Party Planning Angst

September 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

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

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

Rethinking Mother Goose

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Mother GooseA customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise).

But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose).

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Saving the Trees

April 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

The LoraxEarlier today, in honor of Earth Day, I shared Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Ages 5-10) with the elementary children at my son’s Montessori school. While most people associate Dr. Seuss with the nonsensical but catchy I-Can-Read titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, I would argue that his narrative poems—his longer, more complex, often moralistic stories—were actually his greatest gift to children. Not only do these stories showcase a mastery of rhyme that is virtually unmatched in contemporary children’s literature, but many of them also serve as cautionary tales, introducing children to the dangers of things like running away from your problems (I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew), or prejudice (The Sneetches), or, as in the case of The Lorax, industrialization at the expense of natural resources.

The Lorax, a “brownish,” “mossy,” raspy-voiced creature, who famously utters, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” may have been conjured up by Dr. Seuss in 1971, but his environmental message resonates just as clearly today. And yet, there’s a second hero in this story, one with greater power than The Lorax himself. I’m referring to the unnamed child, who appears at the beginning and the end of the story—the one to whom the Once-ler relates (and repents) his decision to knit every last Truffula Tree into an ambiguous but allegedly multipurpose Thneed, “which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs.” This child, to whom the Once-ler entrusts the very last Truffula seed, along with instructions to nurture it with water and clean air, literally holds the future of the planet in his hands; he is the reader’s hope for a happy ending. « Read the rest of this entry »

Thinking Outside the Box This Valentine’s Day

February 5, 2013 § 4 Comments

Lovabye DragonIs there a better way to shower our children with love this Valentine’s Day than by snuggling under a blanket with them and sharing a new story? And yet, I’m never thrilled with the list of books that the media typically puts forth as gift ideas for V-Day. Chances are you already have your fair share of books about parental affection (the Guess How Much I love You? sort). If I’m being totally honest, I feel a tad exploited by these lovey-dovey books about hugging and kissing and eternal love; too often they’re lacking in imagination and art and feel instead like a cheap move by publishers to go after our vulnerability as parents (I’ll get off my soapbox now). There are some wonderful classics, like Judith Viorst’s Rosie and Michael and Sandal Stoddard Warbug’s I Like You, but their content is arguably more appropriate for grown-ups to give one another.

So when it comes to Valentine’s Day, I like to think outside the box. In the past, I’ve given my son the glorious Red Sings from the Treetops (hey, there’s red in the title) and The Jolly Postman (Valentines are like letters, right?). But this year, I have an especially good one pegged for my two-year-old daughter; I’ve been hiding it under my bed since it came out last fall and biding my time to spring it on her.

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January’s Birthday Pick

January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

I Took the Moon for a WalkFor this month’s birthday pick, I’m doing something a little different: 1) I’m focusing on the youngest ages for a change; 2) I’ve chosen not one but two books (which make a perfect pairing); and 3) I’m encouraging you to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on books that aren’t brand new but are commonly unknown.

In short, the next time you are headed to a birthday party for a one or two year old, you’re in luck. I Took the Moon for a Walk (Ages 1-4) and Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4) are both illustrated by the supremely talented Alison Jay, whose praises I have sung here before. With their over-sized 9” by 9” format, these hefty board books mirror another favorite by Jay, her ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (which tends to be well known and for good reason: it may just be the best alphabet book ever illustrated).

Alison Jay’s books are the ultimate gift. Packed with hidden surprises, layered with detail, and shimmering in vivid colors underneath a “crackle” finish, Jay’s paintings beg to be poured over again and again.

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The “Perfect” Christmas Tree

December 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Mr. Willowby's Christmas TreeThis past weekend, we partook in one of our favorite family traditions: chopping down our Christmas tree and driving it home to trim. We started this tradition five years ago, when JP was one year old. I like the idea of my children understanding where their Christmas tree comes from; plus I enjoy supporting the family-owned tree farms in our area; plus, well, we all know that I love any excuse to unleash my urban children on a farm.

