Taking the Plunge

May 24, 2018 § 1 Comment

With Memorial Weekend upon us, swimming season officially kicks off. For the littles in our lives, the return to outdoor pools may be greeted by equal parts excitement and trepidation, for as much fun as splashing in water can be, it brings with it frequent demands for bravery. Whether it’s learning to swim across the pool without the comfort of floaties, jumping off the side, or navigating crowds of bigger, louder, more confidently swimming kids, the opportunities for intimidation are everywhere. And that’s just what our kids are feeling! We as parents are expected to walk that delicate line of encouraging but not pushing our hesitant children, of keeping up the pretense of patience even when it feels like we have been at this forever. All the time parading our post-childbearing selves around in a bathing suit.

Jabari Jumps (Ages 4-7), by first-time author-illustrator Gaia Cornwall, is a book I could have used a few years ago, as much for its young protagonist’s struggle to launch himself off the diving board, as for the beautiful example of parenting it holds up.

The story of how each of my children finally went off the diving board—in both cases, years after they were solidly swimming in deep water—is as much a testament to the evolution of my own parenting as it is to their different personalities. With my eldest child, there were months of discussion, deliberation, and negotiation. Should I do it? Should I not do it? What will you give me if I do it? (The answer: nothing.) There were countless false attempts: him perched at the end of the board, scrutinizing me beseechingly for encouragement, only to turn and climb back down, declaring he would “definitely” do it the next day. In the end, because our pool has two side-by-side diving boards, and because I was clearly going through a helicopter-parenting phase, we jumped together. (It turns out my over-mothering wasn’t the most embarrassing part. The impact of the water brought down the top of my bathing suit. I haven’t been able to look our lifeguards in the eye since.)

With my daughter, her hang-up was with her goggles—specifically, that our pool forbids the use of them off the diving board. No amount of rational argument could explain away her fear of water touching her exposed eyeballs. Clearly worn out from the first child, I took a backseat to this one. And so, for two summers, she watched her friends jump, always content to stay on the other side of the lane line, which separated the diving well from the regular deep end. And then, last summer, on our very last day at the pool, she pattered over to me after the lifeguards had blown the whistle for break. My nose was buried in a book (because this, my fellow parents, is the real payoff of years of swim lessons).

“Mommy, do you have any snacks?” she began. And then, not missing a beat: “I went off the diving board. Five times. You can watch later when I do it again.” On her own terms, with no warning, and away from prying eyes, she had taken the plunge.

In Jabari Jumps, the title character’s experience facing down the diving board is, in many ways, a perfect amalgamation of my two children’s. Moments before walking into the pool area with his dad and toddler sister, Jabari is bubbling over with confidence. “I’m jumping off the diving board today,” he triumphantly informs his dad. As far as Jabari is concerned, nothing is standing in his way: he has passed his swim test; he is fluent in deep water; and, besides, “I’m a great jumper…so I’m not scared at all.” (As much as I commend Caldwell for casting an African-American boy in a story that has nothing to do with race, I doubly commend her for choosing to herald a father, alone with his two children at the pool. Too often, dads get the shaft in picture books.)

Against soft, muted backgrounds, lovingly executed in pencil, watercolor, and collage, Caldwell effectively plays with perspective, reminding the reader just how big and intimidating things can appear through a child’s eyes. As Jabari catches sight of the giant rectangular pool—in particular, the tiny “bug-like” children on the edge of the diving board, springing “up up up” and then “down down down”—we sense a small shift inside Jabari, despite his continuing to talk the big talk (“Looks easy.”). His dad says nothing, but he does something infinitely more powerful: he squeezes his son’s hand. For as much dialogue as there is in the story, there is just as much loveliness in what remains unspoken in this parent-child relationship.

Predictably—at least, for those of us on the parenting side—Jabari begins stalling. He stands at the base of the tall ladder, staring up at it. He lets the other kids go in front of him, all the time keeping up his easy-breezy facade. “I need to think about what kind of special jump I’m going to do.”

When Jabari begins climbing the ladder, he can think of nothing but how endlessly tall it is. Time seems to freeze. Insert dad from the sidelines, who gently asks his son if he might like to take a “tiny rest” first. Jabari is quick to consent. “A tiny rest sounded like a good idea.” The dad might have shouted encouraging words at his son; or he might have thrown up his hands and called his bluff right then and there. But no. Because this is a parent who knows what he’s doing.

And then, a full crisis of confidence erupts. “I think tomorrow might be a better day for jumping,” Jabari says. Again, his dad neither agrees with him, nor attempts to talk him out of quitting. He simply crouches down and says, “It’s okay to feel a little scared…Sometimes, if I feel a little scared, I take a deep breath and tell myself that I am ready. And you know what? Sometimes it stops feeling scary and feels a little like a surprise.” In one concise paragraph, this parent validates emotion, then gently re-frames the situation. A master at his craft.

