January 11, 2019 § 4 Comments
(Happy New Year friends! Before we start, a bit of housekeeping. I am finally on Instagram (@thebookmommy) and having lots of fun. My goal is to use it to cover more ground than I can with my weekly blog, including what my kids are reading, what I’m reading, and mini-reviews of books I won’t get to here but are still deserving of love. Join me!)
A few days after New Year’s, I asked each family member to come to the dinner table ready to share a New Year’s Resolution. My husband’s resolution was to find a new hobby; my daughter (never one to stop at just one) said she wanted to make new friends and get better at basketball; and my son said he wanted to read books faster, so he could “keep up” with all my recommendations (and the award for the person who stole my heart goes to…).
When it was my turn, I pulled out Cori Doerrfeld’s 2018 picture book, The Rabbit Listened (“I love that book!” my daughter exclaimed), and announced my intention to become a better listener.
I think it’s fair to say that, as a society, we all need to do a better job listening to one another, especially if we are to bridge the political, economic, and social divides threatening to define (destroy?) us. The president of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, recently published a compelling opinion piece, in which he laments that, increasingly, “our curiosity ends the moment we discover information different than what we already believe.” He continues:
This is unspeakably dangerous, and in direct opposition to the founding principles of our nation. We are meant to be a democracy of informed citizens, a country of curious people who feel a collective ownership over our future and joint responsibility to protect the values we are supposed to stand for: Inclusion. Acceptance. Discussion. Debate. Equality. Opportunity. Without these bonds and a commitment to establishing fact-based arguments and critiques of power, democracy is at risk.
Visiting our local libraries, Marx argues, might be the easiest and most rewarding gateway to better listening, which he argues is a natural extension of both community interaction and reading for pleasure. (“You can meet your neighbors there. You can find books there. You can find librarians eager to point you towards credible, vetted information there. You can find your community there.”) Amen to that!
I might argue that listening better also starts with the way we listen to our children. Am I the only one who finds this extremely difficult at times? I’m referring to the meltdowns. To the crocodile tears. To the shouting. To the histrionics. I’m actually quite a lovely listener if one of my children approaches me, calmly, to discuss a concern or problem. But that happens…um, almost never. Most of my children’s frustration with the world comes at inopportune times; is delivered in inopportune ways.
My reactions tend to run a gamut. I do empathize; actually, I’m pretty good at naming my children’s feelings for them. I often saddle up with a whole lot of excellent advice—you know, because I’m wise at 40-plus years. I usually think—and it’s just possible I’ve uttered these thoughts aloud—what a ridiculously inane thing to be upset about. Sometimes, I even devolve into histrionics of my own.
The Rabbit Listened (Ages 3-6) calls me out on all of that. It is a simple but convincing tribute to the type of listening which both soothes the inner beast and empowers the mind. The type of listening which strives, not for correction or teaching or distracting, but for connection.
The story starts with a boy who to falls to pieces when the block tower he has just built (“new,” “special,” “amazing”) is accidentally knocked over—by a flock of untruly birds, no less.
The boy is then approached by a steady stream of animals, each offering a different kind of help. A clucking chicken is the first on the scene, eager to commiserate: “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry this happened! Let’s talk, talk talk about it!” (Yes, yes, yes, this sounds familiar.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like talking.” So the chicken leaves.
A bear is next, ready to help Taylor name his anger and channel it into shouts and roars. As if to say, come on, this helps me feel better, so this will help you! (Um, yup, guilty.) “But Taylor didn’t feel like shouting.” The bear leaves.
An elephant, hyena, ostrich, snake—each has just the thing to make short work of Taylor’s problem. Let’s just laugh about it! Let me be silly and distract you! Let’s just clean up and move on! Even, from the mouth of the snake: “Shhhh. Let’sss go knock down someone else’sss.” Revenge feels good, right?