By now, the excursion has become fairy predictable. JP (eager to get his hands on a saw) begins by pointing to the first tree he sees and announcing, “This is the perfect one!” I meander deep into the fields, weaving in and out of the rows, sizing up each possibility and muttering oohs and ahhs. And my husband (who has carefully measured our nook at home and tried to set appropriate expectations before we left the house) rushes after me, chastising, “That one is too big! It won’t fit! You promised this year you’d be reasonable!” He has a point, my husband, but I can’t help myself. Something overcomes me out there in the crisp open air, beautifully manicured trees stretching out on all sides of me, and I WANT BIG.

I guess in this way I’m a lot like Mr. Willowby, the mustached tycoon in one of my favorite Christmas stories to read aloud to my kids (or, in the case of last week, to my son’s preschool class). Originally published in 1963, Robert Barry’s Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (Ages 3-8) was reissued last year with newly colorized pen-and-ink sketches that brim with delight. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree comes straight off the hills—“full and fresh and glistening green—/The biggest tree he had ever seen.”

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Now Please Go to Sleep

November 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

The best parenting advice I ever received—and didn’t listen to—came when I was in the throes of sleep training my six month old. The advice was: “Make sure you pick a short bedtime ritual, because you’ll be doing it for a long time.” Of course, when you’re knee-deep in sleep deprivation, it’s not easy to see into the future and predict that five years later, your son will still expect a book, water, two songs (one being a made-up “Curious George” song, don’t ask), a hug, a kiss, and a very involved tucking in of the covers every single night.

We all get wiser the second time around; and consequently, I have a five year old who takes 45 minutes to put to bed, and a two year old who takes 45 seconds. But one thing remains the same: I love a good bedtime story.

The best bedtime stories are filled with gentle, lulling rhymes; jewel-toned illustrations; and ample opportunities for whispers and kisses (see my full list at the end of this post). The witching hours of dinner and bath time behind us, pajamas donned and teeth brushed, our collective bodies relax as the first words are read. No matter what madness has just transpired in the moments leading up to this one, peace is now restored; those big juicy bonds of love can flow freely once more (because, let’s face it, it’s almost over).

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In the Driver’s Seat

November 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

If there’s something all kids can agree on, it’s the thrill of being in the driver’s seat. Getting their choice—heck, coming up with the choices in the first place—seeds the adrenaline that drives our little ones forward in their quest for independence and control. Perhaps no author-illustrator understands this better than Chris Van Dusen, who has a knack for knowing what kids (especially boys) want and serving it up in rollicking rhyme and neo-futuristic illustrations. Years ago, when If I Built a Car was published, it instantly became my shop’s “go to” book for anyone headed to a four or five year old’s birthday party; we only stopped stocking it when virtually every family in a 15-mile radius owned the book.

The good news is that Van Dusen has now written an equally captivating follow-up—and one with an arguably broader appeal (girls will dig this, too). In If I Built a House (Ages 3-6), a young boy named Jack describes with contagious enthusiasm his dream house. I challenge any child to come up with a TV show or video game with more allure than a house containing an anti-gravity room, an underwater chamber, an art room with walls made of drawing paper, a bedroom atop a high tower with the world’s longest spiraling tunnel slide for descent, and a jet-powered Plexiglass Playroom that detaches to fly around the neighborhood.

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With Babies, It’s All in the Delivery

June 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

When you’re reading aloud to babies and toddlers, never discount the Performance Factor. I’ve always considered myself a fairly compelling read-aloud-er when it comes to young audiences (I’ve presided over my fair share of story times at my old store in Chicago), but I’ll admit to being humbled the first time I attended story time with my infant daughter at Hooray for Books!, our fabulous independent bookstore here in Alexandria, VA. These bookstore gals can really hold their own against a crowd of antsy toddlers—and they do so by throwing their own inhibitions to the wind, while invoking no shortage of funny voices, animated gestures, and ad lib phrases.

