A Farewell Ode to Board Books

March 5, 2020 § 5 Comments

We are packing up our house to move out for a renovation project. Which means I can no longer ignore the board books still on our shelves, even though my kids, at nine and twelve, are long past paging through them. Only the most beloved of our stash are left, with their faded covers and frayed edges (wait, are those bite marks?). I suppose it is finally time to retire them to a box in the attic, where they’ll sit optimistically until a time when little ones might once again grace our home.

And still. Picking up these books takes me right back to the days of spit up and babble and hair pulling and cuddles so delicious I wondered how I’d ever been happy before. To days when I was so exhausted, I feared I wouldn’t rise to get my screaming infant from her crib. Reading these books to my children sometimes felt like my only lifeline to sanity. A time when a squirming child would succumb to my lap; when the call of laundry and dishes would fade; when alongside my child, I could ride on the back of a rhyme or escape into a picturesque barnyard where everything seemed ordered and wonderful.

There were also those times when one child would be playing in the next room, and the sounds of wooden drums and plastic trucks would suddenly stop; and I’d peek in to see a mess of books, with little hands turning pages and the sweetest voice singing out remembered phrases. Like watching my heart beat outside my body.

So, before I pack up these treasures, stamped indelibly on my heart, I thought I’d bid farewell to a few specific titles, in case you haven’t happened upon them in your own quest for sanity.

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2019 Gift Guide: For The Littlest Ones

December 3, 2019 § 2 Comments

The three and under set doesn’t get a lot of love on the blog these days, probably because my own kids are aging so darn quickly. But that’s no excuse. These early years are where we plant the seeds in our children for a love of stories. Plus, if you’re anything like me, these early years are when books sometimes feel like our only lifeline to sanity: no matter how much we’ve been spit up on or yelled at, falling under the spell of a story alongside our little one makes us feel like all is right with the world. If you do have a toddler, be sure to follow me on Instagram; that’s where I first reviewed many of these and where you’ll see more.

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Making A Mess of the Alphabet

March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

Z is for MooseI was wrong. Occasionally, this happens. (My husband would probably debate the word “occasionally,” but this isn’t his blog and, besides, I am usually right when it comes to books.) Shortly after Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose (Ages 4-8) was published last year, I hastily thumbed through it at a bookstore and thought, “Another alphabet book…rudimentary drawings…simplistic-seeming text…a Bullwinkle-style moose…I’ll pass.”

Then, in January, right after the Caldecott winners were announced, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about this book: top children’s book critics were outraged that Zelinsky’s book got passed up for an award, and some went so far as to argue that it was the most revolutionary book published in 2012. “Huh?” I thought.

So ,when I happened to come across the book a second time (this time at our local library), I picked it up, brought it home, and read it to my kids. I’ll say it again: I was wrong. In my haste to judge a book by its cover, I completely blew past its cleverness, its hilarity, and its brilliant way of turning conventional alphabet books on their head.

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January’s Birthday Pick

January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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ABCs on the Beach

July 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

We just returned from a week at the beach. I’ve decided that the beach is the Perfect Montessori Classroom. In fact, if someday the public school system fails me, I may just throw my kids on a beach all year long and be done with it. What can’t you learn while playing on an ever-changing natural landscape with a bountiful array of tactile materials and a giant open space in which to explore them? (After all, doesn’t Montessori teach kids with sandpaper letters?)

Our particular beach, beautiful in its rawness, is on the Ontario side of Lake Erie; it’s a piece of property that has been in my family for generations. It’s also just about the “dirtiest” beach you’ll ever find—full of sticks, stones, seaweed, and (yes) even the occasional dead fish carcass—which makes it disappointing for sunbathing teenagers but paradise for intrepid little explorers. This past week, JP spent every morning and afternoon on the beach, digging and dumping and filling and building (all the time engaged in an excited and not always coherent dialogue with himself.)

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Alison Jay, Cloud Creator

April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments

If you haven’t discovered the amazing British children’s artist Alison Jay, you’re in for a real treat. Or, if you’re as obsessed with her as I am, you’ll love her latest masterpiece, a fairy tale of sorts titled The Cloud Spinner (Ages 3-6), by Michael Catchpool (a fellow Brit).

The Brits have an unparalleled knack for creating books that feel Quintessentially Childlike, seamlessly blending fantasy with realism, and sprinkling on a quirkiness that makes these stories memorable for a lifetime. Alison Jay’s artistic signature, which she employs in all her work, is a “crackle finish” layered over her paintings, a technique which gives them a vintage look. In contrast, her animals, landscapes, and people feel anything but old-fashioned (here’s where that endearing quirkiness comes into play).

It seems that Jay’s artistic style has not gone unnoticed by JP, my four year old. Our favorite alphabet book is Jay’s ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, which I’ve been reading to him since he was a baby (and which is jam packed with hidden surprises), along with a handful of her other storybooks (see my list at the end). A few months ago, while perusing the shelves at our local library, JP stumbled upon an Alison Jay book he’d never seen before (William and the Night Train), and he called out, “Look Mommy, it’s one of those books with the crazy clouds!” I had never thought of it that way before, but he was right: Alison Jay does have a very specific way of painting clouds.

So, it seems only appropriate that Jay’s newest book, The Cloud Spinner, should take on clouds as its central subject. And with a unique, magical premise: Once upon a time, there was a boy who could “weave cloth from the clouds”—not just any cloth, but cloth “as soft as a mouse’s touch and as warm as roasted chestnuts.” All was OK because he had been wisely taught by his mom (who else?) to use only as many clouds as he absolutely needed (say, for essentials like a muffler).

Enter a Greedy King, who takes one look at the boy’s scarf and demands, not only a matching one for himself, but a wardrobe for the entire royal family. As the boy weaves, the clouds get sparser, the days get hotter, and the crops get drier. Jay adds in her own artistic endorsement of this ecological message: through the first half of the book, each hilltop is subtly populated with animals, trees, or flowers that together form patterns of smiley faces (British humor at its best). And yet, as the story goes on, the hilltop smiles begin to bend down; they begin to look serious and, eventually, downright forlorn.

Every fairy tale needs a hero to step up, and in this case it’s the King’s daughter (up until now silent but watchful), who gathers all the clouds-spun-clothes while her family sleeps and takes them to the boy. As she hands over the treasure, she poses the loaded question, “Is it too late to undo what has been done?” Like the ending of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and other books that remind our children of their power to do right by their Earth (to turn the frowns upside down, if you will), the boy assures us: “There is still time.” Phew.

Other Favorites Illustrated by the Magical Alison Jay:
ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (Ages 1-6)
Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4), by Phillis Gershator
I Took the Moon for a Walk, </em>by Carolyn Curtis (Ages 1-4)
If Kisses Were Colors, by Janet Lawler (Ages 1-3)
Christmastime (Ages 2-10)
The Nutcracker (Ages 3-6)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (Ages 6-12)

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