Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.

As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)

What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:

…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.

Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.

As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)

I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.

All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.

But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.

Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.

…and Jenny’s head fell off.

I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.

I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.

The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.

The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.

While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?

Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)

A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.

This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.

We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.

With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:

Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.

Really.

So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.

You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.

And, of course, the most blood.

The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.

 

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Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from 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!

Motherhood is Not a Finish Line

May 11, 2017 § 8 Comments

Last week, I was at Trader Joe’s buying flowers for my daughter, who would have the unique opportunity of performing at the Kennedy Center that evening with her community choir. My head was spinning while I was waiting in line to pay, going down the mental checklist of what needed to happen before heading to the concert hall (iron Emily’s uniform, print the parking pass, get the snacks together, etc.). Suddenly, the checkout woman interrupted my train of thought. “These flowers are such a gorgeous orange,” she remarked. I halfheartedly explained that the flowers were for my daughter, that she had a performance that night, and that orange was her favorite color. “These little joys make parenting so worth it,” she mused. “Yes,” I agreed, assuming she was talking about my being in the audience in a few hours. “It’s going to be so exciting.”

“Oh, I’m sure the performance will be great,” she replied, “but I was talking about getting to pick out flowers for your little girl.”

D’oh.

Once again, as a mother, I had found myself at the bottom of that all-too-tempting rabbit hole, of letting my “to do” list eclipse any opportunities for joy in the moment. What could have been a moment of delicious anticipation—and, really, I had deliberated over my flower choice at length—had quickly turned into checking off one more task before the minutes ran out and I had to pick up my kids from school. What could have been a moment of gratitude—to have the occasion to buy these flowers, the time to do so, the money to do so—was lost in a feeling of obligation. What could have been a moment of love and pride and affection was lost in a flurry of distraction.

As I was driving away from the store with my flowers, I caught the tail end of a rebroadcasted Ted Talk by a man who undertook a daring 1,800-mile journey on foot to the South Pole. To Ben Saunders’ surprise—and after nearly starving to death—he came to realize that his own personal reward came less from the completion of his goal than from the journey itself. “Happiness is not a finish line,” he says in the talk. “And if we can’t feel content on our journeys, amid the mess and the striving, then we might never feel it.”

If happiness isn’t a finish line, then neither is parenting. And yet, too often—amid the sleep deprivation, the academic struggles, the phases which seem to start and stop faster than we can count and yet feel terrifyingly permanent when they’re happening—we experience parenting as if it were one giant race. We may inherently understand that our time with our young children is short (and if we don’t, Facebook will remind us), but each time we find ourselves running to Target to replace some article of clothing which is suddenly too short, we’re too busy to realize we’re chasing after something we’ll never overtake.

Included in a short but I hope ever-growing list, there are two things I can almost always count on as a mother to return me to the moment. The first, you will not be surprised to learn, is reading aloud. When I’m reading to my children (something great, that is), time stands still, my mental checklist falls away, and the only thing that matters is delighting together in the words as they come off the page and enfold us in their spell.

The second is snuggling. My firstborn is not by nature a cuddler (though he has warmed to it over time), so perhaps the universe knew I needed a second child in order to get my cuddling fix. In this, Emily has never disappointed. I can be mentally a thousand miles away, but when she climbs in next to me in bed in the early morning, when she puts the back of her soft little hand against my cheek and places her nose where I can’t resist kissing those five tiny freckles, there is no place I’d rather be.

This is all to say that I can relate to each of the animal mothers in the darling new picture book, Mama’s Kisses (Ages 1-4), who are eager and ready to bestow kisses and cuddles on their young brood at bedtime. My kids may be too old for this book (stop it, just stop it!), but it nevertheless charmed every ounce of my maternal being. With spot-on rhyming by Kate McMullan (whose I Stink will forever be imprinted on JP’s second year of life) and whimsically but unsentimentally illustrated by Tao Nyeu (whose abstract orchestration of orange and blue began in this favorite), Mama’s Kisses is a rollicking seek-and-find jungle adventure.

When Mama’s Kisses opens, four mama animals are conversing (and sewing and knitting) in the foreground, while their little ones make mischief in the background. All the words in the book are spoken by the mothers. “Sun’s going down./ Moon’s on the rise./ Let’s find our babies./ And sing lullabies./ They must be yawning./ Sweet sleepyheads./ Our tired babies!/ We’ll put them to bed.”

