Dancing Outside the Comfort Zone

July 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra BoigerSomewhere along the way, in our frenzy to make sure our children are anything but ordinary, we’ve stopped letting them be bad at things. So fervently do we want them to feel the taste of success from an early age (as if this guarantees them achievement later in life), that we steer them almost immediately in the direction of things at which we believe they’ll excel.

With so many of today’s children starting instructive activities at younger and younger ages, joining in a few years down the road can feel to a child like everyone else is light years ahead of him or her—a daunting prospect at best. And we parents get squirmy around daunting. We fear the fallout of failure, despite contemporary psychologists berating us, Failure is good! Failure is critical! It’s through failure that children learn how to stand firmer on their own two feet!

What’s stopping us from all holding hands and letting our children outside their comfort zone?

Cue the power of summer camp. For ten summers, I attended the same sleep-away camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The camp was the opposite of fancy (“It’s homey,” my New York City mother announced dubiously the first time we pulled in.). But I adored how laid back and accepting it was. As a camper, you could wander into any activity. As a counselor, you could teach virtually any activity (skill secondary to enthusiasm). Fortunately, my parents weren’t sending me there to master tennis or horseback riding or to emerge at the end of the summer with perfectly glazed pots that might justify the hundreds of dollars they were spending.

That camp became a haven for me. A place to experiment. To discover and be embraced for who I was. And I failed constantly. I failed to advance to the next swimming level. I failed at fighting off homesickness. I failed at having the right frayed jean shorts. I failed at friendships. There were no parents around to lecture or moralize or pick me back up or interfere on my behalf. And, boy, did I love it.

There are still moments in my life where I would give anything to run out my problems in bare feet across that giant archery field, flanked by the beauty of the mountains.

In addition to its nostalgic camp setting, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, the newest in the charming picture book series by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger—and my personal favorite to date—does a magnificent job of exploring a girl’s growing pains at starting (and not necessarily succeeding at) something new. « 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

"Three Bears in a Boat" by David SomanWe 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 »

Keeping Cool Under the Sea

July 26, 2013 Comments Off on Keeping Cool Under the Sea

Octopus AloneI 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)

June’s Birthday Pick

June 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

Water in the ParkLast Friday, after a long week of 90 degree days, the kids and I were driving around struggling to fill the few hours between school and dinner. I suddenly remembered that earlier that day, I’d picked up a stack of just-published books at the store, and so I proposed that we head home to read in the AC. “Reading Party! Reading Party!” my son immediately began chanting, a phrase left over from when his sister was a baby and I would coax him into lying down with me while she took her morning nap in the other room, under the pretense that he could load up the bed with books and we’d have a “Reading Party” (true, my motivation was entirely selfish—must lay head down—but I’m also a big believer that, as parents, our excitement around reading rubs off on our kids).

So, as we sat down to read last Friday, I thought I’d use my kids’ reactions to decide which title to make my birthday pick for the month. I had all my money on Mini Grey’s new Toys in Space, because it’s hard to go wrong with a story involving a fleet of misplaced toys, a spaceship, a conflicted alien, a Wonderdoll blessed with storytelling prowess, and Grey’s hilarious (if occasionally crass) speech bubbles. (Incidentally, I chose another Mini Grey book for last July’s birthday pick, so there must be something about warm temperatures that puts me in the mind of Toys Coming Alive). As expected, Toys in Space captivated my kids and elicited no shortage of laughs. But when all was said and done, it was the final book in our pile that they asked to read a second and a third time—and which they both chose as their favorite.

Emily Jenkins and Stephanie Graegin’s Water in the Park: A Book About Water & the Times of the Day is a quiet, unassuming, lyrical portrait of the transformations that take place in a city park over the course of a typical hot summer day, from the early-morning canine visitors to the tottering babies putting their hands in sprinklers to the adults taking their lunch breaks on shady benches to the evening strollers that get caught in the cooling rain. Of course, there are lots of obvious reasons why my kids (and your kids) would like this book, most especially because it fits entirely into their frame of reference (dogs! swings! parents! nannies! boo-boos! containers of apple slices! tears over leaving the park!). In a season where the heat can make being outside feel oppressive, it’s nice to celebrate that water can be poured into sandboxes to make moats or drizzled down scorching metal slides; that a stray cat can enjoy a sip in a lingering puddle; and that a timid dog might finally decide to wade into the pond. One also can’t ignore the widespread and very natural representation of diversity among the children and adults at the park (Jenkins took her inspiration from weeks spent observing Prospect Park in Brooklyn).

But I think the biggest reason why my kids love this book (and why you shouldn’t hesitate to give it for your next birthday gift) is the sheer comfort that comes from reading a story that’s grounded in the natural progression of a day, whose very text echoes a predictable rhythm of dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, and night. Very early on, children develop a fascination for time, but it’s not for many years that they truly grasp the meaning of “ten o’clock” or “noon,” that they recognize patterns not only in their own day but in the strangers and animals around them (gasp: the park has a life even when I’m not there?!). There’s a wonderful calm that comes from reading a story that helps to make sense of the order of things. And when the rainstorm descends to cool us all off, there’s comfort in knowing that the sun will shine again.

Water in the Park

“Around one o’clock, grown-ups wander in, squinting from their shops and office buildings…Two old people stand [near the pond] with a bag of bread crumbs…On very hot days, the ice cream truck comes early…Children get soft-serve cones and bright Popsicles…Sticky fingers and faces are rinsed in the sprinkler.”

Farewell to Summer

September 2, 2012 § 4 Comments

"Beach Feet" by Kiyomi & Konagaya & Masamitsu SaitoI 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.

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