But Taylor isn’t having any of it. And what do the animals do? They essentially throw up their appendages and leave. They absolve themselves of responsibility. As if to say, well, we tried. If this child doesn’t want our help, then tough tootie. (Personally, I have never thought those thoughts before. OK, maybe a few dozen times, but…)
Only the rabbit knows what Taylor needs. Only the rabbit knows how to approach slowly; how to hold his tongue; how to offer his “warm body”; how to stay for the long haul. “Together, they sat in silence until Taylor said, ‘Please stay with me.’ The rabbit listened.”
And then, something amazing happens. While the rabbit listens in silence, Taylor begins to recover his own mind. He vocalizes his feelings. He shouts. He does all the things the animals initially suggested. He laughs. He thinks about throwing everything away. He contemplates revenge. “Through it all, the rabbit never left.”
And you know what? Without a word from the rabbit, Taylor manages to arrive at the very decision most parents would want for him: “…when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.” Taylor visualizes success. He celebrates his resiliency.
Is it possible for us parents to channel this rabbit, even as our kids get older and the messes get bigger? Certainly not all the time. New Year’s resolutions don’t stand a chance if we strive for perfection. But, after I read this book aloud at the dinner table, I told my children, I know I can do better. I know that sometimes you talk and I hear you, but I’m not really listening. Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid; I see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it stop. Sometimes it’s because what has happened has made me mad, too. Sometimes it’s because I’m just bone tired. But I know I rush in with my thoughts and ideas. That I try for advice or punishment or even a hug before you’re ready. I know that you have tangles of brilliance and curiosity and hurt inside of you. Tangles which will only unravel given time. Given acceptance. Given unconditional love.
What will I learn about my children if I listen more closely? What will I learn about myself? If you care to join me, let’s enter the year less afraid of the histrionics; less afraid of the silence; less afraid to find out we’re wrong. And maybe, just maybe, our example will help others listen better, too.
Just one last question: does anyone know where I can find one of these rabbits for myself?
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Review copy by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com 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!
March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment
Earlier this year, the third title came out in the now wildly popular series, “The Princess in Black,” written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (the first is here, the second is here). The newest installment, The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde (Ages 4-7), features all the characters we’ve come to adore, plus a fleet of purple bunnies every bit as deadly in behavior as they are gentle on the eyes (even the PIB is initially fooled by their “language of Cuteness”).
What continues to make this series so much fun isn’t just the “princess pounces” and “scepter spanks” (although I do love me some alliterative fighting), but the tantalizing way in which the story lines turn traditional princess lore on its head. Princess Magnolia might be upholding the pretty in pink image back home at the castle, but outside where there are monsters threatening innocent goats and goat herds, she and her unicorn-turned-black-stallion are 100% kick-butt.
There’s just one problem. While Team Hale is working on cranking out these titles—originally developed to fill a void in the early chapter book market—our kids are getting older. I’m not suggesting that we as parents need to replace the PIB (never!); I’m merely announcing that if your child (my son would like me to point out that these books are not “just for girls”) is ready for meatier stuff, there’s a longer, more sophisticated series waiting in the wings. A series every bit as charming. Every bit as deliciously unsubtle with its feminist message. But also one that trades some of the full-color cuteness for a hefty dose of caustic wit.
Princess in Black, meet Harriet Hamsterbone: the clever, fearless, fractions-obsessed, never-take-no-for-an-answer star of Ursula Vernon’s “Hamster Princess” series (of which the second was just released, and the third will follow this October). When she’s not fighting cat-ogres or diving off cliffs, Harriet is working on breaking curses placed by wicked witches (or fairy god mice)—curses which her male contemporaries, ahem, have not been able to crack.
Yes, this is a rodent whom we can all get behind. A gal breaking down traditional barriers and exploding gender stereotypes wherever she rides (on the back of her trusty quail, Mumphrey).
I need to come clean about something before we go any further. The “Hamster Princess” series (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud) follows in the wake of Ursula Vernon’s popular “Dragonbreath” series, which shares with it the same novel-that’s-heavy-on-graphics format frequently marketed towards “reluctant readers.” I’m not sure whether it’s this marketing, or the prolific speech bubbles and blunt-tipped monochromatic illustrations, but I have always lumped “Dragonbreath” in the category of Literary Dribble. Without so much as reading a word. I know, this is terrible. I have secretly rolled my eyes at kids reading the “Dragonbreath” books, and the only reason I decided to pick up the first “Hamster Princess” title was because I had heard rumblings about its blatant feminism—and the world can always use more of that.
