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.

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Gift Guide 2014 (No. 4): Three Books for the Scientist (Ages 5-12)

December 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

If I had a dollar for every time my children tell me they are doing a science experiment, I would be a rich Mama. Most of these experiments involve putting water in a cup with some household item and sticking it in the freezer (spoiler alert: it freezes). Sometimes, usually with the help of birthday gifts, they might raise their game by building baking-soda volcanoes or citrus-powered clocks.

Our children’s natural curiosity about the inner-workings of the world has been given extra-special treatment in books this year. Today, I’ll be singing the praises of two novels for the 9-12 crowd, which seamlessly weave science into the drama of middle-school life (one stars a boy, the other a girl). For the younger elementary child, a picture book biography on Carl Sagan will prove the perfect entrée into the mysteries of the cosmos. Without further ado, let us begin.

"Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor" by Jon Scieszka[Warning: this book may cause your child to talk like a robot well beyond the last page.] Author Jon Scieszka, long-time advocate for the reluctant boy reader (see his inspiring tips here), embarks on the ultimate Science is Cool chapter book series, with Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud). Frank Einstein is a kid-genius inventor—with a special fondness for his Grampa Al, as well as for his Grampa Al’s Fix-It! Shop (“the greatest place in the world to test any invention you might think of”). Determined to win the Midville Science Prize and reap a large cash reward to pay off Grampa Al’s debts, Frank, his best-pal Watson, and two self-assembled artificial intelligence entities named Klink and Klank (my son’s new favorite literary characters), create a Fly Bike powered by an Antimatter Motor. Naturally, all this gets complicated by Frank’s arch-nemesis: the doomsday-plotting, idea-stealing, robot-napping T.Edison. « Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Alongside Our Children

November 13, 2014 § 11 Comments

"Buried Sunlight" by Molly BangAt a recent Parents Night, JP’s elementary teacher said something that I haven’t stopped thinking about. We were having a conversation about whether we as parents have a responsibility to teach our children, to reinforce what they are learning at school, to push them in subjects in which they might be struggling. No, she said. “The most important thing you can do for your children,” she said, “is to love life—and to let your children witness and share in that love.”

When we take our children to a museum, she continued, we should take them to the exhibits that we are dying to see; we should read to them from a plaque because we want to find out more information about that painting. If we take them on a nature walk, we should point out leaves or pontificate on seasons—not because we are trying to teach them—but because we want to share with them the very things that are amazing to us in that moment. In other words, we want to inspire our children to learn by letting them see how much fun we’re having doing it. « Read the rest of this entry »

Groundhog Day (& Other Books About the Weather)

January 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Groundhog Weather SchoolMy six year old doesn’t understand why Groundhog Day isn’t a school holiday. I tried to explain that, with February 2 being a Sunday this year, it’s sort of a moot point. “But it’s not always on a weekend, Mommy.” So then I tried to explain that the government only picks a few of the most important people in our history (ahem, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.) to honor with a school holiday—and that contrary to what he might think with ALL THESE SNOW DAYS, kids are supposed to be IN SCHOOL, learning stuff that their parents don’t have the patience to teach them. “Well, Punxsutawney Phil IS very important because he can PREDICT THE WEATHER.” This is a fair, if debatable, point.

The children’s books on the subject of this Very Important Holiday tend to be either factually straightforward (Gail Gibbons’ Groundhog Day! is usually the teacher’s favorite) or purely fictional (read: silly and unhelpful). But this year, I stumbled upon a find that combines fact, fiction, and An All-Around Good Time: a book titled Groundhog Weather School: Fun Facts About Weather and Groundhogs (Ages 5-9), by Joan Holub, with illustrations by Kristin Sorra. This is precisely the type of book I knew JP would enjoy reading by himself (and, as parents of newly independent readers know, we’re always on the hunt for “that book”). « Read the rest of this entry »