Before I became a regular at these events, I had never given much thought to Lucy Cousins’ Hooray For Fish! (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs), a board book about a Little Fish who meets and greets all kinds of crazy-looking fish before swimming back to his Mommy Fish. Sure, I’ve always appreciated Cousins’ child-accessible art style: her colorful, loosely-decorated fish, coarsely outlined in black, look as if they came from the hand of a child. But, if I’m honest, the subject of fish doesn’t rank terribly high on my excitement meter (give me a farm animal any day); and I can’t say my son ever cared much for Hooray for Fish! when I read it to him on a plane trip down to Florida when he was one.

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Food: Not Just for Eating

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

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

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

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A Chomp Through Berryland

May 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

Today’s excursion to pick strawberries at Shlagel Farm in Maryland was the perfect excuse to break out an old favorite: Jamberry (Ages 1-3), by Bruce Degen. Not that we need an excuse to read this rollicking rhyme of a boy and a bear romping through fields and down streams on a quest for every kind of berry. But as the kids and I were filling our buckets with the plumpest, juiciest strawberries I’ve ever tasted, our fingers and shirts and mouths stained red, I couldn’t help but hear in my head: “Three berry/ Four berry/ Hayberry/ Strawberry/ Finger and pawberry/ My berry, your berry/ Strawberry ponies/ Strawberry lambs/ Dancing in meadows/ Of strawberry jam.”

We didn’t encounter any strawberry lambs (although there were goats and some very vocal chickens), and my children are likely to eat all the strawberries before I get a chance to make them into jam, but the spirit of the book was very much alive as we chomped our way through the farm. Our excitement continued to build, as we got deeper into the patch, launching ourselves into uncharted territory wherein (as we imagined it) lay the biggest berries.

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Dump It In, Smash It Down

April 30, 2012 Comments Off on Dump It In, Smash It Down

Hooray for Garbage Day! Until two years ago, when we relocated from Chicago to Alexandria, VA, if you’d asked me what day of the week was garbage day, I would have looked at you blankly. But all that has changed. Every Thursday morning, when the sound of the garbage truck is heard turning the corner onto our street, giddiness erupts in our household. Breakfast spoons are laid down, the front door is thrown open, and we stand in PJs waving at the orange-clad workers as they dump our trash into their giant steel crushers. And the best part is that they wave back with enthusiasm (and make funny faces at Emily and beep their horn for JP).

Mr. Giddy, the central character in Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha’s Trashy Town (Ages 18 mos-4) is just this kind of “trashman,” the kind who tips his hat at schoolkids, who pauses to pet the dalmatian at the fire station. But it’s the rhyming refrain that makes this book a contagious, bring-down-the-house read-aloud: “Dump it in, smash it down, drive around the Trashy Town!”

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Your Budding Naturalist

April 28, 2012 Comments Off on Your Budding Naturalist

Right now in preschools across the country, little eyes are glued to screened containers perched on shelves, waiting to behold one of nature’s most wondrous life cycles: the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly. (“Mommy, when the chrysalis shakes, that’s how you know there’s a lot of action going on inside!”)

I grew up reading Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (and really, who doesn’t love a book with holes for sticking tiny fingers through?); but in my opinion, Ten Little Caterpillars (Ages 2-6), written by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by the great collage artist Lois Ehlert, has topped this subject matter.

Apart from its stunning visual feast for the eyes, the book speaks to children on a multitude of levels. First, there’s the simple rhyme, each double-page spread focusing on a single caterpillar’s unique journey: “The first little caterpillar crawled into a bower./ The second little caterpillar wriggled up a flower.” A few of the caterpillars don’t fare so well (it’s a dog-eat-dog world, after all): one meets with a “hungry wren,” another is “frightened by a hen.” It’s the tenth caterpillar that we get to watch hang patiently among the apple blossoms for three pages, until her chrysalis hatches to reveal a stunning orange-and-black “tiger swallowtail.”

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