When the Sea Works its Magic

August 6, 2020 § 2 Comments

The value of a change of scenery during this pandemic cannot be overstated. Last week, we spent five nights in a rental on the Chesapeake Bay, our front door just steps to a tiny slice of sand, a bank of beautiful rocks, two kayaks, and a half mile of clear shallow water for wading, before dropping off to deeper water and stunning sunrises beyond.

The entire trip felt like a brief return to normalcy (look, we’re a family who vacations!). It was also a gift which arrived at precisely the right time. In the weeks leading up to our departure, I felt a heaviness descend on our family, the sum total of weariness from the past five months and the grinding uncertainty of the new school year.

The sea knew what we needed. For a few magical days, it drew us out of our heads and into our bodies, then engulfed us in a delicious weightlessness. It gave us expanses of space—so much space—at which to marvel, after staring at the inside of four walls for too long.

The sea didn’t get everything right (we didn’t need the jellyfish), but it reminded us that there is beauty in the world, that it hasn’t gone anywhere, and that in connecting to this beauty we can connect to the best in ourselves. We can be a little looser. A little messier. Smile a little more.

As it turns out, one of my favorite picture books of the year also features some welcome meddling by the sea. It has been awhile since I hailed a beachy picture book (last were here and here), and this one proves well worth the wait. Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), written by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary illustrators), reminds us that sometimes the sea knows what we need even before we do.

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Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

"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… « Read the rest of this entry »

Mid-Summer Reading Roundup

July 16, 2015 Comments Off on Mid-Summer Reading Roundup

"The Blue Whale" by Jenni DesmondRemember how last summer I waited until August to tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture books of 2014? Well, this summer, you’re in luck, because I’ve only waited until July (you’d think by now I would have a clue as to how impossibly little a parent can accomplish when school is not in session).

"Ice Cream Summer" by Peter SisAnyway, in case you missed the Facebook posts, I recently did three 2015 summer reading guest posts for the wonderful local blog DIY Del Ray. The first (read it here) was about my favorite new beach-y Picture Books: Sea Rex, Pool, Ice Cream Summer, and The Blue Whale.

"Dory and the Real True Friend" by Abby HanlonThe second post (read it here) was focused on new titles in Early Chapter Series, guaranteed to keep those newly-independent readers from losing momentum over the summer: Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny, The Case of the Weird Blue Chicken, Pop Goes the Circus, and Dory and the Real True Friend (this last one hit bookstores just this week— WHOOOP WHOOOP—we have mad love for the first Dory book in our house, if you recall).

"Circus Mirandus" by Cassie BeasleyThe third post (read it here) starred middle-grade novels for the 9-14 year old crowd, especially those who love escaping into rich, meaty stories—in this case, those tinged with everyday magic (after all, nothing beats summer for magical escapades): Circus Mirandus, Echo, A Snicker of Magic, and (my favorite YR novel of last year, now in paperback) The Night Gardener.

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetWant more? I was feeling nostalgic (lazy?) and dug up some old posts from my archives, books that are still read frequently around our house, especially in these hot, sticky, lazy days of summer. Remember last year’s ode to Reading Deficit Disorder and this poetic cure? If the poems in Firefly July are too long, you can’t get any shorter than seasonal haikus (with some zen meditation thrown in for good measure).

"Picture a Tree" by Barbara ReidThere’s no time like summer for instilling a love for the natural world. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for books about trees, titles like Picture a Tree and The Tree Lady. Oh, and never forget how The Lorax can make stage-worthy readers of us all. Then there’s Miss Maple’s Seeds, which I could pretty much read every day to my children, so lovely is this message of care taking and growing up.

"The Dandelion's Tale" by Kevin Sheehan & Rob DunlaveyIf you, like me, are desperately trying to recruit your children to help pull up the mountains of weeds that seem to erupt in the backyard after every downpour, then you might have luck piquing their interest with books about worms. Or dandelions. Or bugs. Or birds (seriously, these bird books are amazing).

"The Night Fairy," by Laura Amy SchlitzAnd please, if you haven’t spent a few glorious firefly-studded evenings reading The Night Fairy, then tarry no longer. While we’re on the subject of chapter books that pay homage to the natural world, need I also remind you about the sequels to The Cricket in Times Square, where the scrappy Manhattanites become seduced by the charms of the Connecticut countryside?