Digging for Mummies

January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

The 5,000-Year-Old PuzzleWhile my son and I were on the subject of excavating fossils, it seemed it might be logical to jump from paleontology to archaeology. It didn’t hurt that, over winter break, JP’s teacher had emailed me about tracking down some good books about Ancient Egypt (see list at the end). And so, one snowy night, JP and I sat down on the couch to read the Treasure Trove that is The 5,000-Year-Puzzle-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt (Ages 6-12), by Claudia Logan, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

An hour later, we were still reading it, my daughter and husband had joined us, and I almost couldn’t tear myself away to meet my girlfriends for a scheduled drink. Almost. I can’t think of a better introduction, not only to Ancient Egypt, but also to the painstaking role that archaeologists play in unearthing clues about ancient life. While the American boy and his father in the book are fictitious, they join an actual historic dig, led by a Harvard team of scientists, which occurred in 1924 at the Egyptian site of Giza 7000X, where a secret and unusually well-preserved tomb was discovered. Through a combination of actual historic records and the young boy’s first-person narrative, we learn about the team’s efforts to excavate this ancient site over the course of a year—including their continual revisions to hypotheses over whose tomb it was and why it was constructed in such a way. « Read the rest of this entry »

Digging for Dinosaurs

January 6, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Compelling Non-Fiction For the Animal Lover

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Steve Jenkins' The Animal BookLast year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12).

Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Stories of Perseverance for the Engineer

December 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

Andrea Beaty's Rosie Revere, EngineerIf at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That might be easy to say as a parent, but we have only to remember our own childhoods to know how hard it is to hear. Just the other night, my son was attempting to draw a human profile by following one of those step-by-step guidebooks. Diligently huddled over his paper, he suddenly threw the pencil across the room and yelled, “This isn’t working at all! It doesn’t even look like a person!” Actually, I thought, it does look like a person—just not like the one in the book. Oftentimes, we cannot see our triumphs for what they are.

The creative process—its ups, its downs, its just plain hard work—is wonderfully captured in Rosie Revere, Engineer (Ages 5-8), the newest venture by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts, the team that created one of my favorite picture books of all time: Iggy Peck Architect. What black-turtleneck-sporting Iggy Peck did for building designs, red-scarf-sporting Rosie Revere (yes, her namesake is Rosie the Riveter) does for engineering. She makes it look—well—cool. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

November 21, 2013 Comments Off on “Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

The Tree LadyI’m completely obsessed with trees right now. I know what you’re thinking: this is not news. And, you’re right, I’ve written about my love for trees (and stories featuring trees) here, here, here and here. But I’m really, really obsessed with trees right now—and that’s because I have recently been tree shopping. When my kids were baptized last spring, their grandmother offered to buy each of them a tree to grow up alongside. So, earlier this fall, the kids and I did what we do best: we walked, we scooted, and we drove around our neighborhood looking at trees. How had we missed so many of these beauties before? “How about we get one of each?” my son ventured.

Eventually, we narrowed down our choices, but then there was the question of how and where to buy the trees. I initially thought, I’ll look for a deal on the Internet. But then my gardening friend reproached me: you need to see a tree before you buy it, need to study its form, need to find one that speaks to you. This is why, one crystal clear November morning, I found myself standing in a wholesale nursery an hour away in Maryland, surrounded by 600 different varieties of trees. I was walking up and down rows of trees, examining curves of trunks and canopy shapes, paying way too many people to follow me around offering their opinions, and starting to feel like I was going to have a hard time explaining to my husband how this simple decision to buy two trees had gotten totally out of hand. Did I mention how much fun I was having? « Read the rest of this entry »

Bang! Crash! Interstellar Collisions!

October 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

How the Meteorite Got to the MuseumI may have given an audible little yelp the other day when I discovered that Jessie Hartland had published a new title in her “museum” series, but it was nothing like the squeal of joy that my six year old emitted when I brought it home and gave it to him. You see, How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum (Ages 4-8) and How the Sphinx Got to the Museum (Ages 5-10) are among our All Time Favorites, rivaled only by Hartland’s newest addition to the series, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum (Ages 5-10). All three books are brilliantly simple slices of science and history; they introduce children to paleontology, Egyptology, and now astronomy by following a specific artifact from its discovery in the field to its place in the exhibition hall of a museum.

