Long Live the Polar Bear
January 30, 2016 § 1 Comment
If there was ever a time to turn our children sympathetic to the plight of the endangered polar bear, it is on the heels of this recent Snowpocalypse, which dumped more than two feet of the white stuff on us (snow novices) here in Northern Virginia. As my kids and I gazed wide-eyed out our window, the snow fell for two days, swirling and collecting and mounting into perfect waves of whiteness, occasionally drifting into piles almost as high as the stop sign at the end of our block (the stop sign being my son’s unofficial measuring tool of a blizzard, ever since we read John Rocco’s Blizzard last winter). Long before the sun came out and the wind died down, my children were out shoveling trenches down the middle of the street and crawling into hand-dug snow tunnels.
But after just a few days, the sledding hills became slushy. The snow banks started to recede from the edges of our sidewalks, betraying the brownish-green grass beneath. Our once crisp white snow in the backyard has overnight become freckled with twigs and dirt and those (abhorrent) spiky balls from our sweet gum trees. The other morning at breakfast, JP buried his head in his hands and pronounced, “I can’t look. I just wanted it to stay the way it was.” « Read the rest of this entry »
Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything
December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything
When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.
That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.
The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.
They are both a little bit Magic.
For starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « Read the rest of this entry »
Learning Alongside Our Children
November 13, 2014 § 11 Comments
At 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 »
Three “Beach Reads” I Should Have Told You About Earlier
August 18, 2014 Comments Off on Three “Beach Reads” I Should Have Told You About Earlier
We have spent some fabulous time at the ocean this summer, and it seems almost cruel to deny my children their sand-worn feet and crab-catching nets, in exchange for the laced shoes and lunch bags of a rapidly-approaching new school year. It also seems a bit cruel to have waited until now to share with you our favorite beach reads of 2014. Then again, I’ve been too busy helping my children dig giant sand pits to bother with computers, and I suppose that counts for something, too.
Each time we read David Soman’s Three Bears in a Boat (Ages 3-6), the idyllic watercolor seascapes have me yearning for the New England coast, where icy waters crash on rocky shores, lighthouses guide fog-draped ships, and legends abound on the salty tongues of weathered fishermen. In this case, the high seas adventure features three energetic young bears (Dash, Theo, and a female Charlie), who accidentally shatter their mother’s prized blue seashell in a reckless moment of play. Fearing maternal wrath (“after all, [she] was a bear”), the scheming youngsters set off in a sailboat to find a replacement shell that they can put back before she returns. « Read the rest of this entry »
In Honor of the Dads
June 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
This month marks 20 years since I lost my father: my hero, my biggest supporter, the first Big Love of my life. I find that, as my own children get older, and I get to share in their many milestones (just this spring, JP learned to ride a two wheeler, scored his first soccer goal, and passed his deep water test), I am filled with a new kind of sadness over how much my Dad has missed out on as a parent himself.
As graduations wrap up around the country, I think about how my Dad never got to watch me go off to his own beloved Alma Mater. I think about how he never got to hear me rant and rave about my first job at an advertising firm. He never got to step foot into my first apartment, the first space I ever decorated completely on my own. He never got to walk me down the aisle, or get to know the man with whom I would choose to spend my adult life. He never got to parade around photos of his grandkids at work, or show off Manhattan to my daughter, as my Mom did just this past weekend. He never got to read these blog posts, which I know he would have done, because he always, always, made time for my writing.
Following Papa’s Song (Ages 3-6), a new picture book by Gianna Marino, is a stunning and poetic tribute to the father-child relationship. « Read the rest of this entry »
Digging for Dinosaurs
January 6, 2014 § 4 Comments
The 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
Last 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
If 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 »
Keeping Cool Under the Sea
July 26, 2013 Comments Off on Keeping Cool Under the Sea
I know, I know, I’ve left you high and dry without reading material for nearly a month (vacation will do that); plus, I neglected to give you a birthday pick for July’s parties. So, in order to make it up to you, I am not only going to recommend a fabulous, brand-spanking-new book that you can give to everyone celebrating a birthday this summer, but I’m going to end with an EXTRA-LONG LIST OF THEMATICALLY SIMILAR BOOKS for you to read to your own kids (heck, you could even bundle some for an extra-special gift, like I did for a friend earlier this month). Are you ready?
Much like reading about snow in the winter, one of my favorite things about summertime reading is the excuse to read books about the sea (it’s no coincidence that I featured an octopus story for last summer’s birthday pick as well). Whether you’re spending time on the beach or simply looking for a mental escape from the heat, summer is the perfect time to introduce children to underwater worlds: landscapes so different from ours that they have their own inhabitants and laws, their own colors and sounds, their own unique set of experiences and problems. And yet, much of the best sea-themed fiction immerses kids in these foreign worlds while at the same time drawing parallels between their own emotional lives and the lives of the fishy dwellers within.
