Gift Guide 2018: The Best for Last?

December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

Shhhhh. The final post for my 2018 Gift Guide is here, but I don’t want my husband to know. (And not just because he would like me to start doing things around the house again—sheesh.) You see, I’ve written to Santa and asked him to put this book into my husband’s stocking. (And not just because the kids would fight over it.) If there was ever a guaranteed Christmas Morning Crowd Pleaser, this book is it. I simply cannot wait to read this (oh right, let my husband read this) to our group as the tissue paper flies. Mwahahaha!

Adam Rex is hands down one of the cleverest and funniest contemporary picture book creators. (Our family’s favorites are too numerous to list here, but The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors and Chloe and the Lion would be at the top.) But taking on Darth Vader? Now that seems a bit risky. Or gimmicky. Or, at least, not worth time on a blog about fine literature.


Turns out it was a risk worth taking. Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (Ages 5-100) wasn’t even on my radar until a week ago, when the great Betsy Bird included it on her list of 2018 Funny Picture Books, describing it as Darth Vader meets The Monster at the End of This Book (remember that throw-back Little Golden Book with everyone’s favorite Sesame Street monster on the cover?). Well. I took the bait and got my hands on it.

Are You Scared, Darth Vader? is not just one of the funniest books of the year. I would venture to say it is the funniest. You can almost hear Adam Rex cracking himself up as he writes it. Darth Vader emerges every bit the Scrooge we love to hate.

An off-page narrator heckles Darth Vader, determined to find something which scares him. (“I DO NOT GET SCARED. NO ONE HAS THE POWER TO FRIGHTEN LORD VADER.”) Oh yeah? How about a vampire? Or a ghost? How about a wolfman? (“I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLF, AND I AM NOT AFRAID OF A MAN. SO NO, I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLFMAN.” “It could bite you.” “IT COULD NOT. I AM WEARING ARMOR.”)

Well then, a witch. A witch could curse you. (So sorry, but I’m about to give up the best spread.) Wait for it…

The Dark Lord may have a deadpan comeback for all the usual suspects our narrator puts in front of him, but he fails to anticipate the oldest trick in the book. Who can topple such surliness, such moroseness, such darkness? An entourage of exuberant kids, of course.

Especially the kid (or husband) reading the book. After all, reading is its own form of the Force.

Published by Disney and Lucasfilm Press. All opinions are my own. 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!

That concludes my 2018 Gift Guide! I’ll see you one more time next week (when I tell you about the chapter book we’re reading aloud this holiday break) and then I’ll take a few weeks off before seeing you again in the New Year. In the meantime, I always stay active on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and as of today (!) Instagram (@thebookmommy). Happy gift giving, and I hope you’ve found what you needed in my posts! (If not, do let me know.)

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot!

May 25, 2017 § 3 Comments

It never fails to astonish me how long my kids can withstand a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Earlier this spring, we waited in line for three hours to get tickets to an art exhibit, and they entertained themselves for at least an hour playing this hand game. Long after myself—and every adult around us—was ready to banish the words “rock,” ‘paper,” and “scissors” from the English language, my kids kept going. Alas, this is not a quiet game.

Perhaps when I could have been pondering nobler pursuits, I have instead been asking myself: What is it about this highly repetitive game (“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot! Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”) that lends itself to such welcome repetition? The answer, I’ve decided, is larger than simply immediate gratification or the apparent thrill of saying “shoot” over and over. RPS is the perfect game of chance. Rock trumps scissors trumps paper trumps rock. (That’s all the Trumps you’ll get out of me.) It’s an equilateral triangle—a closed system, if you will–where each opponent has an equal shot at winning and losing. (Apparently, this is not strictly true, as some professional players—yup, they exist—are able to “recognize and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents’ play.”)

Apparently, I am not the only one spending quality time contemplating a greater meaning behind this mundane game. Two of the cleverest, funniest, and most subversive children’s book creators—Drew Daywalt (author of the wildly popular The Day the Crayons Quit) and Adam Rex (illustrator of Chloe and the Lion and How This Book Was Made, to name a few musts)—have teamed up to imagine what the backstory to this age-old game might look (and sound) like. Let’s just say it didn’t take me more than half a second to decide we needed to own The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors (Ages 5-10). (It’s also a beautiful reminder that elementary children are not too old for picture books.)

Long before they make one another’s acquaintance, the anthropomorphized Rock, Paper, and Scissors have a taste for battle. Each spends his or her days seeking out opponents. Rock, for example, who lives “in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard,” baits a clothespin on the laundry line: “Drop that underwear and battle me, you ridiculous wooden clip-man!” To which the clothespin replies, “I will pinch you and make you cry, Rock Warrior!”