Most great science books take their inspiration from true historical events. Here’s an especially awesome one: on a clear night in October of 1992, a meteor that had been predictably orbiting the sun for four billion years suddenly and inexplicably changed course, entered the Earth’s atmosphere, flew over Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and crashed into the trunk of a Chevy Malibu parked outside a house in Peekskill, New York (that’s right, crashed—as in, totaled the back of the car and sprung a leak in the fuel tank and precipitated a 911 call to police and fire fighters—pretty much the coolest thing my six year old has ever conceived of). « Read the rest of this entry »

Digging in the Backyard: Summer School Wraps Up!

August 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yucky Worms by Vivian FrenchEarlier this summer, the kids and I were on a morning walk—JP in the lead on foot, Emily trailing on her scooter, and me bringing up the rear. It had rained most of the night before, and the sidewalks were still damp. Abruptly, JP let out one of his characteristic ear-splitting screeches (at almost six, the boy still has no regard for volume control): “STOOOOOOP, EMILY!” Before I could launch into my characteristic lecture about not screaming into people’s faces, especially when that sweet face belongs to your little sister, JP followed it up with, “MOMMY, EMILY WAS ABOUT TO RUN OVER A WORM!” I looked down and, sure enough, the sidewalk was covered in worms, evidently displaced from the previous night’s storm. Is it wrong that I immediately assumed JP’s reaction was based on the grossness factor of squashing a worm between one’s scooter’s wheels? I’ll admit I felt slightly guilty when, once everyone calmed down (by now Emily was screaming nonsensically about worms as well), JP explained, “We have to be so, so careful not to hurt these worms. They need to go back into the dirt to make the plants grow!” I wasn’t going to tell him that these worms didn’t look like they were going anywhere ever again; Emily and I simply followed in tow as he went first and pointed out any worms that we should steer around.

It’s moments like these—rare, fleeting moments—when I wonder if maybe I’ve done something right as a parent. That somehow in all my blabbing on about trees and seeds and caterpillars, my kids have begun to develop an appreciation for the natural world that surrounds them. I would have to credit any success I’ve had to books like Yucky Worms (Ages 4-8), by Vivian French and Jessica Ahlberg, which is part of a fantastic Read and Wonder Series published by Candlewick Press. This is natural science for young kids at its best: fictional stories packed with scientific facts that are woven accessibly into the narrative. In Yucky Worms, a boy gets a lesson in Wormology from his green-thumbed grandmother (perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was first introduced to spiders and butterflies by my two grandmothers?).

Quick to exclaim “Yuck! Throw it away!” when his grandmother digs up a “slimy, slithery, wiggly worm,” the boy in the story gets schooled on the different parts of the worm, how it tunnels through the ground, what it eats, and how its poop enriches the soil. It turns out that worm poop—white curly forms called “casts”—are very plentiful in our backyard. It also turns out that most earthworms do not regenerate when accidentally cut in half by a gardening spade (I now get schooled regularly on this by my “backseat gardeners”). There is much to love about this book, from the sweet relationship between grandmother and grandson, to the hand-drawn diagrams of the worm’s anatomy, to the answers to questions kids don’t even know they have, like what happens to worms in the winter. But perhaps the biggest appeal for kids are the word bubbles that occasionally come out of the mouths of the worms themselves, reinforcing the lessons in the book while adding some enticing humor. What is it about worms that seem to invite speech bubbles? Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss incorporate a similar technique in their hilarious series, Diary of a Worm (more fun than fact but still surprisingly illuminating about these creatures). Worms have a lot to say, evidently, as they dodge predators or feast on moldy fruit.

Here, the story continues on the side, while the worms take front stage with their tunnels and word bubbles.

Here, the story continues on the side, while the worms take front stage with their tunnels and word bubbles.