Over the next few pages, we see a new side of Jabari—thoughtful, careful, curious, courageous—as he fills his lungs with air, mounts the board, stands up straight, and walks carefully to the edge. With “his toes curled around the rough edge,” Cornwall renders an illustration that has our own breath catching in our throat, as we wait in mutual anticipation of the moment of letting go.

As Jabari takes flight, his jubilation is evident, from his wide smile to his splayed arms. But, look closer, and you’ll see my favorite part. Jabari’s eyes are closed, and his face is turned away from the direction of his father and little sister, who wave excitedly from the water below. Jabari is momentarily oblivious to his cheering squad, and that’s exactly how it should be. This is Jabari’s plunge.

Summer is almost upon us. Let us rejoice mightily when our littles at last flap their arms and jump. But let us also rejoice in the dance—even the two steps forward, one step backwards dance—to get there.

 

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Review copy provided by 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!

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton JonesLast year, I made the mistake of telling my kids that, since they don’t do much in the way of summer camps, they could choose something to purchase on different weeks of summer break. It started innocently enough: they chose a World Atlas the first week and followed that with a set of colored pencils, an electric pencil sharpener, a sprinkler, and so on.

But here’s the problem. This excitement of NEW THINGS has not only stayed with them, it now trumps nearly every thought they have about the approaching summer. We still have three more weeks of school, and yet they manage to bring up the subject of “what we should buy this summer” almost every day. We have enough toys and crafts to keep them occupied all day, every day, for a lifetime of summers. Yet, somehow, in my primal, deep-seeded desire for self-preservation, I too quickly grasp at straws to avoid that dreaded “Mommy, I’m so bored.”

I’ve seen what my kids can do with a pile of stuffed animals and two sheets—heck, I’ve even watched them play Tic Tac Toe on the living room floor with masking tape and kitchen cutlery—so I should know that they can do this. Heck, I do know it. They can battle boredom. I’ve seen it time and time again. And yet, the mere thought of little hands hanging on me and little voices whining for another snack and little feet pattering on my heels as I try and straighten the house—all of these the predictable precursors to the creative process—make me want to get out my wallet and head to Target.

Stop the madness. Summer should be my children’s time to plug fully and uninterruptedly into their imaginations. I need to resist staging; I need to resist meddling; I need to turn them loose in the backyard and shut the door behind them.

Thankfully, we have books like Elizabeth Orton Jones’ Twig (Ages 7-9, or younger if read aloud) to remind us of what fun can be made out of what is already on hand—that is to say, out of almost nothing at all.

Originally published in 1942, re-released in 1970, and then updated with an introduction from the author in 2001, Twig has every ounce of the nostalgia, charm, and quirkiness that we would expect from a 70-year-old chapter book (although, arguably, it does romanticize poverty to a fault). Hilarious blog posts like this one aside, we should perhaps take a page out of the parenting books of our own childhood, when we tromped around the backyard with skinned knees and itchy bug bites and our parents seemed almost surprised to see us at the end of the day. Magic almost always happens in children’s stories when the parents turn their backs.

Parents of fairy lovers rejoice! I have a found you another chapter book, which—like our beloved The Night Fairy—is based in the natural world, is beautifully told, and stars characters every bit as innocent and genuine and likeable and funny. Take a look at Twig‘s Table of Contents and tell me you don’t want to start this story at bedtime tonight.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

The author never comes out and says it directly, but Twig, the little girl at the heart of the story, is clearly poor. She lives on the “fourth floor of a high sort of house in the city,” has safety pins for buttons, and wears a piece of grocery string around one of her shoes to keep it from falling apart. She doesn’t appear to have any siblings, nor any fellow children as neighbors. She also doesn’t appear to have a single toy.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

What she does have is a backyard, which she shares with two sparrows, a cat, an ice-wagon horse, a leaky drainpipe, and a single dandelion. It is out of these things—as well as discarded household objects—that Twig constructs and stars in the most fanciful and amusing of adventures.

The story begins with a fairy house. Not the fairy house of our children’s imaginations, with mossy rocks and grassy beds and twigs tied with twine. This is a strictly urban fairy house, made from an empty, overturned can of tomatoes with a slit down the front (“where somebody’s can opener had made a mistake”). Twig furnishes the house with a thimble (cooking pot), a bottletop (which makes a table when balanced on the thimble), a piece of shiny paper (mirror), and an old feather (a broom to sweep the floors). And then she waits for a fairy to move in.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