A battle ensues—and yet, despite Clothespin’s big talk, Rock is quickly victorious.

As we quickly understand, no matter whose buttons Rock pushes (“You, sir, look like a fuzzy little butt,” he says to an apricot, to which the latter responds, “What?! I challenge you to a duel!”), Rock always dominates. And yet—as anyone who has antagonized a younger sibling will understand—rather than feeling satisfied with this predictable turn of events, Rock finds himself disheartened by what he realizes are not “worthy challenges.” “Smooshing you has brought me no joy,” he mutters atop a squashed apricot.

A similar search for a worthy foe is simultaneously taking place in both the “Empire of Mom’s Home Office” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer,” where Paper and Scissors respectively take on computer printers (“Noooo! Not a paper jam! Paper is victorious!”) and adhesive tape.

Probably because I’m always asking my children to lower their voices, they think my reading a book which demands shouting and taunting and battle noises is absolutely hysterical (puts me in mind of this). But I must admit: with writing like this, I kinda do, too. If you can’t beat ‘em, sometimes you have to join ‘em. (Plus, the scene where Scissors forges into “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer” and refuses to bow down before a bag of cocky dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets—she spears them to bits instead—is sheer brilliance.)

Like mine, your children will relish the anticipation of the inevitable: Rock, Paper, and Scissors at last meet (in the “great cavern of Two-Car Garage”) and discover worthy opponents in one another. The battles are “epic and legendary” and the trash talk even better. Says Scissors, “I hope you’re wearing your battle pants, rock warrior.” Replies Rock: “If by ‘battle plants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes…yes, I am wearing my battle pants, weird scissory one!”

The surprise comes when each in turn is finally beaten. Where we might expect sorrow from the defeated, instead there is elation. “You have made me so happy by beating me!” cries Scissors to Rock. The latter (not having challenged Paper yet, to whom he will fall) responds, “I wish I felt your joy, Scissors, for I have yet to meet a warrior who can beat me.”

There’s pride to be taken in a hard-fought loss to a worthy opponent. And perhaps this message is not all that foreign to our children. After all, they beg and plead for “one more minute” of playtime—sweaty and grassy, they chase each other back and forth across the backyard—but when we bring down the parental “That’s enough,” when we guide them through the front door and into the bathroom and over to the dinner table and into the bath and into bed, they know they’ve lost. They’re free at last to give up the good fight and surrender—with a sleepy smile on their face.

And prepare for Round Two tomorrow.

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Book published by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperColllins. All opinions are my own. 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!

November’s Birthday Pick Battle

November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

Battle BunnySix year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:

Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”
JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”
Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”
JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”
Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”
JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”
Friend: “Cool!”

We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. For starters, the book’s premise turns the conventional picture book on its head. A juvenile and saccharine-sweet story (resembling something from the Little Golden Books era) gets a complete makeover with the help of a boy’s imagination—and his big, black Sharpie. What we as readers get is the finished product: a book where words are crossed out and replaced, whose illustrations are embellished with chicken scratch, and where new sentences and comic book-like sketches are squeezed into the narrative. Are you following this? A boy has taken a Sharpie to his book and turned it into something far more entertaining in the world of elementary boys.

I’m talking, of course, about the Stuff of Battles. Birthday Bunny, an innocent young bunny whose animal friends throw him a lame surprise party, becomes Battle Bunny, a bunny on a doomsday quest to bring about the demise of his animal friends. As in, “I am going to whomp on you, bird brain, and pluck you like a sick chicken!” (Bunny says this to Crow). The animals all put up a good fight (“I will take you down with my Furiouso Claw!” Badger retorts; and Sgt. Squirrel even comes ready with “robot killer bees”); but no one is a match for Battle Bunny. Except, of course, our master puppeteer and narrator—a boy named Alex, who also happens to be celebrating a birthday and who writes himself into the second half of the story to bring about Bunny’s successful surrender. Naturally, Alex doesn’t miss the chance for some self-promotion, giving Bunny these lines: “Alex, you have defeated me with the greatest birthday powers. Now I know that you are the best!”

I knew that the book’s format, with its crossed out words and scribbles, would blow my son’s mind; and I could not have been more pleased with his response. I casually handed him Battle Bunny and told him to look it over while I put his sister to bed. Minutes later, the door to his sister’s room burst open, and a wide-eyed JP blew into the room. “Mommy, there is something wrong with this book! There is drawing on it! Some of the words are erased!” (Not surprisingly, my children have been taught to treat books with the deepest reverence.)