I have tried my darndest this summer to get my kids out into nature. When it comes time to make dinner, it’s all I can do to resist the temptation to turn on the TV, shooing them instead into the backyard. Inevitably, I am called out moments later to settle some dispute over an ancient half-broken toy that has been unearthed from the shed and is suddenly the Only Thing Worth Playing With. But, in time, they settle into the rhythm of things and begin to take closer notice of their surroundings. Once again, my dinner making is interrupted by yelling: “Mommy, come out here RIGHT NOW!” I trudge outside more than a little exasperated, only to find the kids, not fighting over toys, but instead huddled over a corner of the deck. I bend down to see a spider’s web glistening from drops of water that have fallen out of the just-watered planters above. “It’s just like the one in the book!” JP exclaims, referring to Helen Frost’s stunning photograph of a dew-covered spider’s web in Step Gently Out, which we had just been reading that morning. “Only it’s even more beautiful,” he adds. “Yes,” Emily pipes in. “It’s sooooo boootiful.”

Other Favorites About Backyard Critters:
Step Gently Out, by Helen Frost (Ages 3-6)
Where Butterflies Grow and The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder & Lynne Cherry (Ages 3-6)
The Honeybee Man, by Lela Nargi (Ages 4-8)
Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Spider, & Diary of a Fly, by Doreen Cronin & Harry Bliss (Ages 4-8)
Insect Detective: Read and Wonder, by Steve Voake & Charlotte Voake (Ages 4-8)
Seeds, Bees, Butterflies & More: Poems for Two Voices, by Carole Gerber & Eugene Yelchin (Ages 5-10)
Plus these favs mentioned in a previous post about Young Naturalists!

Biking for Beginners and Pros

July 5, 2013 Comments Off on Biking for Beginners and Pros

"Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle" Chris RaschkaWe interrupt our Summer School Series for some good ‘ol fashioned outdoor play—and because there happens to be two seriously awesome new picture books about riding a two wheeler (the Ultimate Summer Challenge, really). The first book is for the I-Think-I-Can-Beginners; the second is for the experienced, daring, and creative bikers (especially those with a love for all things Space).

Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle (Ages 3-6) is a simple but poignant “how to” look at mastering a two wheeler, first with training wheels and then without. Now, if I were going to write a step-by-step guide to teaching a five year old to ride a bike, it might go something like this:

Lug ten tons of second-hand steel to park, at the request of eager child.

Help eager child up into bike seat.

Become temporarily deaf by imminent screaming of “NOOOOOOO get me off get me off get me off!”

After much cajoling and pleading and promising for the 45th time that you are going to hold on the whole time, convince child to remount bike and begin pedaling forward.

After 10 minutes, whereby you are still holding fast to the training-wheeled bike and said bike has moved exactly 10 feet, suggest that he try turning.

Feel an abrupt jerk as child slams on the breaks (this, oddly, comes very naturally), jumps off bike, and announces that he is Most Definitely Not Doing This Right Now.

Lug ten tons of steel back home.

Fortunately, Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle paints a much rosier picture of a child learning to ride a bike, along with the help of her patient and gently encouraging father.

But, actually, what I love about this book is that things are not always smooth sailing: the little girl has lots of false starts, falls down again and again, and needs both hugs and Band-Aids. “Oops! You nearly had it,” the book coaches. “Don’t give up. You’ll get it. Find the courage to try it again, and again, again, and again, again, and again, and again, until by luck, grace, and determination, you are riding a bicycle!”

Rashchka’s signature watercolors, seemingly effortlessly executed with thick, breezy, rough strokes of paint, are perfectly suited to the subject at hand. Every single painting exudes movement—whether it’s the little girl pulling her father’s hand toward the bike shop, her sideways and backwards tumbles off the bike, the neighborhood kids zooming past her on their colorful two wheelers, or her triumphant forward-leaning fast-pedaling stance at the end.

