April 12, 2018 Comments Off on What STEM Looked Like 100 Years Ago
While my children were on a school camping trip earlier this week, I ducked up to New York City to visit my mom. On Tuesday, we went to the “Public Parks, Private Gardens” exhibit at The Met, a stunning collection of mostly Impressionist works featuring French flora, from the bountiful irises of Monet’s Giverny to the lush riverbanks of Renoir’s Seine. Against many of the backdrops were sitting figures, largely women, wearing floor-length muslin with empire waists and elaborate straw hats secured with ribbons. “We’ve lost so much of the beauty and elegance that was part of everyday life back then,” my mom mused aloud, understandably seduced by the romanticism infused in the soft lines, the twinkling light, the sheer profusion of color. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 1, 2018 § 9 Comments
Compared to last week, this week’s book may a lighter pick, but it will do no less to make better parents out of us. In fact, it’s possible I needed this reality check more than my kids.
There are days when it feels like my children leave a trail of oopses in their wake. Days when my daughter—at seven, I tell you!—can’t seem to get a single forkful to her mouth without losing some of it down her shirt and onto the floor. When my son leaves his aircraft carrier outside his sister’s door and she steps on it with bare, now-bloodied feet. When just-poured glasses are knocked over by careless elbows; when Christmas ornaments become dislodged and shatter to pieces on the floor as running feet whiz by; when HOW ABOUT NO ONE MOVE BECAUSE THE HOUSE WAS JUST CLEANED AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! « Read the rest of this entry »
June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment
Like many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.
But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.
“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.
How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves? « Read the rest of this entry »
December 12, 2015 Comments Off on 2015 Gift Guide (No. 4): For the Mechanically Inclined
Today, I want to tell you about a super-duper-awesome new non-fiction book. David Macaulay, who launched the Beast of Gifts in 1988 with The Way Things Work (Ages 10-16), a massive hardcover volume dedicated to demystifying science and technology for children with clear language and beautifully rendered line drawings, has this year created a fully interactive and substantive spin-off. How Machines Work: Zoo Break (Ages 6-9) is targeted at a slightly younger audience and is aimed at exposing specific scientific principles. Here, through a combination of flaps, pop-ups, and inset booklets—as well as a silly story line about a sloth and mouse determined to break free of their zoo enclosure—children are introduced to simple machines. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
The Greatest Thing has happened. The Richard Scarry book that I most loved as a child is BACK IN PRINT! That’s right, I no longer have to lie awake at night, debating whether to drop $100 on eBay so that my kids can share in my childhood nostalgia. There I was, casually browsing the aisles of my neighborhood bookstore, when I caught sight of a double decker London bus, packed with a menagerie of dressed-up animals. I let out an audible squeal, snatched up every copy on the shelf, and ran directly to the counter to buy them all. (Yes, I have a problem, but there are worse addictions to have…right?)
You might think you already have enough Richard Scarry in your life. Sure, I get it. You might have read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go so many times (like I did, when my son was two and waking up at 5:15am every single day), that you have had to “misplace” it on occasion. Or, you might feel like you have already lost years of your life talking about a certain worm who lives in a Busy, Busy Town and walks upright wearing a single shoe.
But you might also remember that, sometimes, the only reason you can answer your child’s 700 daily questions stems from your proficient readings of What Do People Do All Day? (After all, when you became a parent, you didn’t know you would need a working knowledge of how streets are paved and houses are built and paper is made and a mailed letter gets from one place to another.) You might also take a moment to reflect how, when your children were younger and people commented on their impressive vocabulary, you might owe more than you think to the hours you spent—at their request, of course—pointing at items on supermarket shelves in the Best Word Book Ever.
In the spirit of outing my children’s addiction within my addiction, I am here to confess to you that we own TWENTY NINE different Richard Scarry books (calm down, I’ve only listed my favorites at the end of this post). For the past eight years, Richard Scarry has topped our “most often read” lists more than any other books. I trip over them more than any Lego or baby doll. Yes, I have sometimes buried my face in my hands and lamented to my children that I just don’t have it in me to read another 72-page book that’s heavy on words and light on plot. But, most of the time, I oblige. Because it makes them so darn happy.
And because I remember how much I adored these books as a child.