SHAME ON ME. Because Ursula Vernon’s writing is smart, sharp, and sarcastic. Not to mention wildly absurd in ALL THE BEST WAYS. I loved every minute of my reading Harriet the Invincible and Of Mice and Magic to my five and eight year old. We blew past bedtimes because we were laughing ourselves silly (sometimes I was laughing alone, as there’s no shortage of humor geared towards the older reader). After we finished, I immediately went out and bought Dragonbreath for my son to read on his own.
Because the “Hamster Princess” series is aimed at an older audience and can take on more complex plots than the PIB stories, it’s not just the princess persona that gets exploited—although Harriet was once grounded for a month after shoving a book into the mouth of her deportment teacher, who was attempting to improve her posture by having her walk in circles with said book on her head.
The “Hamster Princess” books also twist around fairy tales themselves (proving, once again, that the best reason to read the original fairy tales is so that we can appreciate the fractured versions!). In Harriet the Invincible, Harriet is supposed to be the victim of the Sleeping Beauty curse, only she knocks the evil sorceress into the poisoned spindle (well, hamster wheel) and inadvertently unleashes eternal sleep onto everyone in the castle except herself. (“Oh, Man…Dad is gonna kill me.”) Forced to embark on a quest to find a prince who can bestow some cure-all kisses on the slumbering victims, Harriet ends up finding one that needs rescuing of his own—from a five-headed hydra and an impoverished kingdom.
The second book, Of Mice and Magic, takes on The Brothers Grimm’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses, only here the twelve princesses are mice, each named after a different month of the year by their OCD father (who, I might add, has also color coded his entire castle). Harriet, never one to resist an adventure, is called to the scene to succeed where for seven years the more obvious (male) contenders have failed. The mouse princesses are under a curse which has them mysteriously escaping the locked castle every night and dancing their way through the soles of their silk shoes. Unlike the princesses in the original story, these mouse princesses are not dancing of their own accord (that all girls should be expected to love dancing is pure “tyranny,” according to Harriet). Nor are the tuxedo-clad moles, the princesses’ dance partners, keen on this forced matchmaking: they’re only doing the bidding of their witch mother and hoping to get out of doing dishes. Are you keeping up? Because this, my friends, is only the beginning of the mayhem.
For a princess, Harriet is—as one crone admirably calls her—“a singularly bloody-minded little thug.” Still, swords and threats, spells of invincibility and a Poncho of Invisibility, can get you only so far. In all her adventures, Harriet’s greatest triumphs come, not from her physical prowess, but from her intellect, her compassion, and sometimes even her patience. Time and again, to avoid certain peril (or, at the very least, gender type casting), she is forced to think on her feet—and what she comes up with is consistent: the best way to beat the nay-sayers is to beat them at their own game. This hamster never misses a beat. She finds a way to turn every insult, every promise, every opportunity to her advantage.
Tonight, as I was putting the kids to bed, the subject of this blog post came up. “You know, Mommy,” my eight year old son began, “if someone forced me into a conversation about princesses, I would have to say that Harriet Hamsterbone is my favorite.” (He has learned to run the other way screaming when his sister and her friends start donning Disney princess costumes.)
“Oh yeah? And why is that?” I asked.
“Well, even though she’s a princess, she’s a princess who breaks a lot of rules. And she’s never helpless. And she goes on exciting adventures that are fun to read about.”
“Yeah,” JP’s five-year-old sister piped in. “She doesn’t sit around waiting for someone to write a story about her. She just begins her own story!”
Wow. Perhaps it’s time I turned over the authorship of this blog to my kids. Thank you, Shannon & Dean Hale and Ursula Vernon, for giving us spunky opportunists who are helping remake our children’s ideas of Happily Ever After.