Rashchka’s greatest gift has always been his ability to capture emotional expression with just a few brushstrokes; and it’s the determination, bewilderment, frustration, joy, and pride on the little girl’s face that will make this gem relatable for children—those struggling to ride and those who’ve newly mastered the skill. I’m not promising this book will work miracles, assuming there might be other parents out there who are having similar bicycling battles on the playground (please tell me I am not alone); but I can promise that your child will identify a kindred spirit on the page.

Moving on to morHow to Bicycle to the Moone advanced bicycling (and a longer, more sophisticated story), I fervently recommend How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers: A Simple but Brilliant Plan in 24 Easy Steps, by Mordicai Gerstein (Ages 5-10). If the irreverent title alone hasn’t sold you, let me sing the praises of this most entertaining book, particularly for the kid who loves science, invention, numbers, the Moon, and bossing people around (that would be my son to a T, minus the bicycling).

First, when was the last time your child read a work of fiction that was laid out in steps? Each of this book’s 39 pages outlines a different step, numbered 1 through 24, many of them sub-categorized with letters (12a, 12b, 12c, 12d, etc.). Kids love this stuff; it’s exactly the way their mind works when they are bossing us around.

Secondly, there’s the very idea of bicycling into outer space, not to mention for the purpose of planting sunflowers to cheer up the Moon’s “big, sad clown face.” Thirdly, there’s the intricately involved and scientifically supported plan that the boy conjures up—a plan involving 2,000 used truck inner tubes, a 25-foot flagpole, a ship’s anchor, 238,900 miles of garden hoses wound tightly around a giant spool, a rented XS space suit from NASA, and various provisions, including “nourishing, flavored Glop, squirted through a straw in your space-helmet.”

Finally, there’s the climactic adventure itself, Boy On Bike, pedaling up miles of garden hoses that have been anchored into the Moon’s surface, stopping to wonder at “the trillions of stars.” Within the largely comic narrative, written in the boy’s instructive voice, there are also many clever descriptions, my favorite being the notion that the Moon looks “like a coloring book that hasn’t been colored yet.”

Gerstein’s pen and ink drawings have a comic-book feel, but the crudely colored line art is mixed with grace and subtlety (the Moon’s changing expressions are a particular delight). This is the same Gerstein who wrote and illustrated one of my (and my son’s) favorite books: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Ages 4-8), the true and serious story of Phillipe Petit’s dramatic tightrope walk between the World Trade Towers in 1974. The two books could not look or feel more different (a rare feat for a picture book artist); yet, oddly, they both involve moving atop a skinny, rope-like material suspended over great heights.

Gerstein writes books about dreams—about the mystery, wonder, and excitement in planning for and achieving those dreams. I have a dream that my children will both ride two wheelers some day, that they will taste the victory that comes from balancing up high on their own, and (as I vividly remember doing as a young girl) that they’ll speed around the block, dreaming and scheming and making their own Big Plans.

Learning from the Big Thinkers (Summer School Continues!)

June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

On a Beam of LightAlbert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)

I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).

I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.

Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”

I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)

Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'" In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots ("Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'” In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots (“Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)

The Human Body (Summer School Continues!)

June 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

You Are StardustSummer is naturally a time for children to sharpen their senses and take notice of their bodies. Running barefoot through the freshly cut grass; relishing the pure silence underwater at the pool; feeling the sweat beads on the back of their necks; hearing the crack of thunder that sends them tearing for the house; stretching out on the earth’s back to gaze at a sky full of stars: this is what summer looks, sounds, and feels like to our children. So why not turn these grass-stained knees into a chance to study the human body? And what if we take these bodily lessons further; what if we create an awareness in our children that their bodies aren’t just little planets unto themselves but are connected to the mysteries of the greater universe?

