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon, including areas both inside and outside Grand Canyon National Park. The sheer scale amazed us, with some parts of the Canyon as much as 18 miles wide! Why had I not realized this before?

It’s a daunting task, taking on a piece of land this vast and diversely complex, but Chin is up to the challenge, weaving a central narrative arc in the second person alongside considerable scientific detail, much of which will take time to digest fully (the extensive six-page Afterward provides even more information). As a father and daughter backpack through the Canyon, we are introduced to the five disparate ecological communities they encounter, from the Desert Scrub at the bottom of the Canyon to the Boreal Forest at the top.

Taken together, these ecosystems comprise literally thousands of different species, including twenty-nine that don’t live anywhere else on Earth and many, like the great California condor, that are close to extinction. Chin has diagrammed many of the native predators and prey around the borders of their respective pages. My daughter is the animal lover in the family, and these miniature sketches are her favorite part of the book (though she’s likely too young to grasp much of the geology that is interspersed).

While father and daughter are walking amidst these ecosystems of today, they are also diving—in Chin’s case, quite literally—into the past. Here is where JP and I were goggle-eyed. Because, as Chin demonstrates so powerfully, every piece of the physical Grand Canyon is an historical clue as to what North America looked like hundreds of millions of years ago. Thanks to the erosion provided over time by the Colorado River, we can see straight into the bottommost layer of rock on our continent, the so-called Vishnu Basement Rocks, formed 1.84 billion years ago. Where else can you stare down history quite so dramatically?

As the duo works their way up the Canyon, passing through a sequence of thirteen disparate rock layers, die-cut pages reveal fossilized clues as to how the Earth has changed over time. Here, science and imagination intersect, and Chin shines as magnificently as ever. On one page, our young protagonist spots a ripple mark preserved in stone; on the next—her imagination at play—she is 1.2 billion years back in time, when that same rock used to be tidal mud and “the only living things on Earth were microbes, such as algae and bacteria.”

As she moves up to the rock layer known as the Bright Angel Shale, she bends to examine a trilobite fossil; on the next page, she is whisked back 515 million years to when the place she stands was part of the ocean floor and that same trilobite—“the first known animal to have had eyes”—made tracks in the gritty sand.

On and on we travel, back to prehistoric times of giant dragonflies, early reptiles, and more complex sea creatures, all in existence long before there was a canyon through which to walk. Still, we never leave the present for long: the wild diversity of the modern-day Canyon occupies the bulk of the pages and transfixes our young explorer much the way the trails and forests and streams of Acadia captivated my children last summer. What the father and daughter do not see—the mountain lions, the wild turkeys, the woodrats—are there on the page for us as readers to marvel at, reminders that the wilderness is always far more extensive than our human eyes allow in the moment.

As I write this final paragraph, JP has come over and is sitting beside me. The book is open, and he is lending sound effects to the Colorado River, the central force behind the Canyon’s creation. He is tracing over the final endpaper, a cross-section of the canyon which integrates both the rock layers with the different ecological communities. I cannot help but smile as he tries to pronounce each label, interrupting to make guttural sounds to indicate erosion and landslides, an ever-humming backstory in his mind. I love this side of my son, his incessantly curious, animated, insistent self, filled with awe and admiration for the ever-changing natural world. I cannot help but want to surround him with books like this, books that will give deeper context to the next time he ventures out, whether into our backyard or into one of our country’s most precious resources, the National Parks.

Who’s coming with us to the Grand Canyon?

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Book published by Roaring Brook Press. All opinions are my own. 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!

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.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

Joyce Sidman has long been one of my favorite poets for the elementary crowd (see her other books at the end of this post), crafting odes to the natural world that are packed with figurative language both compelling and accessible to a young audience. Unlike much of the poetry targeted at this age, Sidman’s poems are neither silly nor funny. Like the natural wonders that she describes, her poems soar, move, and transcend. And the best part? You’ll be astonished at how much your children’s minds absorb and expand while reading them. Take “Dream of the Tundra Swan,” the book’s opener about swans preparing for a migratory flight:

That night, we dreamed the journey:
ice-blue sky and the yodel of flight,
the sun’s pale wafer,
the crisp drink of clouds.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

My seven year old doesn’t tolerate my pausing for discussion after every poem, but I’m usually able to milk a few. “What do you think they mean by ‘sun’s pale wafer?’ I ask. “Because the sun is round like a cookie,” he responds. “And why would it be a ‘pale’ cookie?” I ask. “Because it’s not very bright that day? Because sun in the winter is kind of dull,” he offers. And then he adds, of his own accord: “I never thought that you could taste water if you flew through a cloud and you weren’t in an airplane—that’s cool!”