"The Noisy Paint Box" by Barb Rosenstock & Mary GrandpreOccasionally, I wake up in summer and decide we’re all going to learn something. And off we go to a museum, after which I have to spend a few days lying about basking in the glow of my parental ambition and warning my children not to talk to me. If I’m really feeling fancy, I pair these museum or zoo outings with books about art history or books about astronomy or books about archaeology or books about zoology. Sometimes, I just can’t bear the thought of another packed picnic lunch, and so we make do with staying put and reading about Famous People and the Really Important Stuff They Did.

"Boy, Were We Wrong About the Weather!" by Kathleen V. KudlinskiIf you live in my house, you are privy to 70 daily discussions about the weather, 90% of which are generated by my seven year old. And that was last year, when the weather was relatively uneventful. This summer, the daily discussions have risen to 700, almost as frequent as the hourly changes to the weather forecast. Boy, Were We Wrong About the Weather! is my son’s new obsession—that is, when he isn’t lecturing me about the devastating effects of global warming, as evidenced in this other favorite.

"Jangles: A Big Fish Story" by David ShannonAnd last but not least, don’t forget about our finny friends, the ones lucky enough to spend their whole year plunging beneath the clear, cool water. Many of my favorites are listed in this post from a few years ago (Jangles!), which incidentally concludes with my longest and most diverse reading list to date. Of course, we must add this year’s magnificent non-fiction picture book, The Blue Whale, and now we’re right back where we started.

Happy summer, happy reading.

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Weird and Wonderful Hospitality (Courtesy of Ben Hatke)

May 21, 2015 § 8 Comments

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben HatkeI’d like to be the kind of mom who has the house where all the kids want to hang out. I’d like to be the kind of mom who throws back her head and exclaims breezily, “The more the merrier!” Who pulls out a sheet of warm chocolate chip cookies from the oven and, after grubby little fists have snatched them up, goes on to say, “You know, why don’t you all stay for dinner? I have something delicious bubbling away in the crock pot!”  I’d like to be the kind of mom who turns the other cheek at dirty footprints, blots of ink, trails of sand, and piles of crumbs; who sighs and thinks, “All that matters is that they are here and they are happy.”

I am not that kind of mom. Two years ago, I participated in a Spring Break Swap with a group of close friends, where we each took turns at our respective houses watching nine kids for a day. My kids have lovely friends. Kind, intelligent, creative friends. But that did little to quell the feeling that I was UNDER SIEGE. So many little mouths telling me they were hungry! So many eager eyes imploring me to admire their drawings! So many children running up and down stairs, squealing and shouting and scrabbling!

Nope, I am not that kind of mom. It turns out that becoming a parent didn’t transform my Type A personality. I’m often still as inflexible as my daughter is when she’s presiding over her tea parties. Still, the idea of having an open-door policy, of creating a space where everyone feels welcomed and accepted, holds great romantic appeal. On paper.

This promise of hospitality is just one of the many reasons that I continue to be taken with Ben Hatke’s 2014 picture book, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (Ages 3-6). The only reason I didn’t write sooner about one of my favorite books of last year is that it was initially such a runaway hit, the Indie publisher couldn’t print them fast enough! « Read the rest of this entry »

The Physical Comedy of Pippi Longstocking

April 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

"The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking" by Astrid LindgrenThere was a point earlier this year, when I was recovering from the flu and still not up and about, that I found myself lying in bed, reading aloud to my kids—both of whom, instead of tucked in beside me, were at the foot of the bed, running in place on my foam roller. If you’ve ever tried running in place on a foam roller, you’ll know that it is not possible. Hence, as I was lying there reading, little heads kept disappearing from sight and then popping back up again. Normally, as a reader, this would have driven me insane. Except that this particular shenanigan seemed perfectly fitting for the reading material at hand.

It is downright impossible to sit demurely while listening to The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (Ages 5-8 if reading aloud, older if reading independently). This beautifully bound anthology combines three of Astrid Lindgren’s unabridged 1950s chapter books (Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes on Board, and Pippi in the South Seas) with the ebullient, contemporary pen-and-ink illustrations of Michael Chesworth.