I have long been puzzled by the lack of children’s books that bridge the scientific and natural worlds, so I was thrilled to discover a little gem published last year, written by Elin Kelsey. You Are Stardust (Ages 4-8) is that rare blend of scientific fact and poetic wonder. Beginning with the premise that “every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born,” the book goes on to draw parallels between humans, animals, the earth, and the universe, from the salt water that flows through our tears like it flows through the ocean to the electricity that powers our thoughts like it powers the lightning in the sky. Every fact and connection is intended to shock and awe (and is backed up by scientific evidence). Did you know that the water we drink today is the same water that the dinosaurs drank? Or that “each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant?” (Both of these questions got an audible response from my son: “Is that seriously true?”)

One of my favorite things about sharing books with children is that you can never predict exactly what will rock their world. I would never have supposed that the fact which made the greatest impression upon JP was one having to do with continual renewal—specifically, that “you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten.” When he first heard this, JP threw back his head and roared, “I’m not a snake! Kids don’t shed their skin; that’s ridiculous!” “Not all in one piece like a snake, but in little bits at a time,” I told him, and we went on to discuss things like scrapes, sunburn, and dry skin. For the past week, he has now taken to brushing his hand across his arm 10 times a day, while declaring to his sister that “you can’t see it, but my skin is shedding RIGHT NOW!”

Prior to discovering You Are Stardust, my favorite “metaphysical” book for kids, although on a much simpler, toddler-targeted level, has been Molly Bang’s All of Me: A Book of Thanks (Ages 2-4). With loving, economical text, Bang pays tribute first to a child’s body (“thank you, hands, for gripping and throwing and patting and holding”); then to his senses (“my mouth tastes all my food before it slides down here, into my tummy”); then to his feelings (“today I felt curious, and excited, and angry, and brave…”); and, finally, to the way in which he is part of “this whole wide world…and this whole universe is inside…all of me!”).

What All of Me starts, You Are Stardust expands on for the older child, grounding wondrous observations about the body-universe connection with scientific data (the book’s afterward also cites a website for those who want to learn more about the science behind the book). Perhaps not just coincidentally, both Bang and Kelsey’s books are illustrated with collage, a fitting medium for a lesson on how we are greater than the sum of our parts. The collages in You Are Stardust, done by Soyeon Kim, are actually dioramas, combining rocks, dried flowers, painted leaves, string, tissue paper, and watercolor cut-outs to create a tactile, three-dimensional effect. The illustrations feel youthful and free-form, and I think my son immediately connected with them as something he could approximate with materials gathered from our backyard. I would love for my children (as the author similarly wishes in her afterward) to cart this book outside all summer long, to read it by flashlight in their tee-pee or while propped up on their elbows in the grass. I would like for them to look at the trees and the birds and the snails and the clouds—and to feel their own heartbeat answering back.

"You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature."

“You, me, birds flying through the rainforest. We are all connected. We are all nature.”

Other Favorites for a More In-Depth Study of the Human Body (and with a more traditionally fact-based presentation):
The Skeleton Inside You; Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup and Yawn; A Drop of Blood; Hear Your Heart; My Five Senses, all part of the wonderful Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science Series (Ages 4-8)
See Inside Your Body, by Usborne Publishing (Ages 5-10)
First Human Body Encyclopedia, by DK Pubishing (Ages 6-12)
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work, by Steve Jenkins (Ages 6-12)
Picture This! Human Body, by Margaret Hynes (Ages 8-14)

Year of the Snake

February 21, 2013 § 4 Comments

Nic Bishop's SnakesLet me be clear: I am not a snake person. Just ask my husband about the time our former neighbor’s grandson misplaced his yellow and black striped rubber snake in our driveway. My hysteria, combined with the Internet, had half the street convinced that a rare and deadly species of snake (I believe we had landed on the Eastern King Snake) had invaded our DC suburb. My husband finds this an enlightening story about my disposition to overreact (I prefer to think of it as strong survival instincts).

All this is to say that if I am telling you that Nic Bishop’s Snakes (Ages 5-12) is not only A-MA-ZING but that I have been volunteering to read this book to my son, then you should take me very, very seriously. You should march straight out to your local bookstore and buy this book (actually, you should buy all the books in Bishop’s series, even those about tamer animals like butterflies and frogs).