Trust me, you will want to dive straight into the pages of Divya Srinivasan’s Octopus Alone (Ages 3-6), where a bright orange octopus is set against an enticing palette of turquoise, seafoam green, and bright pink. I first fell in love with Srinivasan’s unique stylized graphics in Little Owl’s Night (reviewed here). Now, in the much longer Octopus Alone, we are treated to a more involved plot alongside her vivid art. I can’t say that Srinivasan’s narrative voice is as strong or coherent as her illustrations; and yet, the story’s theme—venturing outside one’s comfort level and finding the reward of new friendships—resonated loudly with both my kids. Any child who has felt overwhelmed walking into a preschool classroom or has stood on the periphery watching older kids at the playground will see a little of herself in the bashful octopus, who is so uncomfortable around the outgoing seahorses that she initially retreats from the coral reef into the deeper, darker, lonelier waters. Any child who often stands silently amidst others (but doesn’t shut up at home) will see a little of herself in the octopus, who imitates the dancing moves of the seahorses in private before allowing herself to see how much fun it might be to dance with others.
Like any great sea-themed book, there are countless opportunities for underwater discovery in Octopus Alone. Our family’s favorite would have to be the indisputably charming endpapers, which label (in cursive!) each of the sea creatures that make an appearance in the book (my son is prone to the “puffer fish,” while my daughter’s finger goes straight to the “butterfly fish”). My kids giggle every time Octopus releases her ink to “hide her blushing” or to escape the hungry eel, a nice reminder of aquatic adaptation. The book even makes some (albeit subtle) references to the complex ecosystem of coral reefs, like cleaner shrimp eating algae off the back of a nurse shark or baby dominoes playing hide and seek in the “swaying anemones.” (Older kids can build on these with Jason Chin’s equally stunning and richly informative non-fiction picture book, Coral Reefs…sorry, couldn’t wait until the end to plug that one.)
Our oceans and lakes, our sandy tide pools and rocky bluffs, can be a source of endless fascination for our kids. We have the power to channel this fascination into imagination, education, and hopefully even conservation. So go ahead: dip their toes in the water and start reading.
Other Favorite Under-the-Sea Stories (from youngest to oldest ages):
Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef, by Marianne Berkes & Jeanette Canyon (Ages 1-3; board book)
I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean! by Kevin Sherry (Ages 1-4)
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6; ONE OF MY ALL TIME FAVS)
The Pout Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen & Daniel X. Hanna (Ages 3-6; best read in the style of the blues!)
Swimmy, by Leo Lionni (Ages 3-6)
Big Al, by Andrew Clements & Yoshi (Ages 4-7)
If You Want to See a Whale, by Julie Fogliano & Erin Stead (Ages 4-7; also brand new)
Kermit the Hermit, by Bill Peet (Ages 4-8)
Jangles: A Fish Story, by David Shannon (Ages 4-8)
Some Favorite Sea-Themed Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Voyage of Turtle Rex, by Kurt Cyrus (Ages 4-8)
Coral Reefs, by Jason Chin (Ages 5-10)
Island: A Story of the Galapagos, by Jason Chin (Ages 6-12)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, by Jennifer Berne (Ages 5-10)
Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas, by Molly Bang (Ages 6-12)
Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 3): Books for Future Zoologists
December 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
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).
Farewell to Summer
September 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
I have admittedly failed in the creation of baby books for my children. JP’s baby book never got past the “birth story” page, and Emily’s never began at all. But photos—well, on that front I have delivered. And there’s something else I do to celebrate milestones in my kids’ lives: I’ll purchase a picture book that resonates with a particular memory or moment, and then I’ll inscribe it to JP or Emily with an appropriate sentiment.
In our family, this past summer goes down as the summer that Emily finally found her beach feet, so I could not resist buying Kiyomi Konagaya’s new Beach Feet (Ages 2-4) when I came across it at a bookstore in Cape Cod. For Emily, it has been hard to be the little sister of a boy who would prefer to spend his every waking moment of vacation on the beach. A few months earlier, vacationing in Florida, Emily would hold her hands up and scream “uppy-uppy” as soon as we put her down on the sand. And just a few weeks prior to our vacation on the Cape, while we were at my grandmother’s lake house, she would tolerate the feel of sand on her bare feet for only a few minutes at a time, still too tentative to embrace the beach as her playground.
Hot-Off-the-Press for August’s Birthday Parties
August 14, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’m a bit late with my pick for August birthday parties, but this gift will work equally well heading into the school year, because it’s a book about friendship! In Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always (Ages 4-8), Tao Nyeu is following a great literary legacy of Dynamic Duos (Frog and Toad, George and Martha, to name two favorites from my own childhood). Like her predecessors, Nyeu has packed her stories (there are four, organized as “mini-chapters” in the one picture book) with that winning combination of humor and heart. Squid and Octopus bear a particular resemblance to my son JP and his best buddy Willem: like all great friends, they argue about who is right, they make up by deciding they’re both right, they make each other laugh with silliness no parent can hope to understand, and they give each other lung-compressing squeezes that are supposed to resemble hugs.
What makes Nyeu’s book sing are her fantastical illustrations: pattern-studded silk screens made from water-based ink and colored pencils set against a simple white background. For a book about two cephalopods, living in an underwater universe complete with flower gardens, soup stands, and swing sets, one would expect backgrounds in dizzying shades of blue; but by setting her drawings on white, Nyeu focuses children’s attention on the irresistible quirkiness of the characters themselves. (I won’t say that I’m not totally attracted to the Jonathan Adler-esque color scheme of turquoise and orange as well.) As I was getting ready to write this post, I asked JP what his favorite thing about the book was. Instead of one, I got five enthusiastic points:
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.