You see, there’s just something about Pippi—one of children’s literature’s most infamous, compelling, and downright hilarious young heroines—that invites physical participation from her audience. « 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 »

What This July Needs

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetFor all the reading that we intend to do with our children in the summer, many of the days pass instead in a sweaty haze of shifting feet, slamming doors, and long afternoons at the pool. By the time our little ones are ready for bed, their eyelids (and mine, if I’m being honest) are too heavy to sustain more than a few pages.

For this Reading Deficit Disorder that hits right about July, I have just the prescription, which you will want to dish out to your own family, as well as wrap up for all those summer birthday parties. I’m talking about POETRY! Poems are the answer! Allow me to introduce the delightful and timely-titled anthology, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-11), with poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko and spectacular mixed-media illustrations by Melissa Sweet (yes, I’ll say it again: I adore everything that Sweet puts her hands on). « Read the rest of this entry »

GOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!

July 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

Soccer Star by Mina JavaherbinWe are not a sports-watching family (my husband jokes that he lost TV sports in marriage). But then came the World Cup. All four of us are possessed over the World Cup, and I can’t entirely explain it. I mean, it can’t just be the hotness of the players, the incredible headers that out of nowhere tip a speeding ball into the net; the non-stop, pinball-like passing. We scream at the TV (“Mommy, you are using your outside voice!” I’ve been reprimanded more than once); we jump up and down and hug each other over goals; we run into the backyard and kick the ball at halftime; and we despair when the US team fights the fight of its life and comes up short.

The World Cup will end, but I hope our family’s new love of soccer will not. Both kids are more excited than ever for their own soccer season this fall (although JP reports that he does not think he would like to be as good as the World Cup players, because “it looks very dangerous out there”). In the meantime, we will be reading some of the fantastic soccer-themed books that have popped up this year. Our favorite of these is Soccer Star (Ages 4-8), by Mina Javaherbin (illustrations by Renalto Alarcao), a picture book which not only exudes the excitement of soccer, but places it in a valuable cultural context. « Read the rest of this entry »

In Honor of the Dads

June 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

Following Papa's Song by Gianna MarinoThis month marks 20 years since I lost my father: my hero, my biggest supporter, the first Big Love of my life. I find that, as my own children get older, and I get to share in their many milestones (just this spring, JP learned to ride a two wheeler, scored his first soccer goal, and passed his deep water test), I am filled with a new kind of sadness over how much my Dad has missed out on as a parent himself.

As graduations wrap up around the country, I think about how my Dad never got to watch me go off to his own beloved Alma Mater. I think about how he never got to hear me rant and rave about my first job at an advertising firm. He never got to step foot into my first apartment, the first space I ever decorated completely on my own. He never got to walk me down the aisle, or get to know the man with whom I would choose to spend my adult life. He never got to parade around photos of his grandkids at work, or show off Manhattan to my daughter, as my Mom did just this past weekend. He never got to read these blog posts, which I know he would have done, because he always, always, made time for my writing.

Following Papa’s Song (Ages 3-6), a new picture book by Gianna Marino, is a stunning and poetic tribute to the father-child relationship. « 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.”

The Year That Lies Ahead

January 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

A Child's CalendarOn the morning of January 1, my five year old crawled into our bed and asked with great solemnity, “Is the year of Christmas over?” I’m not entirely sure what he was getting at; did he mean to say month? or season? or was he actually inquiring as to whether the Year of the Great Christmas of 2012 had ended? I’ll never know exactly what was ruminating in his little head, but it was a sweet reminder of how bewildering the concept of time is to children—even to a five year old who has plenty of memories of past years.

We as adults take for granted our assurance about the cyclical nature of time: that all seasons, all holidays, all of nature’s dramatic transformations, will occur again and again with each passing year. It will probably come as no surprise that my instinctual reaction to JP’s question on New Year’s morning was to send him downstairs to fetch some relevant reading material. One of my all-time favorite children’s books (a book so precious to me that it actually resides on the “adult” shelves of our living room library) is A Child’s Calendar (Ages 5-10), a 1965 treasure of poems by John Updike that was later given a ’90s makeover with the addition of award-winning illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

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Monsters With Manners

October 11, 2012 Comments Off on Monsters With Manners

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?).