A fairy does move in, although not the “pretty little fairy” Twig was expecting. Elf is an eager, mischievous, cap-sporting boy fairy with a potato skin for clothing and a high-pitched voice (“like the tiny little squeak which was in Twig’s Papa’s Sunday shoes”). We later learn that he has escaped from the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” and is eager to try his hand at magic in “real life.” As far as Twig is concerned, Elf exceeds expectations the moment he tries out a magic spell from his trusty red book and ends up miniaturizing her. Suddenly, the two are keeping house together inside the tomato can, and it isn’t long before they are bantering like an old married couple.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Seen through the eyes of Twig’s new miniaturized self, the backyard becomes a place of wonder and excitement. She swings from the leaves of the lone dandelion. She drinks tea out of old toothpaste tops. Along with Elf, she climbs up the ice-wagon horse’s tail and takes a siesta nestled inside the horse’s ears. (Of course, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary is not without its limits: Twig has to draw the line when Elf brings a cockroach into the tomato can and attempts to endear him to Twig as a pet named Chummie.)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

But my daughter’s favorite adventures come when, perched on the back of Mrs. Sparrow, Twig and Elf take trips up to the nest to help the mother-to-be sit on her eggs. For one, the four eggs end up hatching on their watch, and Twig and Elf are beside themselves trying to figure out how to hush the endless “squa-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-k” of the ravenous babies (many giggles here). Secondly, the page-long description of the nest is itself fascinating—a regular archaeology site of discarded treasures. In addition to straw and horse hair and old feathers, there is “a piece of silver tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree,” a burnt match, the first six inches of a tape measure, and “a little limp piece of rubber from an old balloon” (“Oh! Twig had never seen such a mess!”)

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Anyone hoping for some conventional fairy lore will not be disappointed, as the last third of the story brings the arrival of the Fairy Queen, who descends from Fairyland “with a long pink dress on, and hair that was as yellow as Twig’s Papa’s taxi, and wings you could see right through—like cellophane.” She is followed shortly by the quirkiest character in the book: a white-haired, wizened fairy named Lord Buzzle Cobb-Webb, who arrives on the Royal Magical Cobb-Webb Kerchief, addresses Twig as “young whipper-snapper,” and prepares to escort the Fairy Queen, Elf, and Twig if she so desires back to Fairyland.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

So commences my favorite scene, as Twig wrestles with her understanding of what is real, what is pretend, and who is the true mastermind behind these events. Of course, the savvy reader has suspected the answer all along: the book’s story is Twig’s creation—and, as such, Twig has the power to tell it again, tell it differently, or tell a new one altogether.

It’s the Fairy Queen who reveals Twig’s power to her. When Twig complains that she can’t make the trip to Fairyland on account of her “ordinary old dress,” the Queen assures her that it’s not what lies on the outside that matters, but what lies within.

The Queen looked up at the little round bud at the top of the dandelion stalk. “Do you know what is inside of that plain ordinary little round bud?” she asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered Twig. “A beautiful flower.”
“There is something just as beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen.
“Something—beautiful! Inside of—me!” said Twig. “Honestly, Your Majesty! How could there be?”
“How could there be a beautiful little flower inside of the little round bud?” asked the Queen.
Twig lifted her shoulder several times. “I don’t know!” she said. “There just is, that’s all.”
“And there ‘just is’ something beautiful inside of you,” said the Queen. “It’s called imagination.”
“Is that so?” said Twig. “What can it do?”
“It can do magic,” said the Queen.
“Magic!” squeaked Twig. “What kind of magic?”
“Any kind of magic you wish,” said the Queen.
“Well, for goodness sakes!” said Twig.

"Twig" by Elizabeth Orton Jones

Imagination—the most precious childhood companion—doesn’t cost a cent.

My children have built their fair share of fairy houses in our backyard over the years. Here’s hoping that this summer, they will go one step further and allow their imaginations to take up residence front and center, to see their surroundings with fresh eyes, and to create new stories that will be no one’s but their own. The next time my kids tell me what to buy this summer, I’m going to tell them to take out the recycling. That should be everything they need to get busy.

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God of Summer

June 2, 2016 § 4 Comments

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai GersteinAs a stay-at-home parent, I greet the arrival of summer with equal parts giddiness, relief, and dread. I know I will watch my children grow before my eyes more rapidly than during any other season. I know the front hall will be draped with wet towels, half-empty coolers, and bottles of sun block. I know we will picnic in beautiful places. I know my children’s boredom will give way to creative partnerships the likes of which I could never predict. I know there will be tears; there will be yelling; there will be hysterical laughter. I know the noise will drive me into the laundry room. I know there will be long sticky cuddles while reading together on the couch. I know there will be dance parties. I know my children will jump at every chance to stay up and catch fireflies. I know their eyes will close the second their heads hit the pillow—and that mine will follow close behind.

For any ambivalence I might have about summer’s arrival, my children have none. For them, summer is something to be greeted with unadulterated ecstasy—the skipping, jumping, eating ice cream, and wearing whatever they want kind. In this, they feel a kinship to a certain Greek god in Mordicai Gerstein’s wildly infectious new picture book, I am Pan! (Ages 5-10).

