Rich in Stories

May 7, 2020 § 4 Comments

For many of us following stay-at-home orders, social media is a welcome lifeline to the outside world. And yet, its lure can be as powerful as its trapping. If occasionally I used to fall down the rabbit hole of comparing my children’s accomplishments to those paraded out on Facebook, I now find myself in weaker moments comparing houses. We may be leading similar lives—working, schooling, eating at home—but our backdrops are wildly different. Maybe I’d be going less crazy if I looked out my window and saw mountains. Sure would be nice to have a swimming pool in my backyard. Sure would be nice to have any backyard. Oh man, are they at their river house right now? I’m sure I could homeschool better if we had a creek.

Of course, these thoughts are inane. Inanely unproductive. Inanely indulgent. At no time for my generation has it been more of a blessing to have our health and a roof over our heads. Not to mention money for food and ample time to steer our children through these rocky waters.

Still, I would be lying if I said there aren’t cracks in my resolve to be gracious and mindful.

With our recent move, our living space has been significantly downsized. I can’t spit without hitting another person. Heck, I can hardly do anything without being watched or whined at. My husband gave me grief for packing up no fewer than four boxes of books to bring with us to these temporary digs. But you know what? We are rich in stories. We have stories painted with breathtaking backdrops, stories which quicken our pulse or tug at our heart or seduce us with beauty…all from the cozy confines of our couch. Some days, I look at the piles of books haphazardly lying around and I think, Why does no one clean up? Most days, I look at them and think, We are the luckiest.

One need look no further than Aesop’s fables for proof that stories have long been offering hope in turbulent times. Tales like “The Lion and the Mouse” (or my favorite as a parent, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) have been told and retold around the world for 2,500 years. Until now, I didn’t realize that the allegedly true story of Aesop himself—a slave in Ancient Greece who earned his freedom through storytelling—also bears telling, lending meaningful context to Aesop’s beguiling fables while offering proof that stories are richer than gold.

Ian Lendler’s 63-page trove, The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), luminously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, is not your typical picture book biography. It’s more of an anthology of fables encased in a broader, biographical context. Like an onion, each turn of the page reveals another layer of story and art, the sum of which is one of the most spellbinding books of 2020. It can be read in a single sitting or paged through out of order. If we’re talking about losing ourselves in the sublime for a time, this is just the ticket.

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Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Chapter Book of the Year

November 28, 2018 § 1 Comment

On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.

The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered. « Read the rest of this entry »

Re-Imagining Mistakes

May 18, 2017 § 6 Comments

It is often with trepidation that I watch my daughter prepare to work on a picture or a card. She sets out her paper, her drawing instrument of choice, and animatedly explains her Vision to anyone in the vicinity. “I’m going to draw a bird for my teacher,” she says, “because she loves birds.” I smile, but I try not to look too eager…or too stressed…or too anything. I try to look neutral. I attempt to recede into the kitchen—or, better yet, disappear into the basement to throw in a load of laundry—because I know from experience what likely lies ahead.

There are several minutes of happy humming, her preferred background music while she works. Followed by a sudden, guttural, downright masculine “UHHHHHGGGGGGHHHHHHH!” Followed by the sounds of said drawing instrument being thrown across the room. Followed by great, gasping sobs. “It doesn’t look like a bird at all! Its beak is terrible! It’s THE WORST BEAK IN THE WORLD! I hate this bird! I hate it!” Followed by the sound of paper crumpling, fists slamming, and stomping feet coming to find me. “Why did you tell me to make a bird? Don’t you know I am the WORST DRAWER OF BIRDS?!” (Ummm, I never said…)

My six and a half year old is rarely ruffled. She goes with the flow, handles curve balls with ease, and loves trying new things.

But she cannot handle mistakes. « Read the rest of this entry »

Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

June 9, 2016 Comments Off on Backyard Summers (Fairy Houses Optional)

"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.” « Read the rest of this entry »

For the Child Who Will Re-Write the Rules (2015 Holiday Gift Guide Kicks Off!)