While us adults often shy away from poetry, children—if given the chance—often run towards it. Think about how non-literal and non-linear children’s minds are, how front and center their imagination is each time they take in the world. Is it any wonder that poetry has been called the language of childhood? Is there better proof of this connection than discussing Sidman’s poems with your children?

But Joyce Sidman has gone the extra mile here. She has not relied on poetry alone to teach children about the hidden secrets of the winter world. She has paired each poem with a fact-filled paragraph that enhances through juicy, relevant details. Honeybees, my children were shocked to learn (because when was the last time you saw a bee in the snow?), actually remain active throughout winter, eating their way through stored honey supplies and “shivering” on especially cold days to generate warmth inside the hive.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

No plug for this unique book would be complete without acknowledging the impact of Rick Allen’s stunning, take-your-breath-away illustrations: a winter wonderland like no other. Blending old and new art mediums, each image has been cut, inked, and printed from over 200 linoleum blocks;  colored by hand; and, finally, digitally scanned and layered on the computer. I’ve always been drawn to woodblock printing, but…wow. Just WOW. This is winter at its best. This is the winter of our dreams (NOT the winter that Boston has been having, nor the ubiquitous school delays and sub-zero wind chills.) It’s the perfect contrast of warm oranges and chestnut browns against the crisp white snow. It’s the twinkling, ethereal effect of snowflakes caught on a moose’s fur. It’s the bare white branches of trees against a purple sky-filled night. It’s OMG GORGEOUS.

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

Read from start to finish, Winter Bees takes us on a journey from the beginning of winter to the first hints of spring (can we have a Halleluiah please?). As the days lengthen, the chickadee calls out announcing a new nesting season. Skunk cabbage “peeks up through the snow:/ the first flower in the wood./ Wreathed in an eerie purple glow,/ up through the slick of soggy snow,/ smelling of rotten buffalo.” Tiny flea-like creatures called springtails (with anti-freeze in their bodies!) burrow up through melting snow and somersault into the air, celebrating the change of season (“we have to move!/ we have to spring!”).

"Winter Bees" by Joyce Sidman & Rick Allen

As much as I love wintery books like this (all the better to read to my children under the covers or with a hot mug of tea in my hand), I know I’ll feel akin to the springtails in a few weeks, more than ready to catapult my family into spring.

Other Favorite Poetry Picture Books by Joyce Sidman:
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, illus. Beth Krommes (Ages 4-8)
Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, illus. Pamela Zagarenski (Ages 5-10)
Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, illus. Rick Allen (Ages 6-12)
Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems, illus. Beckie Prange (Ages 6-12)
Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, illus. Beth Krommes (Ages 6-12)
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, illus. Beckie Prange (Ages 6-12)

Review copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. 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!

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). For the tactile learner, this book has it all: pop-ups, pull-outs, wheels, flaps, and tabs. If that sounds juvenile, I assure you it is not, for the hefty book is also packed with hard facts about dinosaurs, clearly arranged in categories like “The Meat Eaters,” “Gentle Giants,” and “Swimming Reptiles.” But the real draw here is the museum setting—specifically, something called the “Dinosaur Lab” inside the front cover, where you can cycle through microscope slides or pull out desk drawers in order to examine evidence behind the dinosaur exhibits on subsequent pages. As kids make their way through the book, they are often asked to refer back to the Dinosaur Lab for more information, for a close-up look at a skull or a thumb spike. It is as if the very format of the book is making the point that our knowledge of dinosaurs is only as good as the guesses of scientists, only as good as the fossils they find and the observations they make.

OK, I lied. I said that the best part of JP excavating dinosaur bones (while the rest of us lounged around in our PJs) was that it gave my otherwise jittery six year old a prolonged focus. But, actually, we parents got some pretty high entertainment out of it. Peering over his safety goggles (his own idea), JP informed us: “I am the most famous dinosaur scientist in the world. You’re probably going to want to ask me some questions and take some pictures. With your real camera, not your phone.” And so, the next thing I knew, I was interviewing “Dr. James” and learning how he had spent the past 16 years living on a campsite in Virginia (“a nanny takes care of my children, but I allow them to come and help me from time to time”) and unearthing dinosaurs never before discovered. “See this? I’m working on the skull right now. I know it’s the skull.” And when he had finished assembling the complete skeleton, I was told that it was actually not a Triceratops as the box indicated but in fact a new species that Dr. James coined the Stegoplate. “When I get to be a little bit bigger, can I look for dinosaur bones, too?” my daughter piped in. Of course. And in the meantime, let’s make plans to go back to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. It’s time we got another look at the actual Diplodocus Longus from How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum—and maybe pick up some more Excavation Kits while we’re there. I can get behind this kind of learning.