The joke’s on the mamas (although older children will quickly realize they’ve been in on it the whole time), because the presupposed sleepy little leopard, panda, orangutan, and elephant are in fact frolicking, singing, and marching about with wild abandon. Even more, when they hear the STOMP STOMP STOMP STOMP of their mamas, the young animals quickly sneak off under giant banyan leaves, take playful plunges into the nearby water hole, and then don feathered disguises.

One by one, each mama delivers a soft, sweet invocation to her child (I should be so eloquent when I try to get my own children to leave the park).

Come now, my leopard,
All spotted and pepperered,
Tomorrow you’ll pounce,
You’ll roar and you’ll race.

These invocations don’t exactly have the desired effect (McMullan understands what it’s like to be a parent), so the mamas have to do some playful pouncing of their own—in the form of a good-humored Sneak Attack.

My favorite part of the story then arrives, as each mama curls up with her little one. Four more invocations follow—each given its due in beautiful double page spreads—and these rhymes at last prove irresistible in their power to make sleepyheads submit to mama’s kisses.

Rock-a-bye bear cub,
Come closer now, scootch
So Mama can land
A Panda bear smooch.
         MWWWWAH!

Rock-a-bye fuzzy,
Don’t squirm like a bug.
Here comes a great big
Orangutan hug.
         MMMMMM-UMM!

Watching my daughter sing on stage last week was wonderful, but it wasn’t even the best part of the night. Still thinking about my exchange at Trader Joe’s earlier in the day, I tried my darndest to soak up every moment of the before and after. I delighted in the way Emily ran up and down the terrace under an enormous blue sky in her break between rehearsing and performing; I snuck peaks at her serious face doing breathing warmups with her fellow choristers; and I gathered her up in the biggest, smoochiest, longest hug when, after it was all over (even though it was well past bedtime, and I was eager to take up my post in front of some adult TV), we walked into her bedroom together and she squealed as she saw the vase of bright orange gerber daisies on her dresser.

Happy Mother’s Day to my fellow mamas, my fellow runners of the Great Race that we can’t be faulted for sometimes mistaking for motherhood. May we all just remember to spend a little more time smelling the roses along the way.

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Review copy from Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group. 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!

Hiding and Seeking

November 5, 2015 § 7 Comments

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy CecilIt is possible to chart my daughter’s growing up against the backdrop of our games of hide and seek. Not but two years ago, whenever we played hide and seek, I would look up after slowly counting to ten and discover Emily standing but a stone’s throw away, beside a giant bush (beside, not behind, the bush). At which point, I’d do the thing that all parents do at one time or another: I’d turn my back to the bush and speak loudly into the air, I wonder where Emily is hiding. Where, oh where, could she be? To which she’d inevitably blurt out, I’m right HERE, Mommy!

Fast forward to last spring, when my daughter and I were playing hide and seek outside her school after dismissal one afternoon. You have to pick a really good hiding spot, she instructed me, before covering her eyes and commencing her counting. I ran across the lawn, turned down a little garden path, and squatted behind a bench. Moments later, I heard her exclaim, Ready or not here I come! And I waited. I waited some more. I waited so long that my quads started shaking and I thought I might die of boredom, and so I snuck a peek back in her direction. And there she was: climbing a tree at the other end of the lawn, singing gleefully with her friends, our game completely abandoned.

Finally, there was last month, when Emily walked over to where I was seated on the sidelines of the playground and pleaded with me to play with her. I’ll hide first, she proclaimed. And so I covered my eyes and counted to twenty. Ready or not here I come! I started at one end of the playground and methodically worked my way towards the other, bending down to peer under picnic tables and around garden plots. Nothing. I peeked inside the tunnel slide. Nada. I swear to you, it felt like hours had passed, and still I could find no sign of her. I began to run, zig-zagging across stretches of blacktop and grass, my heart pounding, flashes of child kidnappers tearing through my mind (oh God, did I ever warn her about men who approach with promises of puppies?), shouting to my friends and her friends, Where’s Emily? Where is Emily? Have you seen Emily?

It was my son who finally located her: she’s behind that tree. And sure enough, I could see her navy school uniform sticking out from behind a maple at the farthest end of the remotest part of the park. I raced over to her, expecting her to be as frantic as me.

She looked up and beamed. That was a really good hiding spot, don’t you think, Mommy?