For any parent whose days of studying Greek mythology are buried under dust, allow me to give you a refresher. Pan—with his horns and hoofed feet—is the exuberant god of the wild. He is god of noise and confusion, of silliness and mischief. He is the originator of the word “panic,” speaker of exclamation marks, and lover of honey, fruit and flowers. In short, he is every child’s alter ego: the kid (well, kid at heart) who can get get away with anything, who can act up and out on every whim, and who somehow remains adorable through all of it. He is the Curious George of Mount Olympus.

Traditionally, Pan is associated with fertility and the season of spring, a connection briefly alluded to in the book’s final page. As far as my children are concerned, though, he should be the god of summer. He represents everything that summer break promises to them: the freedom to romp, frolic, and laze about to their hearts’ content.

As if the very notion of a god of noise wasn’t enticing enough, Mordicai Gerstein has given our children a visual and narrative rendition of Pan’s story that explodes and entertains at every turn. It’s not the serious treatment that Gerstein gave to his spectacular Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, but something closer in tone and style to his earlier summertime story, How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers. In I am Pan!, Gerstein outdoes himself: trading in typeset completely for hand lettering, presenting all dialogue in speech bubbles, and challenging the very boundaries of the picture book. Whether or not your kids already love comics and graphic novels; whether or not they already love (or even know anything about) Greek mythology: I guarantee that they are going to run to the highest hilltop and sing out their love for this book.

As Pan’s autobiography—yes, the entire book is narrated by the egocentric rascal—the book also serves as a fun and lighthearted introduction to Greek mythology. I mentioned a few posts ago that my eight year old is already well down the mythology path (he immediately hijacked this book until he had read it three times through); but most mythology texts are too dark or complex for my five year old. NOT THIS ONE. Gerstein reveals just the right amount of information about Pan’s fellow gods and goddesses, lends just the right amount of frivolity and hilarity to the family saga that is Mount Olympus. My daughter’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued. (As I’m typing this, she is home sick from school and literally wrangling the book away from me.)

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In a jam packed, visually prolific 72 pages, Pan gives us eleven highlights of his life, beginning with his birth. Is it any surprise that, in lieu of a heartbeat, the midwife heard shouts, snickers, and giggles coming from his mother’s womb?

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Hands down a favorite with both kids is the moment when Pan is introduced to Zeus, described on more than one occasion as exceedingly “grumpy.” Pan, still a baby (although it only takes him an hour and fifteen minutes to become fully grown), reaches out and bonks Zeus on the nose. To everyone’s surprise, Zeus is immediately smitten.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Eventually, though, Pan wears out his welcome with his extended family on Mount Olympus (“He delights my heart, but he’s a menace,” says Hera) and is sent to Arcadia to rule over grassy hills, idyllic waterfalls, and shepherds and nymphs.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

In Arcadia, where Pan becomes master of his own domain, noisy drama and physical comedy reign. Pan plays a role in some of Greek mythology’s most entertaining stories, including serving as the catalyst for King Midas’ jackass ears, falling in love with an echo, and rescuing Zeus’ sinews from a monster even noisier than him. (I bet you never thought you could have so many bizarre conversations with your kids).

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

If myths were originally told to explain elements of our world, Pan’s stories are no exception: Pan crafts the first love song, is the inspiration behind the marathon, and—most famously—invents panic. For all his larger-than-life personality, Pan is a great lover of naps. When he initially arrives in Arcadia, he promises “laughing, singing, dancing, and all kinds of noise, celebration and gaiety”—but with one exception: nap time. When an ant interrupts Pan’s nap with a sneeze, Pan explodes, and the sound makes every living creature around him jump with panic. Pan quickly discovers that his ability to ignite panic is his greatest superpower—more effective than all the bows and arrows combined—and he later uses it to help the Greeks win against the Persians.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

For all the trouble he stirs up, Pan is not a trouble maker at heart (the same may be said of Curious George). He is simply motivated by the egocentricity, jealousy, and desire that affect gods and humans alike. Ultimately, though, it’s his innocent and uninhibited gaiety that readers will remember long after the final page. Pan plays songs on his reed pipes that make “the birds dance with the clouds” and the “bunnies dance with the foxes.” He loves his family with a boisterous, almost suffocating kind of affection. He feels the joy of living in his bones and horns and hooves, and he simply cannot bear to keep it in.

"I Am Pan!" by Mordicai Gerstein

Whether we’re ready or not, summer is nearly upon us. May your little Pans find endless channels for their own exuberance—and may you find moments of quiet in which to enjoy them.

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Review copy provided by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. 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!