Which brings me to the recent republication (in honor of its 50th anniversary) of Busy, Busy World (Ages 4-8), one more Richard Scarry title that you ABSOLUTELY WILL NEED TO ADD TO YOUR COLLECTION. As I’ve said, my love affair with this anthology of 33 internationally-themed two-page stories—think of it as Busy, Busy Town goes global—began as a child myself.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that my love of travel originated with this book, which makes pit stops in cities like London, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, and in countries like India, Israel, Mexico, and Egypt.
As a child, the colorful settings captivated me: the spires of castles in Denmark, the dikes in Holland, the palm trees in Rio de Janeiro. How I wanted to ride that double decker bus across the London bridge, or sail in a gondola down the canals of Venice. I was even fascinated by the different international flags on the book’s back cover.
I remember, at the beginning of each story, flipping to the map inside the book’s cover to pinpoint exactly where that particular story took place. (Incidentally, my children immediately started doing this same thing the first time we read the book, with no prompting from me.)
Of course, as any fan of Richard Scarry’s stories knows, the eclectic, goofy, sometimes downright absurd cast of anthropomorphic animals are wherein lies the real irresistible charm. STARTING WITH THEIR NAMES. (For the record, I’m not oblivious to the overt 1960s cultural stereotyping implicit in names like “Schmudge, the German Chimney Sweep” or “Ukulele Louie, the Hawaiian Fisherman,” or “Dr. Krunchchew, the Russian Dentist”…I’m simply pointing out that these names are tremendously entertaining to read aloud.)
These animal-people are forever getting themselves into pickles (I’m referring to both meanings of the word). Despite their best intentions, these characters are virtually unstoppable in their ability to get into trouble. They crash into pie trucks, they drive off raised drawbridges, and they hide in pots of soup.
Richard Scarry was forever embedding his stories with morals and lessons (manners are first and foremost)—and here is no exception. Know someone who doesn’t like to clean up? Perhaps you should introduce them to Schtoompah, the Austrian tuba player, who “was not very tidy. Instead of putting things away neatly, he would just throw things in a closet.” In preparation for a concert, Schtoompah spends two days looking through his closet for his tuba. Once on stage, his first blow unearths a plethora of forgotten household items and appliances, sending them raining down into the audience. (My kids die over this one.)
Slapstick humor aside, some of the best laughs come from misunderstandings that the characters fail to see but which are obvious to the reader. It took a a minute for my kids to get the pun in one of my personal favorites, “Professor Dig and His Egyptian Mummy.” Fresh off excavating an ancient mummy, Professor Dig stops at a restaurant and asks the proprietor to “watch my mummy for a few minutes while I sit and drink a cold glass of lemonade.” The restaurant owner mistakes the mummy for the professor’s mommy—and proceeds to spend the next hour trying to get her to talk and ballroom dance with him. (I die over this one.)
OK, moment of truth: When I’m reading this book to my kids, can I honestly separate my own visceral reaction—the wash of memories it brings back to me—from my ability to weigh this book objectively against more contemporary offerings? Perhaps not. Are the stories at times bizarre, chauvinist, and culturally stereotyped? Yup. Does the writing occasionally fall flat or feel tedious or actually make no sense at all? Afraid so.
Does any of that matter in terms of the sheer enjoyment this book provides? Not for a second.
In the six weeks that we’ve had Busy, Busy World, my kids have relished flipping through it, picking out which stories they want me to read, and arguing over which ones are their favorites. It has been a joyful trip down memory lane and around the world for all of us; and I only hope that my kids will hang on to this new copy so that their own little ones can enjoy it someday.
Other Favorites by Richard Scarry:
Best Word Book Ever (Ages 1-3)
Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (Ages 2-5)
Busy, Busy Town (Ages 2-6)
A Day at the Airport (Ages 2-5; this book has inspired many a rainy afternoon hanging out at the airport)
A Day at the Police Station (Ages 2-5)
A Day at the Fire Station (Ages 2-5)
Please and Thank You Book (Ages 2-5)
What Do People Do All Day? (Ages 3-6)
The Animals’ Merry Christmas (Ages 4-10)
The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries (Ages 4-8; yes, Richard Scarry did something for older kids!)