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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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Hot-Off-the-Press for August’s Birthday Parties

August 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m a bit late with my pick for August birthday parties, but this gift will work equally well heading into the school year, because it’s a book about friendship! In Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always (Ages 4-8), Tao Nyeu is following a great literary legacy of Dynamic Duos (Frog and Toad, George and Martha, to name two favorites from my own childhood). Like her predecessors, Nyeu has packed her stories (there are four, organized as “mini-chapters” in the one picture book) with that winning combination of humor and heart. Squid and Octopus bear a particular resemblance to my son JP and his best buddy Willem: like all great friends, they argue about who is right, they make up by deciding they’re both right, they make each other laugh with silliness no parent can hope to understand, and they give each other lung-compressing squeezes that are supposed to resemble hugs.

What makes Nyeu’s book sing are her fantastical illustrations: pattern-studded silk screens made from water-based ink and colored pencils set against a simple white background. For a book about two cephalopods, living in an underwater universe complete with flower gardens, soup stands, and swing sets, one would expect backgrounds in dizzying shades of blue; but by setting her drawings on white, Nyeu focuses children’s attention on the irresistible quirkiness of the characters themselves. (I won’t say that I’m not totally attracted to the Jonathan Adler-esque color scheme of turquoise and orange as well.) As I was getting ready to write this post, I asked JP what his favorite thing about the book was. Instead of one, I got five enthusiastic points:

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Elevating the Poop Talk

August 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

As previously noted, we recently spent a week on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, where the beach isn’t exactly the soft white expanse of the Caribbean. But there’s an as-of-yet-unmentioned benefit to such dark, coarse, and oily sand if you’re an almost five-year-old boy: when wet, it bears a striking resemblance to poop. Cue hours of enjoyment for my son, and lots of averted trying-to-seem-oblivious glances from me. It never mattered how things began (“Mommy, I’m building a series of canals!”), they always ended at poop (“Mommy, now these canals are full of POOP!”)

During the 10 hour drive home at the end of the week, I had a revelation: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or rather, how could I direct this obsession into something educational?

I decided to get my hands on The Truth About Poop, by Susan E. Goodman (Ages 5-10), a mature picture-chapter book packed with biological, zoological, historical, and geographical facts about, yes, poop. There have actually been quite a few expertly executed books on this topic over the past 10 years, and they were always big hits at my shop (“You’re telling me your seven-year-old son isn’t interested in reading? Have you tried giving him a book about poop?”). I figured it was high time to bring one home for JP.

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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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Imagination Turbo Edition

July 3, 2012 Comments Off on Imagination Turbo Edition

When you watch your children practicing yoga moves in their kiddie pool, it’s easy to be struck by how differently today’s children entertain themselves than when we were growing up (yoga?). But then there are the things that never change from one generation to the next—like kids’ uncanny ability to lose themselves in imaginary play, especially if there are action figures involved.

That’s why you can’t go wrong by gifting one of Mini Grey’s picture books about a combat-boots-sporting action figure named Traction Man. In the hands and imagination of one little boy, Traction Man embarks on daring missions with the help of his trusty sidekick Scrubbing Brush. The latest installment in this original series, Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey (Ages 4-7), has just been published and is perfect for your summer birthday gifts (although why not bundle it with the original Traction Man for the Best Gift Ever?).

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Siblings Being Siblings

June 26, 2012 Comments Off on Siblings Being Siblings

It wasn’t until I had more than one child of my own that I began experiencing what I’d so often heard other parents remark upon: that children raised in the same family, under seemingly identical conditions, can have completely different personalities. These differences in personality—and the interesting dynamic they create in the relationship between the siblings themselves—is beautifully captured in The Puddle Pail (Ages 3-6). This book was published in the late 90s by the supremely talented and often-overlooked author-artist Elisa Kleven (who also wrote my favorite picture book of all time: The Lion and the Little Red Bird).

Far too few children’s books showcase the natural, everyday interactions between siblings—or, more poignantly, the surprising discoveries that can emerge even amidst the competitive banter and indignant bossiness. The Puddle Pail stars two young crocodile brothers who set off for the beach, armed with empty pails. Sol, the older brother, might as well be my almost five-year-old son, JP. Both are realists and see the world in precise, everything-in-its-place terms. When it comes to filling his pail, Sol (a.k.a. JP) can’t pass up a shell or a feather or a rock without dropping it into his pail for one of his “collections” (currently in our house the window ledges are piled high with JP’s rocks, which seem less like a discriminating collection of stones and more like a dumping ground for any grey rock he steps over on the street).

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