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 1 Comment

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time…

Earlier this week, I came across a piece written by a ninth-grade English teacher, titled “4 Reasons to Start Class with a Poem Each Day.” Even though this teacher’s courses are centered on novels, he begins every lesson with a poem. Why? Well, to start with, poems are short. They’re also intense (BAM!) and thought-provoking. They connect back to other things, literary or not. And they’re inspiring.

I got to thinking: maybe I’m looking at this whole poetry-before-bed thing all wrong. Maybe poetry should have a place in our mornings!

I once talked to a mom who told me that she reads a chapter each morning to her children during breakfast, that this has become a lovely way to connect with her children and start their morning off on a high note. This vision has stuck with me all these years—it sounds lovely—but it also screams of impracticality for my life (do I stop reading every time I have to get up to get a napkin, or pour the milk, or ask my child why it appears his hair is never brushed?). No, I’m quite certain that reading at breakfast would just cause more chaos.

At the same time, considering that we’re talking about increasingly fleeting time with my kids, breakfast perhaps feels more transactional than it should. We have the same conversations over and over (“What do you think you’re going to do today?” “I don’t know.”). The refreshing exceptions tend to come when one of us remarks on something spotted through the window: a slew of fallen branches from the storm the night before; the neon green buds on the maple tree; the cardinal dancing in the dogwood. With our window frames as launch pads, time seems to stop for a brief spell. The rush is momentarily forgotten. I suddenly remember why I love these sweet, observant, uncoiffed little people on either side of me.

Then I got my hands on Julie Fogliano’s brand new poetry picture book, When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons (Ages 5-10), lovingly illustrated by Julie Morstad, and I thought: What if, during breakfast, I occasionally read aloud a poem that corresponded to what’s happening in the season we’re in? When Green Becomes Tomatoes features pithy nature poems, each titled for a specific day of the month (beginning and ending with March). Not every day of every month is represented (thank goodness, because I am not that disciplined): in April, for example, we have poems for April 3, 12, 23 and 27.

I don’t think Fogliano has any intention of us being strictly literal here—her spring poems can be read anytime in spring, her fall poems anytime in fall. One could even sit down and read the whole year through, feeling nostalgic about seasons gone by and hopeful about those to come.

The point is that there is potential to leave this chronologically-organized book within reach in the kitchen or dining room or wherever one breakfasts—and to pick it up once a week or so to illuminate what’s happening outside the window. In the most beautiful of ways.

Because, when I read these poems aloud to my kids, which we have been doing now for the past week, it is as if Fogliano is sitting around the breakfast table with us, looking out our same windows and describing in short, lyrical phrases exactly what we are seeing and thinking and feeling, only with greater precision and elegance. I suppose it is hardly surprising that I would fall fast for this book, seeing as I fell in love with Fogliano when her 2012 poem about winter giving way to spring was turned into the evocative picture book, And Then It’s Spring (and, coincidentally, my very first blog post!). In the spirit of that first poem comes these 50 new ones, each proving without a doubt that Fogliano has a delicate, graceful, ever-keen touch that transforms the everyday into the magical.

Just yesterday, when surprising frosty temperatures brought the kids to the breakfast table in sweaters over their spring uniforms, we read:

shivering and huddled close
the forever rushing daffodils
wished they had waited

Here’s another, which perfectly sums up the way we’re all feeling in this sluggish back turn towards winter.

april 3
today
the sky was too busy sulking to rain
and the sun was exhausted from trying
and everyone
it seemed
had decided
to wear their sadness
on the outside
and even the birds
and all their singing
sounded brokenhearted
inside of all that gray

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

Fogliano’s poems are immensely accessible. They flow stream-of-consciousness in an innocent, childlike way. Each line is comprised of just a few words. There’s little to no punctuation. The vocabulary is common. They would be great material for a developing reader. They would certainly inspire a child looking to try his or her hand at poetry. They’re equally perfect for a mother still waking up, just attempting to feed her children breakfast.

july 12
soon we will go to the beach
where we will swim
and eat plums and peanut butter sandwiches
and we will think to ourselves
as we eat
on our blanket in the sand
that nothing in the world
could possibly be more delicious
than those plums
and those peanut butter sandwiches
a little bit salty
and warm from the sun

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

YES PLEASE! (There’s no law that says you can’t skip ahead for a little breakfasting optimism.)