A call out to Matthew Myers who is responsible for the book's illustrations, perfect renditions of a child's hand and which lend the narrative a lightheartedness that downplays some of the violent language.

A call out to Matthew Myers who is responsible for the book’s illustrations, perfect renditions of a child’s hand and which lend the narrative a lightheartedness that downplays some of the violent language.

Only when JP and I explored the book together did I stumble upon its additional appeal for the early-reader crowd. For all its silliness and bad guy banter, this is a book about words, about word play, about the creative process itself. JP has been diligently learning to read, but he is easily intimidated by reading a book cover to cover. Battle Bunny is not an “early reader” per se—its vocabulary and visual layout will require adult help for those still in the throes of learning to read—but the layered narrative encourages children to seek out the hidden gems buried under and around the layers of Sharpie. Parents will read the new, revised story; but kids, in their own time, will enjoy hours of fun deciphering what the words used to be. After all, the book’s deliciousness lies in the transformation of Birthday Bunny to Battle Bunny. At breakfast, “carrot juice” becomes “brain juice,” and “carrot crispies” become “greasy guts.” Birthday Bunny’s “Special Thinking Place” on a “big gray rock” becomes Battle Bunny’s “Evil Plan Place” on a “launchpad,” perfect for his deadly rocket ship built from a piece of the Eiffel Tower and an arm of the Statue of Liberty. I’ll say it again: this is the stuff that takes up prime real estate in boys’ brains.

Mac Barnett is no stranger to drawing children’s attention to the creative process. Chloe and the Lion, which he co-authored with Adam Rex (one of my favorite books of 2012), gives readers a hilarious look at the banter between writer and illustrator as they attempt to agree on the direction of a story. In Battle Bunny, Barnett and Scieszka go one step further, inserting the child reader into the driver’s seat. As Alex usurps creative control and re-imagines Bunny’s story, it’s as if he’s sending a message to children everywhere that they too posses the power to drive their own narratives, both on paper and in real life. The subject matter might not always be of our choosing—but hey, it’s a start. And a mighty hilarious one at that.


Monsters With Manners

October 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recently asked my five-year-old son: “What do you think monsters are like?” His answer: “They have big teeth and sharp claws and they eat little kids.” Oh. Well, the good news is that there’s a new(ish) genre afoot in children’s literature: not-too-scary scary stories (my recent posts on Creepy Carrots and Vampirina Ballerina are great examples). There are also some fantastic monster-themed books, featuring a new generation of what I will call Funny Monsters.

What makes kids find the monsters in these books so funny? Precisely because our little ones, occasionally monstrous themselves, can identify with these monsters’ unpredictable bursts of rage and destruction. On some level, they recognize a shared vulnerability, a shared quest to fit in and make sense of a complex world.

Author and illustrator Patrick McDonnell (best known for his Mutts comic strip) has a knack for creating deceptively simple picture books that get right to the heart of what it means to be human. In the beginning of his brand new The Monsters’ Monster (Ages 3-7), we are introduced to three tiny nay-saying monsters, named Grouch, Grump, and little Gloom ‘n’ Doom (how can you not immediately love this book?). The trio relishes their job of being monsters: they have tantrums, their favorite word is “NO,” and they love crashing, smashing, and bashing (sound familiar yet?).

Not content with their mini-sized monstrosity, the three set out to construct a bigger and badder monster, a beast that can smash through walls and wreak havoc on their “monster-fearing village.” They collaborate on what becomes a giant (and rather cute) Frankenstein-of-sorts. But though he looks the part, it quickly becomes clear that their protégé doesn’t see himself as a monster—no one has type cast him in that roll yet. His first words are “Dank You!” He makes friends with the spiders and bats that live in the shadows of the castle. And he walks into town to pick up doughnuts for his very perplexed creators.

At the end of the book, Grouch, Grump, and Gloom ‘n’ Doom find themselves on the beach, watching their first sunrise and munching doughnuts alongside this Big Bad Non-Monster. In that small moment, they find their manners—they utter their first “thank you”s—and they partake in the gratitude and joy that follows. “So, JP, now do you see that monsters are actually not mean and terrible creatures but a lot like us?” “Yeah, Mommy. But not real monsters. Only the ones in books.” Well, that’s something at least.

Other Favorites with Funny (and endearing) Monsters:
Even Monsters Need Haircuts, by Matthew McElligott (Ages 4-8)
Boris and Bella, by Carolyn Crimi & Gris Grimly (Ages 4-8)
Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, by Adam Rex (Ages 7-12)

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