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Review copies provided by Candlewick and Penguin, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
March 19, 2015 § 5 Comments
We’ve gotten our first tastes of spring: warm breezes, lighter evenings, and the sightings of crocuses poking up through the melting snow. My children could not be more different in their reactions to this seasonal transition. My eldest, never one to charge ahead into change—preferring the deep emotional connections he has worked so hard to foster in the here and now—wants to hold on tight to winter with both fists. “But I’m not ready to say goodbye to snow days,” JP bemoans each morning on his way out the door.
My four-year-old Emily, on the other hand, has never been one to look back, content to reside in a perpetual state of forward motion (ideally, one involving skipping and singing). The promise of spring is, to her, one of being unencumbered (“Mommy, WHEN can I stop wearing these heavy things?” she began saying back in November).
This push-and-pull dance between two different souls perched on the cusp of spring is so perfectly captured in Daniel Kirk’s newest picture book, The Thing About Spring (Ages 3-6), that it’s as if the book was written for our family. The coincidence would feel positively uncanny, if I hadn’t brought up our family’s scenario to a group of moms outside the kids’ school the other day and been told, that’s what it’s like in our house, too! It would seem that we are not alone; and Kirk has jumped squarely on this insight.
When The Thing About Spring opens, revealing a landscape of bare trees, melting snow, and a handful of new green shoots, we are introduced to an exuberant Mouse and Bird (enter my Emily). “The world looks a little different today…it smells different, too…and I feel warm…Spring is finally here. Hooray!” the two proclaim with wide smiles and puffed chests. The duo sets out to share their excitement with Rabbit (enter my JP), whom they find forlornly huddled over a bucket, trying to “save” as much snow as possible with his shovel.
As his friends attempt to point out the different merits of spring, Rabbit bah-humbugs away every one, offering a pessimistic retort of his own. Each of his eight diatribes begins with the phrase (cue increasing exasperation), “The thing about spring is…”
“The thing about spring,” said Rabbit, “is that I won’t be able to make snow bunnies anymore. I won’t be able to build snow forts, either. You know how much fun I have doing that!”
“But little shoots will grow out of the ground,” Mouse said, “so you won’t have to look far to find delicious things to eat.”
“The thing about spring,” said Rabbit, “is that it rains when you’re not expecting it!”
“But the rain brings out the flowers,” said Mouse.
“And the worms,” said Bird.
“The thing about spring,” said Rabbit, “is that all the animals chatter on and on, and the racket hurts my ears!”
“I’ll try to be more quiet,” whispered Bird.
“Me too,” whispered Mouse.
“Me three,” whispered Bear, “but it’s hard not to make a little noise…WHEN SPRING IS HERE!”
When it comes to reading aloud to children, there’s nothing more fun than friendly banter between opposing personalities (remember this? and this?). Grumpiness is pretty funny, too. And, yes, halfway through sharing this story with my kids the first time, I asked them, “Does Rabbit remind you of anyone?” And my son and daughter both responded without hesitation, “Me/JP!” Because it was that obvious.
In the end, Bunny realizes that he is outmatched—not just by his friends, but by Mother Nature herself. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. All this pontificating in the warm spring sun has made the animals thirsty, and Rabbit is the first to point out that the melting snow in his bucket has turned to water. “The thing about spring is that it’s full of surprises,” he relents, with an ever-widening grin on his face. The animals then use fallen acorn shells to toast the new season.
And just like that, JP, too, seems won over. After two hours at the park after school this week, where he and his sister worked alongside their classmates to create a “fairy house” out of mud, sticks, and garbage (a fairy-themed post is coming, don’t you worry), he returned home flushed and chattering on about his Big Plans. “Is it OK if I stay out in the yard for awhile and you can let me know when dinner is ready? I’ve got a lot to do, and it’s still so beautiful out!”
Yup, that will do. That will do just fine.
Other Favorite Picture Books About Spring’s Arrival:
Finding Spring, by Carin Berger (Ages 2-6; please, please treat yourself to this other new 2015 book filled with STUNNING paper collages and a darling bear who is a little premature in his enthusiasm about spring’s coming)
And Then It’s Spring, by Julie Fogliano & Erin E. Stead (Ages 3-6; reviewed by me in 2012 here)
Fletcher and the Springtime Blossoms, by Julia Rawlinson & Tiphanie Beeke (Ages 3-6)
Snow Rabbit, Spring Rabbit: A Book of Changing Seasons, by Il Sung Na (Ages 3-6)
It’s Spring! by Linda Glaser & Susan Swan (Ages 4-8)
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com 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!