December 6, 2015 § 3 Comments

"The Whisper" by Pamela ZagarenskiI realize I’m late to the game with my Holiday Gift Guide, and I apologize. Lest you think I was taking a few weeks off from children’s books, I assure you that is rarely the case. Rather, I was drafting book lists for many of the parents in my children’s school, in preparation for our annual Book Fair (my favorite fundraising event of the year!). In other words, I’ve been reading even MORE than usual. And now, all of you will benefit! Over the next ten days, I will be posting several installments of my annual Gift Guide, with recommendations of picture books, chapter books, and non-fiction for all the young book lovers in your life. I’ve saved singing the praises of many of my 2015 favorites until now, because they have undeniable Gift Power. It has been hard to stay quiet all these weeks and months, when I’ve wanted to scream, GET YOUR CHILDREN’S HANDS ON THESE BOOKS RIGHT NOW!

I’m going to begin today by telling you about two of the most gorgeous picture books published this year. And I mean, Holy-Moley-Mind-Blowing Material. These are books whose pages invite endless study; books whose paintings draw us in so completely that we forget everything that’s happening around us. They are books that challenge the traditional relationship between author and reader, between artist and spectator. They invite us to participate fully in what we are seeing and to make our own meaning out of what we find.

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Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.

That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.

The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.

They are both a little bit Magic.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny BroomFor starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « Read the rest of this entry »

“Mommy, you know what? You know what? You know what?”

November 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

My five year old loves to tell stories. Most of the time, his stories are a blend of autobiographical truth and nonsensical make-believe, and most of the time they are his way of working through whatever he’s trying to make sense of in the world (“There was this hurricane, and the winds were swirling around outside like a tornado, and then the roofs of the houses blasted off to Outerspace, and then…). As a parent, I know that I’m supposed to dedicate my ears to him when he’s narrating life’s inexplicable phenomena, but golly if his stories don’t always seem to come at a time when I’m desperately trying to corral him into putting on his coat or swallowing a few bites of food (the fork goes up, then stops, millimeters from the mouth, then comes down again: “Mommy, you know what?”). But I get it. I do. We all want to narrate our lives, and we all want an appreciative audience.

That’s why I’m not surprised that JP’s sister, now a full-fledged two year old, has decided that she too has verbal musings of her own to share. Suddenly, our family dinners are filled with Emily’s terrorizing screams—“I talking here!”—followed by JP’s despairing moans, “Emil-ee, I haven’t finished my story yet!”

Alas, tonight seemed like a good time to introduce my clan to the latest treasure from Philip and Erin Stead, the husband and wife duo that wrote and illustrated two of my all-time favorites, A Sick Day for Amos McGee and And Then It’s Spring. Their newest gem, Bear Has a Story to Tell (Ages 2-6), has all of the subtle charm, all of the understated quietness, of their earlier works, and this makes it perfectly suited for the subject at hand: hibernation.

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My Good Pal Mo (I Like to Pretend We’re On a First Name Basis)

November 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

No one gets straight to the heart of kids like Mo Willems. It seems almost criminal that I’ve been at this blog for several months now and have yet to sing the praises of one of the most original author-illustrators of all time. While he’s best known for the Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus series (which, despite its popularity, is not my or my children’s favorite), Mo is at his best with one-off masterpieces, like Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct and Leonardo the Terrible Monster (see my complete list at the end). And now we get to add his newest creation, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (Ages 4-8), in which three scheming dinosaurs lure Goldilocks into the wrong fairy tale in an effort to make “chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons” out of her.

During the 46 times that I’ve been asked by my son to read this book in the past month, I’ve started to put my finger on what it is that unites Mo’s seemingly disparate stories. Mo gives children A LOT of credit (probably more than us parents do). He doesn’t employ traditional literary devices (in fact, in Goldilocks he actually turns them on their head), and he offers few explanations; instead, he writes with the expectation that kids will pick up on the subtlety, the irony, the little side jokes, and the sophisticated vocabulary through their repeated readings. Over the years, I’ve had more than one person ask me whether Mo’s multi-layered storytelling is accessible enough to children or simply intended to amuse the parent who’s reading it. In response, let me give you an account of how my five year old experienced Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs:

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