Some of the poems induce chuckles; others are followed by pregnant pauses. With some, the meaning is there to grab quickly; with others, it’s harder to pin down and open for debate. Taken together, these are everything poetry should be for the elementary child.

january 13
other than the cows
everyone has gone
either into or underneath
curled up and covered
but the cows just stand
black and blinking
not noticing that it is cold
and snowing
and everyone has gone

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

My son, sitting next to me as I’m typing this, has just paged through the book and discovered one for September, right around the time of his birthday. “Mommy, you should really type this one up and tell your readers to cut it out and give it to their kids on the first day of school, because this is exactly what school-starting time feels like.” (Even he sees the potential for these poems to start the day—or year—off right!)

september 25
i like it here
on this side of winter
where notebooks are new
apples are best
and freezing still feels far away
but near enough to notice

Morstad’s delightful, child-centric watercolors (there are no adults pictured) are at times playful and at other times serene, betraying her own interpretation of each poem. And yet, as in her earlier picture book, How To, Morstad never clutters her paintings. She takes liberties with empty space, often placing her (commendably) multiracial figures off to the side, giving the poems the room they need to breathe. In the absence of line and form and color, we can build our own meaning, take each poem and make it our own.

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie Morstad

The result of just one week of reading aloud from this book (and leaving it lying around for bored hands to find) is that we’re once again building momentum around poetry inside our home. Over the weekend, Emily took down Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and had me read it to her; I followed that up by introducing her to Silverstein’s modern (equally laugh-out-loud) descendent, Jack Prelutsky. JP later got out Jon J. Muth’s gentle seasonal haikus, which reminded me that When Green Becomes Tomatoes is joining an already impressive lineup of year-round nature poetry. I’ve included a list below of my favorites, most of which I have discussed in past years.

Perhaps each morning, as we throw open the door and greet the day with full bellies, we will remember that we are stepping into the stuff of poetry. Take a look. It’s all around.

Other Favorite Poetry Picture Books About the Seasons:
Hi Koo!: A Year of Poems, by Jon J. Muth (Ages 3-8)
Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-12)
A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike (Ages 5-10)
Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold, by Joyce Sidman (Ages 6-12)
Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, by Joyce Sidman & Pamela Zagarenski (Ages 6-12)

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2015 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Lunar Lover

December 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" and "Thank You and Good Night"In my 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, I ran a post dedicated to parents desperate for a break from incessant nightly rounds of Goodnight, Gorilla. It strikes me that the two books that I’m discussing today (Ages 2-5) would line up beautifully alongside those others. They are perfect bedtime stories. They are perfect for reading every single night (because, trust me, that’s what you’ll be doing). They are quintessentially sweet, dear, and innocent. And if, after reading them, you want to clutch them to your own chest, I promise not to tell.

We begin with Ida Pearle’s stunning The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House (Ages 2-5). Shhhh, I know I’m not supposed to pick favorites, but if I were to call out the illustrations of only one book this year, it would be this. Brooklyn-based Ida Pearle has got to be one of the most evocative children’s artists today, using her talents in figurative drawing and cut-paper collage (her choice of papers, many of them Italian or Japanese-designed, is sheer eye candy) to produce something at once charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly modern. In my old store in Chicago, we used to display and sell Pearle’s wall prints. I’m positively giddy that her art is finding a more accessible expression now in picture books (Caldecott Committee, are you listening?).

Pearle’s subject—the moon—is a common one in children’s literature. For good reason. Since my children first started to become aware of the world beyond their fingertips, they have been fascinated with the moon (remember this?). Even now at eight and five years of age, they will interrupt whatever conversation we are having in the car to exclaim exuberantly, “Look, there’s the moon!” They feel a personal, intimate relationship with this glowing sphere that seems to follow us as we drive up and down and around our neighborhood streets. Apparently, they are not alone in feeling this way.

Pearle’s book is reminiscent of an older favorite in our house—Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay’s I Took the Moon for a Walk—where the young narrator pays homage to the way the moon seems to keep step with him as he walks home one evening. In The Moon is Going to Addy’s House, the child’s journey has a more contemporary context, immensely relatable to children, as Addy travels by car from a friend’s house in the city (“Addy, your play date is over,” calls Mama. “It’s time to go home!”), down the bustling, summertime streets, across a long bridge, and into the rolling hills of her home in the country.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

On each page, as the sky increasingly darkens and the city lights fade away, Addy and her little sister crane their heads to follow the moon. If they lose the moon behind a tree or a cloud or a boulder, it is “only for a moment.”

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

The narrative voice is replete with the naive egocentricity of a young child: The moon was going to my house! Even during bath and pajama time, the moon is never far.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

At last, Addy comes to her favorite moment of the day: “my nighttime dance,” in which she cartwheels through the grass in her pink-footed pajamas against the brilliant backdrop of the moon.

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle
Carried inside and tucked into bed by her loving parents, the girl reminds herself of the friendliness of the night. Of the moon (and a family) that “waits and watches over me, always.”

"The Moon is Going to Addy's House" by Ida Pearle

"Thank You and Good Night" by Ida PearleThere is similar nighttime romping—albeit of the less picturesque and more adorable kind—in Patrick McDonnell’s Thank You and Good Night (Ages 2-5), a story about a girl named Maggie who hosts a sleepover for her stuffed bunny (Clement) and his two pajama-clad friends, an elephant (Jean) and a bear (Alan Alexander). McDonnell first stole my heart with The Monster’s Monster, and he endows this new story with the same understated affection and gentle humor (including great names).