June 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
This 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. At its simplest, it is about a young whale, who embarks on his first summer migration alongside his Papa, a journey that will take him “farther than [he] has ever gone before.” Little Blue has all sorts of questions, like whether his tail will ever allow him to swim as fast as his father, or whether he’ll still be able to hear his Papa’s song, even when he’s big. It’s when Papa answers this last question that we realize that this story is as much metaphor as it is migration: “Yes, Little Blue. If you listen closely, you will always hear my song.” In parenthood, finding the balance between letting go and welcoming back is itself a dance that never stops playing out from the moment we bring a child into the world.
In the book’s beautifully paced dramatic arc, we watch as Little Blue’s curiosity about the unimaginable beauty beneath the sea leads him off course, landing him at the bottom of the ocean, alone and scared. Marino doesn’t gloss over Little Blue’s fear, but instead devotes several poignant pages to the dark, mysterious sea, filled only with the young whale’s plaintive cry and his strain to hear his father’s song. When the two do finally reunite, the page explodes in a rainbow of color, as father and son soar and splash together on the ocean’s surface.
Marino first won me over with her illustrations in Too Tall Houses, another book with a lovely message, where an owl and a hare inadvertently sacrifice their friendship in a competition for who can build the tallest house. As an artist, Marino has a knack for playing with perspective as a way to heighten drama; and that same talent shines through in Following Papa’s Song, with arresting close-ups of the whales’ expression-filled eyes, as well as affectionate arcs of backs and noses as the duo swims together. But what really elevates this picture book is the color that Marino employs in her richly layered, mixed-media paintings—hues of aqua and jade and pink and yellow that are so deep, so luminescent, so passionate, that we feel utterly entwined in the love of father and son. Not to mention the majesty of the ocean.
Dads are the best. They just are. No one’s arms make you feel safer. No one greets you with as much joy. I love watching my children leap into their own father’s arms when he comes home in the evening, or argue over whose turn it is to have Daddy put them to bed. I remember how my Dad used to crawl into my younger sister’s bed in the morning before he left for work, how he’d get under the covers and hold her tight and they’d talk about their plans for the day. Each time my children manage to sweet talk my husband into one more story, one more round of catch in the backyard, I smile in remembrance of all that my father did for me. I still hear his song, and I’ll be following it until the end of my days.
Other Favorite Picture Books That Celebrate Dad:
Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, by Eric Carle (Ages 1-5)
My Dad, by Anthony Browne (Ages 3-6)
My Dad is Big and Strong, But…A Bedtime Story, by Coralie Saudo & Kris DiGiacomo (Ages 3-6, reviewed by me here)
My Father Knows the Names of Things, by Jane Yolen & Stephanie Jorisch (Ages 4-8)
Every Friday, by Dan Yacarino (Ages 4-8)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of this book free of charge from Penguin Group (USA). I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own.
April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
When JP was three years old, and I went from working full time to staying home full time, these were the thoughts that kept me up at night: What will happen when my children see me as “just a mom” instead of as a mom and a professional? Will they respect the work I do? Will they think of it with the same importance that they bestow upon their father, when he leaves for the office every morning? Will they grow up believing that women aren’t capable of the same career success as men—or entitled to make the same sacrifices, reap the same compensation for comparable work? Will I be a role model for them or merely someone whom they take for granted?
In the past four years, I have largely reconciled my angst around these questions. I’m keenly aware that even to have the choice to stay home is a luxury not afforded to all—and one that could abruptly end for me someday. The work that I do every day on behalf of my kids, my husband, and our house makes all of us happy. But I’m also aware that when I did work 9-5, the time that I made for my (at the time only) child was quality, focused time. I got down on the floor and played with my son more than I probably do today, when too often I’m in the kitchen or chatting to other moms on the sidelines of playdates. I think about my own mom, who was around every single day, and how out-of-this-world excited I got when my dad’s car pulled into the driveway at night. There is perhaps some inevitability in taking for granted quantity and romanticizing quality.