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: she had grown up so much. My daughter had transformed into this brave, confident, fiercely independent little girl standing before me. I couldn’t stop the tears from leaking out, as I pulled her close and muttered into her hair, You got me good, little bird. You got me good.

Hide and seek—with its endless opportunities for experimenting with independence and togetherness—just so happens to be the theme of Barbara Joosse and Randy Cecil’s Evermore Dragon (Ages 3-6), a follow-up to their original picture book, Lovabye Dragon, which I fell in love with three years ago. It is rare for me to declare a sequel every bit as good as the original; it is even rarer for me to deem a sequel better than the original. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this companion book is every bit as enchanting as the first—and possibly even a smidgen better.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

With the same sing-songy narration as Lovabye Dragon—not quite prose and not quite poetry, sometimes playful and sometimes solemn, a princess story without being a princess story—Evermore Dragon presents “a very little girl” and “a very biggle dragon,” two best friends who originally discovered each other when Girl’s lonely tears led the equally lonely Dragon straight to her castle doors. In Evermore Dragon, the friendship is now in full swing. At the wake of derry-day/ the friends decided what to play. Yup, you guessed it: hide and seek.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

It’s a bit of a lost cause for a dragon to conceal wings, tail, long spiky neck, and great big bulging eyes amidst your typical park scenery. But our Girl has a touch of parental compassion about her and pretends not to notice “his Drag-enormo self” sticking out from behind the rock upon which she stands.

And she stood upon a rock
such a very little rock
and she sighed a little sigh
such a very little sigh. Oh, my.

“Dragon’s so good at hiding,
I’m not sure I can find him.
What to do?”

When Dragon suddenly pops up behind her, Girl wraps her arms around his neck and assures him, Oh, Dragon, you’re so clever./  You’re the smartest dragon ever.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

Now it’s Girl’s turn to hide, and she has Big Plans. She races through the forest and across the bog and over a tall bridge and climbs inside the hollow of a tree. And then she waits.

And then everything goes to pot.

Our hearts go out to the Dragon (been there, done that), who earnestly overturns every stone, peers beneath every ridge, searching and searching for his friend. Until at last, the panic welding up inside him, he bellows into the darkening sky, ARE YOU LOST?

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

Our hearts go out to Girl (And she was), who finally climbs out from her tree and wanders frantically through the pitch black forest, amidst “cricking and cracking,” “flipping and flapping,” “moaning and groaning.” (Are there monsters in the night?)

Oh, she tried not to cry!
But she cried silver tears
worry worry tears
and her heart thumped a sound
a trem-below sound
that only Dragon friends,
very very special friends, can hear.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

It is a testament, not only to Joose’s meticulous word choice and lyrical delivery, but also to the range of emotion that Cecil captures in the bodies of girl and beast, that my Emily clutches my arm and buries her head in my armpit every time we get to this part.

“Girl!” thundered Dragon.
“I hear you!” thundered Dragon.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

The worry, the anticipation, the relief finally at this cry for help being heard: it feels utterly palpable to us parents and children. Only once Dragon swoops down from the sky and “wraps his wings around her/ so everly around her,” can we breathe again.

“I am here,” rumbled Dragon.
“You’re a dear,” whispered Girl.

Dragon held her and he sang,
“Evermore, evermore, I am here.”

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

There’s a time for hiding. There’s a time for seeking. There might even be a time for growing out of hiding and seeking. I know that all too soon the day will come when Emily doesn’t want to play with me anymore. But I’d like to ask whomever she chooses as her playmates in this game of Life: will you hear the cry she makes when she has strayed a little too far off course? Will you care enough to help her find her way back? Will you take her in your arms and hold her close?

Because we’re never too old to want to be found.

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

March’s Birthday Pick (Pajamas Optional)

March 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Snoozefest" by Samantha BergerWho’s ready for a good snooze right about now? I’m not talking about the fall-into-bed-eyes-already-closing-ready-to-be-awakened-at-any-time kind of snooze, which is par for the course when parenting young children. I’m talking about a luxurious, heavenly, finest-Egyptian-cotton type snooze…a long, uninterrupted, sleep-in-as-late-as-you-want sort of snooze…a snooze in a silent house, where the only sound you have to worry about is the steady pit-pit-patter of melting ice outside.