The paleontologist at work (and yes, I took this with a real camera!).

The paleontologist at work (and yes, I took this with a real camera!).

Other Favorites About the Connection Between Field Work and Dinosaur Knowledge:
Digging Up Dinosaurs, by Aliki (Ages 4-8)
Boy, Were We Wrong About the Dinosaurs, by Kathleen Kudlinski (Ages 4-8)
Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning, by Laurence Anholt & Sheila Moxley (Ages 5-10)
Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really Looked Like? by Catherine Thimmesh (Ages 9-12)

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)

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.

This weekend, it will be JP’s turn for a party, and he (like most elementary-aged kids) is obsessed with fairness. In party talk, this translates into obsessing over what “rule” to apply to the list of invitees in an effort to avoid leaving anyone out. He has been on the receiving end of seemingly arbitrary lists in the past (a “why did she get invited and I didn’t?” type thing); and while it is certainly our job as parents to teach our children to weather such inevitable disappointments of disparity, I cannot help but feel proud by his determination, now that it’s his turn, to draw a clear line in the sand. “We should invite all siblings!” “We should invite no siblings!” “We should invite only the kids in my class!” “We should invite everyone in the school, even the new kids that I don’t know!” In the end, we have settled on inviting his Elementary classmates. Line drawn.

I don’t think it’s only because these kinds of discussions have occupied so much of my mental energy these past few weeks that I find Linda Sue Park’s newly published Xander’s Panda Party (Ages 4-8) so utterly charming. Still, it does feel a bit uncanny how similar Xander’s internal dilemmas are to the ones spinning around in my own children’s heads. Xander is the sole panda in the zoo, so he can’t have the “panda party” he has always envisioned. He tries for a “bear-only” party, only to realize his friend koala bear is technically considered a marsupial. Xander broadens his list to include all mammals, but then the rhino won’t come without his oxpecker bird; and later, the reptiles feel left out when the invites go out to the mammals and birds. In the end, the panda opts for “Total Zoo Participation,” a solution that benefits every creature—and definitely one of my favorite phrases ever to come out of a picture book.

On the left, Xander drowns his sorrows over a pawful of bamboo. On the right, he problem solves and delivers revised invitations!

On the left, Xander drowns his sorrows over a pawful of bamboo. On the right, he problem solves and delivers revised invitations!

But there is so much more to this lively read-aloud than the trials and tribulations of party planning. There are Matt Phelan’s sketches brimming with sweetness and subtle humor (How does one deliver an invitation to a lion? By lowering it into his cage on the end of a fishing pole, of course!). There is the Author’s Note at the end, which not only goes into detail about pandas—where they come from and how they have been saved from extinction—but touches on animal classification and evolution (and even explains the symbiotic relationship between the rhino and the oxpecker). There is Park’s immensely rich language, presented in rhyming prose, which introduces young audience to a slew of fat, juicy “-tion” words—words like “consternation,” “recreation,” “perspiration,” and “jubilation.” Above all, Xander’s Panda Party bears the wonderful message of inclusion, that when we put others’ needs before our own, even on our most special of days, the celebration becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

I have always thought that pandas should take the spotlight in more children’s stories (excepting Jon J. Muth’s magnificent and mystical Zen Shorts trilogy, of course). But now I see that we’ve just been waiting for a story that has it all: joy, wit, education, and heart—as well as that adorable bear with the black and white coloring.

Other Favorite Picture Books About Party Planning and Party Angst:
Tea Party Rules, by Ame Dyckman & K.G. Campbell (Ages 3-6, due out in October ’13!)
I am Invited to a Party! (An Elephant & Piggie Book), by Mo Willems (Ages 4-8)
A Birthday for Frances, by Russell & Lillian Hoban (Ages 4-8)
Lyle and the Birthday Party, by Bernard Waber (Ages 4-8)
Henry’s First Moon Birthday, by Lenore Look & Yumi Heo (Ages 4-8)

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