The three friends are determined to take full advantage of their togetherness: jumping on the bed, playing hide and seek, doing the “chicken dance” followed by restorative yoga poses, wishing on a shooting star, and enjoying a bedtime story that Maggie reads to them.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

Maggie’s relationship with these three animals reminds me of my all-time favorite series for two and three year olds: Polly Dunbar’s books about a girl named Tilly, who lives in a yellow house with a litany of anthropomorphic animals, for whom she is both a silly playmate and a nurturing caregiver. Maggie, like Tilly, is exercising control in an imaginative domain of her own making, entirely outside adult supervision and participation.

Yet, Maggie is just the gentle touch that these animals need to settle down for sleep. As the moon emits its soft light outside the darkened room, Maggie recites a list of things for which they can all be thankful. There are few things that make me want to go back and have kids all over again, to savor those little hands to hold, those little foreheads to kiss. This page is one.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

The sun, the moon,
a red balloon.
Hiding, seeking
fun with friends,
a shooting star wish
that it never ends.
Cozy pajamas,
a happy surprise,
night birds singing
sweet lullabies.
Bedtime stories,
old and new,
read with love,
to me,
by you.

In their own ways, The Moon is Going to Addy’s House and Thank You and Good Night both end on a note of gratitude. Gratitude for companionship and for constancy. They make the listener feel safe. And important. And loved. And they make us parents feel like drawing out those nighttime dances and subsequent snuggles just a little bit longer, to embrace the majesty of the moon and the fleetingness of time—before the sun comes up again.

"Thank You and Good Night" by Patrick McDonnell

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss the rest of my Holiday Gift Guide! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.

Review copies provided by Penguin and Little Brown respectively. 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!

Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise BroachWherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.

This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.

Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.

As far as I know, he  never had any nightmares.

And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.

And yet, still no nightmares.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).

The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.

Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).

Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top.  Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.

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

Seduced by Engineering

July 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert FordOne of the Great Surprises of my life came on a hot, clear summer day last August. My sister in law was visiting, and she and I decided to take the kids over to National Harbor in Maryland. “You know, Mommy, I heard they built a Ferris wheel there. I think we should ride it,” offers my eldest.

SAY WHAT? Now, I’ve read the parenting books, and I know we’re not supposed to label our children. So, in lieu of describing my seven year old as cautious, I’ll just say that he prefers to apply the road sign, PROCEED WITH CAUTION, to as much of his life as possible. If JP determines something to be of physical risk, he’ll likely avoid it all together—or spend weeks (ahem, years) ruminating on it, observing others doing it, until he’s absolutely sure he can proceed safely and confidently and without anyone’s assistance (see: bike riding). Heck, there are slides in our neighborhood that he still deems too tall to slide down.

So, I’m suddenly supposed to believe that my son is going to leave the safety of the ground aboard a giant rotating wheel that he has never actually laid eyes on? Don’t get me wrong, I was positively giddy at the prospect (wait, do you think we can start going to theme parks and rock walls?!), although I was careful to do my best nonchalant impersonation when I answered him, “Yeah, sure, we can do that, maybe, whatevs.” No need to jinx things with my shock and excitement.

On the ferry ride over, as we caught first sight of the Metal Monstrosity, hanging precariously out over the pier, I once again thought, NOT A CHANCE. And I once again was floored. “Wow, it’s a lot bigger than I thought, Mommy. But we are definitely riding it.”

As we got in line and paid a mere fortune (honestly, I would have forked over any amount to reward this burst of spontaneity), I watched with trepidation as the color began to drain from JP’s face. I realized he was listening to the attendant, who was loading people into what turned out to be giant glass-enclosed cars and then pointing out the large red “panic” buttons located in each interior. “Why do they need those buttons?” JP asked me.

“Um, in case someone feels sick and they want to come down and get out. I’m sure they hardly ever get used,” I quickly responded. Although I was beginning to wonder the same thing.

And then we were bolted in, quickly rising higher and higher, until we were suspended over the water on one side and the itty bitty figures of people waiting in line on the other. And then—as is the custom with every Ferris wheel I’ve ever been on—we were paused, dangling, SWAYING, for what seemed like an eternity, as a new round of people boarded at the bottom. And we still had four more laps to go.

IMG_8085

I looked at JP. “How are you feeling, buddy?”

He shot me a look like, don’t you dare talk to me right now or I’m going to start screaming like a banshee. Or maybe I’m just projecting how I was feeling. That panic button was calling to me. My sister in law looked equally frozen. (My three year old, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed.)