If that sounds too good to be true, it is. But, for those of us who prefer to live life in the tiny space between reality and fiction, I have a close second. The newly-published Snoozefest (Ages 3-7), written by the always witty and clever Samantha Berger, and charmingly illustrated by British newcomer Kristyna Litten, is a book you can gift with abandon (you know, when you’re not sleeping) to all those kids of parents who shoulda, coulda, woulda be sleeping more. It’s a book that celebrates snoozing. And not just any snoozing. We’re talking snoozing so deep, so restorative, that it warrants its own festival. Welcome to Snoozefest: a Lollapalooza for people who love to sleep (yes, my fellow almost-forty year olds, this is what it has come to).

Once a year, all the best sleepers in the town of Snoozeville ride buses to the giant Nuzzledome for this “naptacular show.” Amidst the wildcats, bats, and koala bears is the insanely adorable and sleepiest of sloths, little Snuggleford Cuddlebun. (PAUSE: did I say sloth? Yes, I did. That’s right, my friends, we now have a second favorite sloth story to remind us of our sloth-like children! Remember Sparky?)

Here’s Snuggleford, checking into the festival (I die over the cuteness).

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

Before the blissful sleep commences, there’s plenty to do at Snoozefest, from shopping for sleep swag, to procuring milk and honey, to cheering at the P.J. Parade (showcasing the latest in sleepy fashions from Diane Vonfirstinbed and Louis Futon).

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

It wouldn’t be Snoozefest without a wide range of musical performances, from bands like Chamomile Rage, Deep Hiber-Nation, and The Nocturnal Nesters (“who play until only the flutist still stands”).

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

Naturally, for optimal sleeping, every animal is required to bring along his or her blankie. You know. A child’s Most Sacred Possession. In our house, this would be my daughter’s “Baba,” a tiny terrycloth square of a blanket with the head of a lamb. While my son rotates through a litany of stuffed animals each night, there’s only ever the same one thing in bed with Emily. Don’t even think of trying to get her to sleep without it. Don’t even think of picking it up by anything other than the top corner of its left ear, lest you be chastised, “SHE CAN’T GET HOT! DON’T LET HER GET HOT!” My daughter tucks into bed each night, thumb in her mouth, cheek gently resting on the coolest, softest corner of her Baba.

I’m sure you can’t relate. Only I know you can. Because, while writing this book, Berger interviewed adults and kids alike and included all of the blankie names she heard:

Blanket with nicknames like Knit-Knit and Night-y,
Lank-Lank and Woobee, and Bah-Bah and Bite-y,
Softie and Snuggle and Lolly and Didi,
Pinky and Minky and Gunk-Gunk and Gee-Gee.

(Did you catch the Bah-Bah in there? Apparently, there is more than one out there. You’ve never seen bigger eyes than those on my daughter when she took in this piece of news.)

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

But back to our heroine, Snuggleford Cuddlebun, who is not easily swayed by the visual, musical, or tactile distractions of Snoozefest. She settles into a hammock in the treetops, high above the crowds and the din of the music, and gets right down to business. She sleeps through it all.

At times she will whisper, “Man, this is the best!”
It’s all that she wanted from this year’s Snoozefest.
This kind of concert is just too tire-riffic,
dreamy, delicious, and so soporific.

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

Oh, to be this sleep-indulging sloth for just one night! The first time we finished this book, I tried not to sound desperate when I suggested to my kids that perhaps we could have our own Snoozefest RIGHT HERE IN OUR HOME! TODAY! OR MAYBE ANOTHER DAY!

“That’s crazy!” my son responded. And then he and my daughter stood up and walked away to go play. “It’s a good book, Mommy,” my daughter added as a final thought, as if not to hurt my feelings.

Sigh. A girl can dream. (Well, at least for some of the night.)

"Snoozefest" by Samantha Berger & Kristyna Litten

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Review copy courtesy of Penguin. 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!

September’s Birthday Pick (When Bigger Really is Better)

September 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Runaway Tomato" by Kim Cooley Reeder & Lincoln AgnewOn a Saturday morning towards the end of summer, on our way to go swimming, we swung by our local bookstore, so that I could run in and grab a gift for a birthday party later that day. My kids waited in the car with my husband, and when I returned a few minutes later, they asked with excited curiosity, “What book did you get?” I told them that I had picked a brand new one, by Kim Cooley Reeder, titled The Runaway Tomato (Ages 2-6). “RUNAWAY TOMATO?!” they shrieked, throwing their heads back in laughter. And thus commenced twenty minutes of their regaling us with their own ideas of where a runaway tomato might come from and what it might do.