Finally, did I mention how much we love the Busytown: Eye Found It cooperative board game? See, just a little obsessed…
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
May 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from binge reading a series that has already been published in its entirety. But it can be equally exciting to read through a series in real time, anticipating the next installment for months, then rediscovering characters like old friends. One of our family’s greatest literary pleasures over the past 18 months has been the Three-Ring Rascals series (Ages 7-11, younger if reading aloud), by sister duo Kate Klise (author) and M. Sarah Klise (illustrator). Perhaps you heard our squeals a few weeks ago, when my kids and I walked into our local bookstore and discovered that the fourth installment, Pop Goes the Circus!, was out (with still more on the way!).
What has made this early-chapter book series such a joy in our house is that it has been enjoyed equally and together by my four and seven year old. In fact, it hits every criteria on my Must-Find-Chapter-Book-That-Appeals-to-Both-Hooligans agenda. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 26, 2015 § 2 Comments
News flash: right now, under your very own backyard or front porch, there could be as many as 20,000 garter snakes huddled together, using the body warmth of one another to wait out these cold winter months. SAY WHAT? If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. And now you, too, can be reminded of said news flash by your seven year old every morning as you leave the house. All thanks to one of twelve poems in Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold (Ages 6-12), the latest lyrical and visual masterpiece by poet Joyce Sidman and printmaker Rick Allen.
Thankfully, Winter Bees IS a masterpiece, so you won’t mind reading about snakes, which may or may not be lurking in “hibernaculums” beneath the ground on which you tread (if you remember, our snake obsession started here). Thankfully, too, most of the poems in Winter Bees are more beautiful than creepy, inspiring awe for animals like tundra swans, moose, beavers, moles, and chickadees, as well as frosty events, like ice crystal formation. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.
Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.
Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 29, 2014 § 3 Comments
On the Monday morning following Easter, JP crawled into my bed with a new book and proudly announced, “Mommy, I am going to read you some poems. I have lots of favorites. Some of them are very funny. Also some of them are very weird. A few of them I don’t even understand!” And hence followed one of the most enjoyable 45 minutes that I’ve had in awhile. All thanks to J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian’s new Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (Ages 5-10).
“Children dive into poetry with the same natural ease as swimmers into water, climbers into trees, and sleepers into dreams…Poetry’s narrative, rhythm and vibrant imagery is the real language of childhood.” So begins a recent online article in The Guardian about a movement among educators and publishers to bring back children’s poetry from “near extinction.” Why, if poetry is so intuitive, so enticing, for children, is it in danger of dying out? The article points a finger at booksellers, many of whom (and I admit to being guilty of this at one time) struggle with how to display and shelve a hard-to-pin-down category. Not considered picture books, not considered chapter books, they end up in their own “poetry” section way off in No Man’s Land. When was the last time you sought out the poetry shelves at your bookstore? « Read the rest of this entry »
March 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
Raise the roof! My favorite fast-talking pastry is back in the house! Now, before you look at me like I have three heads (or 135 sprinkles), I’m referring to Laurie Keller’s new early chapter book series, based on the naive, loquacious, loves-the-limelight chocolate doughnut from her 2003 picture book, Arnie the Doughnut (Ages 4-8). I still remember the hysterics that my staff and I fell into every time we flipped through that first book 11 years ago, about a doughnut who narrowly avoids the fate of being eaten and winds up an unlikely pet (a “doughnut-dog!”) to the lonely but kindly Mr. Bing.
I’ve often wondered why author-illustrator Keller doesn’t get more props from the media and, as a result, remains relatively unknown by parents. Her kooky story lines are peppered with chuckle-inducing sidebars and animated through energetic, googly-eyed sketches. But I have a particular fondness for her ability to keep us parents just as entertained as our children (think puns, references to pop culture, etc.). If you’re not reading Laurie Keller, the world is less fun. It’s as simple as that. (Other non-doughnut-related favorites by Keller are listed at the end of this post.) « Read the rest of this entry »
February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment
My wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).
Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both). « Read the rest of this entry »
January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment
While my son and I were on the subject of excavating fossils, it seemed it might be logical to jump from paleontology to archaeology. It didn’t hurt that, over winter break, JP’s teacher had emailed me about tracking down some good books about Ancient Egypt (see list at the end). And so, one snowy night, JP and I sat down on the couch to read the Treasure Trove that is The 5,000-Year-Puzzle-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt (Ages 6-12), by Claudia Logan, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
An hour later, we were still reading it, my daughter and husband had joined us, and I almost couldn’t tear myself away to meet my girlfriends for a scheduled drink. Almost. I can’t think of a better introduction, not only to Ancient Egypt, but also to the painstaking role that archaeologists play in unearthing clues about ancient life. While the American boy and his father in the book are fictitious, they join an actual historic dig, led by a Harvard team of scientists, which occurred in 1924 at the Egyptian site of Giza 7000X, where a secret and unusually well-preserved tomb was discovered. Through a combination of actual historic records and the young boy’s first-person narrative, we learn about the team’s efforts to excavate this ancient site over the course of a year—including their continual revisions to hypotheses over whose tomb it was and why it was constructed in such a way. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:
“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 18, 2013 § 2 Comments
I may have given an audible little yelp the other day when I discovered that Jessie Hartland had published a new title in her “museum” series, but it was nothing like the squeal of joy that my six year old emitted when I brought it home and gave it to him. You see, How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum (Ages 4-8) and How the Sphinx Got to the Museum (Ages 5-10) are among our All Time Favorites, rivaled only by Hartland’s newest addition to the series, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum (Ages 5-10). All three books are brilliantly simple slices of science and history; they introduce children to paleontology, Egyptology, and now astronomy by following a specific artifact from its discovery in the field to its place in the exhibition hall of a museum.
Most great science books take their inspiration from true historical events. Here’s an especially awesome one: on a clear night in October of 1992, a meteor that had been predictably orbiting the sun for four billion years suddenly and inexplicably changed course, entered the Earth’s atmosphere, flew over Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and crashed into the trunk of a Chevy Malibu parked outside a house in Peekskill, New York (that’s right, crashed—as in, totaled the back of the car and sprung a leak in the fuel tank and precipitated a 911 call to police and fire fighters—pretty much the coolest thing my six year old has ever conceived of). « Read the rest of this entry »
September 24, 2013 § 2 Comments
JP turned six today. As you may recall, we are All About Birthdays this month, having just celebrated my daughter’s third birthday two weeks ago. At some point over the summer, my kids realized that their birthdays were (sort of) approaching, and many of their conversations turned to what kind of parties they wanted to have (“Snakes and a pinata!” from JP; “Balloons and flowers!” from Emily) and whom they wanted to invite.
This latter debate became increasingly complicated for my youngest, because in addition to her now having a few similarly aged friends, she still claims most of her brother’s friends as her own (having been toted around to his play dates for three years). Back when JP turned three, we had exactly three children over for a nice, contained party. When Emily turned three, we found ourselves with 25 kids running around our backyard. Throw in a giant inflatable bounce house, a craft station, and soccer goals, and it would appear that my husband and I have finally embraced this moving-to-the-‘burbs thing. But I digress. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)
I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).
I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.
Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”
I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)
Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.
Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)
May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
Just because the school year ends shortly doesn’t mean that our children’s minds have to shrivel up like apples left out too long in the sun. Last week, I gave some ideas for great read-aloud novels to share with your kids. Now, I’m going to encourage you to add some non-fiction into the mix—specifically, historical biographies posing as picture books. In previous posts about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve hailed the rise of today’s picture book biographies, which (unlike the static, black-and-white books of our school days) read like interesting, action-packed stories accompanied by vibrant paintings and intriguing designs. But I’m not merely talking about the Most Obvious Historical Figures; there are lesser known but equally captivating true stories of ordinary boys and girls, men and women, who shaped the world with extraordinary acts of courage, defiance, or creativity.
Where picture book biographies are concerned, contemporary illustrator Melissa Sweet has been on a roll, creating the art for several of my favorite non-fiction books in recent years. Although these biographies are written by different authors, they are unified by Sweet’s signature style—at once instantly recognizable but also entirely unexpected for the historical genre. In place of photographic-like paintings in somber tones, Sweet uses fun colors, whimsical patterns, and collage elements specific to the person whose story she is bringing to life. In Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Ages 7-12), Sweet peppers her background collages with excerpts from Williams’ poems, opening up kids’ eyes to these words and thoughts as an art form unto itself. In Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Ages 5-8), an account of the first person to capture a wild panda in China and bring it to an American zoo for study, Sweet creates frames for her watercolors out of authentic Chinese decorative papers, lending an other-wordly, almost mystical charm to this already fascinating story.