But we did it. All of us. All five laps. We oooed and we ahhhed, and then we ventured that we might, we might, do it again someday. As we stepped off, I turned and asked the attendant (out of earshot of JP), “How often do people use that panic button?” She rolled her eyes. “You have no idea,” she said. But I did.

Weeks later, I asked JP what made him decide to ride the Ferris wheel. He started rambling about metal and motors and making grand gestures with his hands—and, suddenly, it dawned on me that it was sheer engineering that had seduced him. Even before he saw it in real life—when it was just something he had seen in pictures—the lure was magnificently romantic.

As if right on cue, Kathryn Gibbs Davis’ Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (Ages 5-10), a fascinating picture book biography of the man who invented the Ferris wheel, was soon published and quickly became a favorite in our house (along with the other engineering-themed picture books listed at the end of this post).

Once again, as with the best non-fiction children’s books, I was learning alongside my children.

Like many of history’s greatest inventions, the Ferris wheel was born out of competition. It was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in an attempt, not only to “impress the world,” but to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, which had debuted ten months earlier. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., an American mechanical engineer, was already famous for designing some of our country’s biggest bridges, tunnels and roads. As he watched the earliest skyscrapers rise in front of his eyes on “elegant steel frames” (modeled after birdcages, as we learn in one of the fascinating asides in the book), he began to ask himself, what if I take the skyscraper concept and have it “dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower?”

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Of course, it wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t plenty of speed bumps along the way. After initially flat-out rejecting George’s proposal as “so flimsy it would collapse,” the Fair committee later reluctantly awarded him the bid, on the contingency that George secure his own funding (which he did by depleting his personal savings, so fervently did he believe in his dream).

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Next, there was the stress of time: Ferris had only FOUR MONTHS to source materials, hire a crew, construct a perfect, enormous circle (“834 feet in circumference, rising 265 feet above the ground”), and then make it spin with the “precision of a small watch.” Oh, and did I mention that the passenger cars were the size of living rooms, with enormous picture windows and velvet seats to boot?

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The next time your child tells you something is impossible, have them think on that.

Still, if those challenges aren’t enough to rivet your child’s attention, let me tell you about my son’s favorite page (can we say dynamite?). When George and his crew first began work on the foundation, in the middle of one of Chicago’s coldest winters, they not only had to blast through layers of ice, but they had to battle 35 feet of quicksand (yes, that’s right, the Fair’s site turned out to be atop QUICKSAND).

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

All these happenings are narrated seamlessly and compellingly by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, appealing to a wide range of ages. Some of the more technical information is presented in optional asides (not optional for us, of course), but even the engineering specifics feel accessible.

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Still, not being an engineer myself, I have to say that, for me, the greatest appeal of this book lies in Gilbert Ford’s exquisite mixed-media watercolors, which twinkle and soar and PERFECTLY ROMANTICIZE the dream, the ambition, the teamwork, the national pride, the engineering prowess, the magic, and the fun surrounding the Chicago World Fair. The fantastical color palette of turquoise, hot pink, deep purple, and midnight blue makes the experience of reading the story even more magical.

I get goosebumps just thinking about how the Ferris wheel must have looked to the people who stood before it, especially when it was lit up at night. At that time, houses were still predominantly lit with candles, so this was most people’s first chance to see electricity in action. Farmers and executives alike came to see the 3,000 electric light bulbs in action. Why, it must have seemed like the work of fairies. At least, that’s how it is painted.

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Of course, Davis’ story reminds us that the wheel was, in reality, four months of incredibly hard, back-breaking labor, nearly all of it performed by human hands. Not to mention exacting conceptualizing, measuring, and overseeing by human brains, most notably those of George and his engineering partner, William Gronau.

During the nineteen weeks the wheel was in operation, 1.5 million passengers rode it. It revolved more than 10,000 times, withstood gale-force winds and storms, and did not need one repair.

Perhaps, no matter how cautious we might consider ourselves (or our children), we are powerless to resist the seduction of the Ferris wheel. Untethered from the ground, given over to pure engineering beauty, we feel the awe-inspiring magnitude of the human spirit.

But it does feel good to be back on firm ground when it’s done.

Other Favorite Engineering-Themed Picture Books:
Building Our House, by Jonathan Bean (Ages 4-8)
Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts (Ages 4-8; reviewed here!)
Violet the Pilot, by Steve Breen (Ages 4-8)
Pop’s Bridge, by Eve Bunting & C.F. Payne (Ages 6-12)
Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building, by Deborah Hopkinson & James E. Ransome (Ages 6-12)
The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness (Ages 7-14)

AND get this: there is ANOTHER picture book bio about George Ferris coming out this fall, titled The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris, by Betsy Harvey Craft. As far as I can tell, it details the same story but with more text and information, so it could potentially be great for an older child. It also looks beautifully illustrated (by Steven Salemo)—in a completely different way than Gilbert Ford’s.

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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!

 

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