Perhaps it’s because our attempt at growing tomatoes this year was such an Epic Failure, that my children think the idea of harvesting gigantic tomatoes is pure absurdity. Or perhaps there is just something innately hilarious about stories starring fruits and vegetables gone rogue (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has always been a favorite of JP). Either way, we had to return to the bookstore a week later to get a copy for ourselves.

The story of a tomato so enormous that it defies all human intervention, takes off down a hill and wreaks chaos on the town below, is captivating in its own right. But it’s the art in The Runaway Tomato that really stands out. Lincoln Agnew’s retro, highly stylized, and digitized pen-and-ink illustrations—saturated in tomato red—are freaking fantastic, and my kids cannot get enough of them. When JP was around 18 months old, he was obsessed with a board book titled My Truck is Stuck, by Kevin Lewis and Daniel Kirk, about a truck full of watermelons that relies on a chain of cars and trucks to tow it out of a hole. There are definite plot similarities here, because The Runaway Tomato begins with a tomato so large, so heavy, that a simple tractor is not sufficient. Even the rhyme is similar to Lewis’: “Tug and pull./ Push and shove./ Tomato’s stuck./ Still won’t budge.” But, man oh man, for as many times as I read My Truck is Stuck, I sure would’ve loved something with illustrations as eye-popping, as detailed, as awesomely ridiculous as The Runaway Tomato. Dare I say it might be impossible to dread reading this “one more time?”

As the tomato ultimately dislodges from the tractor’s hitch and takes off through the town like something out of a kitschy horror movie, there is ample opportunity for the Stuff of Little Boy’s Dreams. Police cars, fire trucks, helicopters, bulldozers, garbage trucks—if it has a wheel, it makes an appearance in this story, all in the name of trying to stop (or at least clean up after) the runaway tomato.

"The Runaway Tomato" by Lincoln Agnew

Wheel enthusiasm aside, I assure you that there is enough silliness, dramatic fold-out spreads, and even a good ‘ol fashioned dance party to make this a surefire hit with any child. As a bonus, the reader is even treated to a lesson on reproduction. Because what happens when a giant tomato’s guts are hauled off the street and deposited in the town dump? Add a little rain, a lot of sunshine (also, apparently, no squirrels anywhere to be found), and you’ve got yourself not one, not two, but a whole new crop of gigantic tomatoes: “Bumping, squishing/ down the hill./ Grab the gear./ You know the drill.”

"The Runaway Tomato" by Lincoln Agnew


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of this book free of charge from Penguin Group (USA). I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. And yes, I was then able to gift the second copy I purchased!

I Went Sailing with Chris Van Dusen

May 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Circus Ship" by Chris Van DusenChris Van Dusen is a Living Legend in our house. He might be the only author-illustrator whom my husband gets as gushy about as I do. I could go on and on about how If I Built a Car and If I Built a House are the two books most likely to be found next to my son’s bed. I could tell you about how King Hugo’s Huge Ego is so vastly intriguing to my three year old that she demands to read it again and again, as if the Secret of Life is buried within (if only she could make complete sense of it). Or, I could hail Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit as the first picture book to make baseball, Outerspace, and math seem like the coolest trio ever. But I won’t. I’m here to tell you about one of the Best Picture Books Ever. As many of you have already guessed, I am talking about The Circus Ship.

Last weekend, my family got to ride on The Circus Ship. Perhaps it’s a stretch to compare a Potomac River Tour Boat filled with kids, parents, and balloon animals, to a wooden steamboat that capsizes off the coast of Maine, upending 15 circus animals and a villainous ringmaster. But when you have the chance to sail with Chris Van Dusen, you buy tickets first and worry about potential drownings later. So, on a breezy, sun-filled day, thanks to Hooray for Books, our local independent bookstore here in Alexandria, I spent three hours at sea with the creator of this ingenuous picture book. Published in 2009, The Circus Ship is one of those rare books with unanimous appeal. I don’t know of a single child who doesn’t—or wouldn’t—love it. That’s not unlike how I feel about Chris Van Dusen himself (now that we are intimately acquainted). Chris is as lovely as the books that he writes and illustrates. He is contagiously passionate about his work. When he reads his books (which he has memorized perfectly), every person in the audience, regardless of age, is transfixed."The Circus Ship" by Chris Van Dusen