One of Sweet’s most recent triumphs is even more captivating for its portrayal not of an adult but of a young girl. Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Ages 6-10) tells the mind-boggling story of a Jewish immigrant girl, forced to endure long hours, harsh treatment, and poor pay, while sewing alongside hundreds of other girls in factories (her family’s only hope of putting food on the table.) Clara Lemlich’s “got grit,” and she “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong”; ultimately, she leads the largest walkout of women workers in American history, inspiring thousands of male and female workers across the country to strike for better working conditions and the right to organize unions.
Brave Girl, like most picture book biographies, demands to be discussed with your child—and it’s in these memorable discussions that the real learning begins. For starters, there are words that need to be defined, words like “walkout,” “union,” “garment,” and “shatterproof” (referring to Clara’s spirit). Then there’s Clara’s day-to-day life, which sent my almost six year old into a complete tailspin. “Wait, are you sure this is a real story?” he kept repeating, as I showed him the bird’s eye illustration of row-upon-row of hundreds of ant-sized heads bent over sewing machines; or read to him about the “two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share”; or got to the part about how an exhausted Clara would spend her nights in the library instead of sleeping because “she wants to read, she wants to learn!” (I don’t think JP had ever considered a scenario where a child would not be allowed to go to school.)
JP and his Montessori classmates are big into sewing right now, so he was especially intrigued once I pointed out that the bright paintings are often set against bolts of solid fabrics, frayed pieces of cloth, and decorative ribbons—some sewn with tight perfect stitches and others with uneven zig-zagging lines. In fact, after we finished the story, JP proceeded to go back through the entire book, running his finger along every line of stitches (“And is that REAL BLOOD?” he exclaimed, where two dots of red light up a piece of blue cloth next to some text that explains the repercussions for sewers who accidentally pricked their fingers).
But the best part of discussing picture book biographies with your kids (apart from feeling like you are pretty much the most inspiring parent ever) is getting at the emotional undercurrents of the story—in the case of Brave Girl, themes of justice, leadership, sacrifice, and bravery. As JP gets older, he and I will have more evolved conversations about these first three things; at the present, he was mainly fixated on the concept of bravery. Children tend to associate bravery with physical risks and triumphs, like learning to swim or taking off training wheels; and by this definition, JP knows he is a pretty tentative kid (totally unaffected by the four year olds riding their two-wheelers in circles around him). So, I welcome the opportunity to talk about courage in a different light. The book ends: “…warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.” When I finished reading, JP asked me, “How do you think Clara got so brave?”
“I think everyone has bravery inside of them and it’s just a question of letting it out,” I ventured.
“I guess I’m saving it up,” he replied.
“Actually,” I told him, “I watch you do brave things every day, like how you walked up to those older kids today and started talking to them. And you know what else? I think that every time someone uses up some of their bravery, some new bravery immediately comes in to fill that space—so you never run out.”
There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, “I’d like to look at those stitches again.”
Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies Illustrated by Melissa Sweet:
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written & illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, by Alicia Potter, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jen Bryant (Ages 7-12)
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 8-14)—OK, not really a biography but a great work of non-fiction nonetheless!
April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
A customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise).
But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose).
January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
For 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.
December 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
When it comes to picking gifts this holiday season, it’s no surprise I vote books all the way (and I’ll have posts all month long with recommendations for everyone on your list). But I thought I’d kick off my Holiday Gift Guide with a more unusual approach.
What about making an impact through sheer weight? I’m talking about reference books: those meaty treasures filled with mind-blowing facts, stunning photography, and encyclopedia-rich knowledge. We normally associate these books with schools, while we focus on stocking our shelves at home with storybooks (why clutter up our houses with reference books when we have the Internet?). But there’s a reason that educational philosophies like Montessori and Waldorf advocate strongly for encouraging children to find answers the old-fashioned way (after all, you learn nothing about alphabetization when you look up a definition on dictionary.com).
A good dictionary or atlas or encyclopedia can grow with your child for years and years. It will make your child a better student, and it will make you a better teacher (come on, we can’t let our children get smarter than us!).