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Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 4): Books For the Hero Within

December 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Boy Who Harnessed the WindBenjamin Franklin once penned: “If you would not be forgotten/ As soon as you are dead and rotten,/ Either write things worth reading,/ Or do things worth the writing.” OK, that might not be a quote we need to read aloud to our young children, but its sentiment can and should inform the books we choose to share with them.

The genre of biographies written for children is taking off like never before; it seems not only are parents and educators seizing the chance to inspire our young ones with tales of historical figures, but kids themselves are embracing these literary opportunities to inform their own choices, to pave their own paths worth living. And it’s no accident that many of this past year’s biographies are picture books: against a backdrop of beautiful art and poetic text, stories about scientists, writers, inventors, artists, and peacemakers become that much more gripping. The books listed at the end of this post are treasures worth giving and owning; their artistic caliber alone makes them a far cry from the dry, fact-filled paperbacks that we once suffered through for school reports.

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Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 3): Books for Future Zoologists

December 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?If you have an animal lover in your life, allow me to introduce you to the amazing Steve Jenkins, whose stunning paper collages are the basis for highly engaging and informative books about animals. Why do these books make great gifts? For starters, most parents don’t know about them! Jenkins’ books are more likely to end up on the non-fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries than in places where parents would be likely to bump into them; and while they are technically non-fiction, these gems read like picture books.

The other reason they make great gifts is because they play directly into children’s inherent curiosity about the world around them. Jenkins uses the animal kingdom as a vehicle through which to introduce all kinds of scientific topics—and he does so while keeping kids as absorbed as if they were listening to stories featuring animal characters. He tackles all the obvious themes, like anatomy, food chains, adaptations, symbiotic relationships, and basic survival. But he also tackles more abstract concepts, like time, proportion, and scale—all through gorgeous spreads of animals and fascinating tidbits (see my complete list of favorite Jenkins titles below, including some for younger and older audiences).

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Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 1): Books Worth Their Weight

December 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

Kingfisher Science EncyclopediaWhen it comes to picking gifts this holiday season, it’s no surprise I vote books all the way (and I’ll have posts all month long with recommendations for everyone on your list). But I thought I’d kick off my Holiday Gift Guide with a more unusual approach.

What about making an impact through sheer weight? I’m talking about reference books: those meaty treasures filled with mind-blowing facts, stunning photography, and encyclopedia-rich knowledge. We normally associate these books with schools, while we focus on stocking our shelves at home with storybooks (why clutter up our houses with reference books when we have the Internet?). But there’s a reason that educational philosophies like Montessori and Waldorf advocate strongly for encouraging children to find answers the old-fashioned way (after all, you learn nothing about alphabetization when you look up a definition on dictionary.com).

A good dictionary or atlas or encyclopedia can grow with your child for years and years. It will make your child a better student, and it will make you a better teacher (come on, we can’t let our children get smarter than us!).

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Elevating the Poop Talk

August 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

As previously noted, we recently spent a week on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, where the beach isn’t exactly the soft white expanse of the Caribbean. But there’s an as-of-yet-unmentioned benefit to such dark, coarse, and oily sand if you’re an almost five-year-old boy: when wet, it bears a striking resemblance to poop. Cue hours of enjoyment for my son, and lots of averted trying-to-seem-oblivious glances from me. It never mattered how things began (“Mommy, I’m building a series of canals!”), they always ended at poop (“Mommy, now these canals are full of POOP!”)

During the 10 hour drive home at the end of the week, I had a revelation: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or rather, how could I direct this obsession into something educational?

I decided to get my hands on The Truth About Poop, by Susan E. Goodman (Ages 5-10), a mature picture-chapter book packed with biological, zoological, historical, and geographical facts about, yes, poop. There have actually been quite a few expertly executed books on this topic over the past 10 years, and they were always big hits at my shop (“You’re telling me your seven-year-old son isn’t interested in reading? Have you tried giving him a book about poop?”). I figured it was high time to bring one home for JP.

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