As I heard him read The Circus Ship, I considered its plentiful gifts. If there was ever a book that made the case for what picture books can do—how they can transport and engage on multiple levels at the same time—this is it. We have:

  1. The Rhyme. While often hailed for his illustrative talents, Chris Van Dusen is unparalleled among today’s children’s authors in his mastery of verse, meter, and rhyme. He is every bit as good as the Greats, like Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet. In short, he makes children fall in love with language.
  2. The Performance Factor. With such slick, succinct rhyme that rolls off the tongue, every reading is performance worthy—no matter who is at the helm. Parents: your kids have never hung on your every word like this.
  3. The Pictures. Um, they are A-MA-ZING. As in all Chris’ books, the vibrant, unique color schemes jump off the page; the details invite repeated study but never at the expense of the overall compositions; and the distortions of scale bring drama and humor at every turn. This is accomplished by a very labor-intensive paint called gouache (rhymes with “squash”), whereby every spread takes multiple weeks to render. The memorable “camouflage” scene towards the end of The Circus Ship took five whole weeks to paint.
  4. The Aforementioned “Camouflage” Page. You’ll never find a child that isn’t up for a game of “I Spy,” but you’ll find plenty of parents ready to cringe at the thought of “reading” one of these typical seek-and-find books, whose cluttered pages trump real plot. Enter The Circus Ship, a storybook rich on plot, but with a double-page spread towards the end that reveals the 15 animals hiding from their greedy circus master. It doesn’t matter how many times the kids and I have read this book: we cannot stop until we have found every single animal.
  5. The Animals. Everyone loves the Underdog. But we are outright endeared to one who possesses the courage, stamina, wit, cleverness, and heart to make a better life for himself. Times that by 15.
  6. The Villain. The question my son most wanted to ask Chris was, “How did you come up with the idea for Mr. Paine?” I think what he really wanted to know was, can such a larger-than-life character exist in real life? Mr. Paine is indisputably heartless—he abandons his animals to drown without a moment’s hesitation—but his passionate self-perseverance makes for great theater. When, at the end, he fails to reclaim his profitable circus menagerie, his red-hot cheeks, clenched fists, and steam coming out of his head create an unforgettable image. We almost—almost—feel sorry for him.
  7. The Story Behind the Story. The Author’s Note at the end has become almost as enticing to my kids as the story itself, for it reveals the real-life inspiration behind the book: the 1836 wreck of a side-wheel steamer, carrying 103 passengers and a fleet of circus animals, off the coast of Maine. Of course, there’s no proof that the animals survived, or lived out the remainder of their lives in peace on a remote island (as in The Circus Ship).  And yet, Maine’s history is ripe with rumors and stories of strange wildlife sightings in the years that followed. “So.” JP likes to remind me, “it could have happened.” I get the sense that Chris Van Dusen thinks so, too.

    Courtesy of my husband's photography skills, here's a shot of me stalking Chris Van Dusen. Actually, he's schooling me on the correct pronunciation of gouache. But he is, of course, very nice about it. :)

    Courtesy of my husband’s photography skills, here’s a shot of me stalking Chris Van Dusen aboard The Circus Ship. Actually, we are reminiscing about the time I inaccurately referred to his art two years ago on this blog as computer generated and he very nicely wrote to school me on gouache illustration. 🙂

My Complete List of Favorites Written and/or Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen:
If I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen
If I Built a House, by Chris Van Dusen
Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit, by Chris Van Dusen
King Hugo’s Huge Ego, by Chris Van Dusen
The Mercy Watson early-reader series, by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (NEWS FLASH: a spin-off series launches this fall for a slightly older reader!)
President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (published earlier this year; and, while I admittedly miss the rhyme of Chris’s other books, his comical depiction of bare buttocks elicits more uproarious belly laughs from my children than any book in recent history)

Let’s Hear it for the Birds

May 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Have You Heard the Nesting Bird" by Rita GrayWe’re all about birds this spring. Well, to be fair, I’m all about birds, but I’m filling my kids’ baskets with bird-related books, in hopes that they will catch on, too. I can’t help myself. There’s something about Spring Fever that drives me to obsess about some natural wonder alive and transforming outside my window (see past years’ obsessions with trees and worms). And what better way to drag my children along on this journey than through non-fiction picture books, which pair beautiful illustrations and poetic text with fascinating information?

I didn’t exactly choose birds as this year’s subject matter. They chose me. They chose me by waking me up at 4:30am with their frantic, high-pitched chirping. They chose me by making a nest between our roof and my bedroom ceiling, fast and furious work that sounded as if a much larger animal was ripping down sheets of metal. They chose me by distracting my children over breakfast, encouraging bowls of oatmeal to sit half-eaten, in favor of watching a pair of cardinals dancing in the dogwood outside our dining room window (my children are convinced that “Buddy” and “Lady Buddy” followed us two years ago when we moved up the hill to our current house). Let’s just say that the time seemed ripe to learn a thing or ten about the busy birds around us.

What I discovered was a treasure trove of non-fiction picture books starring birds, many published in recent years. I’ve shared my complete list of favorites at the end (with picks through age 10), but I had so much trouble choosing one to focus on here, that I have to expound on two. The first is Rita Gray’s Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Ages 3-6), illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is one of those deceptively simple picture books that educates as it delights. On the surface, it’s an introduction to different bird calls, as witnessed by two children in their backyard. Each of the 12 unique songs begs to be “tried out” by the listener, and in fact the kids in Emily’s school did just that, repeating the sounds back to me when I read the book aloud to them recently. “Woodpecker calls from a tree with a hole. cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk Starling sings from a metal pole. whistle-ee-wee-tree”

"Have You Heard the Nesting Bird?"

Here, the cardinal and the chickadee weigh in with their cries.

But for all its emphasis on sound, the heart of the book is concerned with a quiet mystery: that of the nesting robin, who sits in silence on her eggs. Again and again, amidst the other bids’ noisy chatter, the children in the book pause to wonder at the robin: “But have you heard the nesting bird? ‘Not a single tweet or trill.’ ‘This nesting bird is so still.’” Pak’s subdued, rustic watercolors make copious use of the white on the page, drawing our attention to the features of the different birds. The one exception (and my daughter’s favorite) is an almost haunting double-page spread of the children’s house on a windy, moonless night, where a close look reveals the female robin in her nest, stoic and vulnerable against the natural elements. The book’s informative afterward (my son’s favorite part) addresses the nesting bird’s silence in a clever Q and A between robin and author: “I don’t want other animals to know I am hiding eggs! They might eat them!” Even when the eggs do hatch, the robin tells us, she must scatter and bury the eggshells far from the nest, in order to throw off hungry predators. Man, I love it when I learn as much as my kids do from a book!

"Mama Built a Little Nest" by Jennifer Ward & Steve JenkinsIf you’ve been following this blog for awhile, it will probably come as no surprise that my other pick is illustrated by the astounding naturalist artist, Steve Jenkins (we are still reading The Animal Book daily in our house). Written by Jennifer Ward, Mama Built a Little Nest (Ages 4-8) again plays to different levels of engagement. Each page sports a sweet four-line poem, which begins “Mama built a little nest” and goes on to describe the construction of a particular type of bird nest. Jenkins’ corresponding, vividly realistic cut-paper collage is captioned with additional data, including the species’ name. Children are exposed to different nesting materials (from spiderweb to spit); different nest placement (from “craggy ledges” high off the ground to the firmly-planted feet of a Daddy emperor penguin); and different nesting strategies (in wrens, it’s the male that constructs the nest—actually, several of them—in an effort to win over the female). Did you know that some birds (like the cuckoo) don’t make their own nests, but instead drop their eggs into the nest of another, like the robin, for that Mama to take care of? Once again, the kids and I are learning things left and right.

The book’s ending draws the parallel between a bird’s nest and a human’s bed, the place where we get to rest our head on “pillows soft and cozy thoughts.” I think I might visit my nest right now. Maybe I will change Rest Time to Nest Time. Either way, we won’t be asleep long before those noisy wing flappers wake us up.

Other Favorite Non-Fiction Picture Books About Birds:
Birds by Kevin Henkes (Ages 2-5)
About Birds: A Guide for Children by Cathryn & John Sill (Ages 4-8; incidentally, the entire About series is wonderful, especially for preschools and kindergarten classrooms looking to own a series about the natural world that works on many levels)
Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart & Sarah S. Brannen (Ages 6-9)
Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Ages 6-10)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies & Melissa Sweet (Ages 6-10)
Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Cindy Trumbore & Susan L. Roth (Ages 6-10)

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