But perhaps at no time do I feel greater validation as a mother—stay-at-home or not—than when I take out The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (Ages 4-10) and read Du Bose Heyward’s 1939 classic to my kids each Easter season. As much as the story is a celebration of traditional motherhood, it is also one of the earliest feminist tales—for a simple mother bunny outwits her bigger, stronger, prouder, and more handsome male competitors to earn the coveted position of fifth Easter Bunny. Although Mother Bunny initially believes that motherhood has trumped her ability to compete (“now she was nothing but an old mother bunny”), it is precisely her resourcefulness and creativity used in managing a thriving household of 21 little Cottontail bunnies that wins over Grandfather Bunny, master of ceremonies at The Palace of Easter Eggs. If successful parenting can be defined as rendering yourself superfluous so that your children can someday thrive in the world without you, then Mother Bunny can teach us all a thing or two. She gets her young bunnies to sweep and make their beds and do the gardening and cook dinner—all with good cheer and singing and dancing to boot!
The long story, dotted with softly shaded pastels by the lovely Marjorie Flack, can easily be broken up into two sittings (if your children will allow it—mine will not). There are essentially two dramatic arcs. The first comes when Mother Bunny stands with her 21 bunnies at the choosing ceremony and proves Grandfather Bunny mistaken in his assumptions about the ways in which motherhood has held her back. (You think I’ve had “no time to run and grow swift?” Just watch me release my children onto the Palace lawn and then round them up again in a matter of seconds!) But the dramatic tension really escalates on Easter Eve, when Mother Bunny, already exhausted from the evening’s work of delivering eggs, is given the dangerous task of bringing one last egg to a sick boy at the top of a treacherous mountain peak. My children can scarcely turn their heads away from Mother Bunny’s terror and failure as she trips repeatedly, rolling down the side of the snowy mountain and getting up again—all the time picturing a little boy whom she does not want to disappoint. Even the bravest of souls knows when to accept a little help, so when Grandfather Bunny appears with a magical pair of little gold shoes, she doesn’t hesitate to put them on and soar directly up the mountain to the sleeping boy’s cottage. What’s ultimately most compelling about Mother Bunny is that her generosity extends beyond her own family into the world beyond.
Perhaps a part of me hopes that my children might recognize even a tiny glimpse of me (on my best days) in Mother Bunny—of the good intentions behind my desire to include them in household chores; of my continued attempts at cleverness in getting them out the door; of my fervent desire to try a little harder every day. But I also hope that they might see in themselves the mother or father that they might someday become—when they too have the chance to parent with their own combination of wisdom, kindness, swiftness, and bravery. Whatever that looks like.
Other Favorites About the Easter Bunny:
Here Comes the Easter Cat! by Deborah Underwood (Ages 3-5)
The Story of the Easter Bunny, by Katherine Tegen & Sally Anne Lambert (Ages 4-7)
The Easter Egg by Jan Brett (Ages 4-7)
December 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
“How do I break the addiction to Goodnight Gorilla?!” a friend texted me the other day. Whether it’s Goodnight Gorilla, Goodnight Moon, or (my preference) Time for Bed, the lulling, reassuring refrains in these books become quick obsessions with little ones getting ready to tuck in for the night. And, let’s be honest, it can grow a wee bit tedious for the one doing the actual reading. The good news is that, as your child’s attention span develops, you can start incorporating more involved bedtime stories into the mix. I’m not promising it will be love at first sight, and you may have to be a little sneaky (I’ve had great success with the “you pick one and I’ll pick one” approach as a way to introduce new titles). But help is on the way. 2013 has been a rich year for bedtime stories, beginning with Mem Fox’s Good Night, Sleep Tight (Ages 1-4), a small square hardcover illustrated by Judy Horacek—and an instant, no-tricks-necessary favorite with my Emily (the same team created the equally fabulous Where is the Green Sheep?). Think of this new book as a compilation of six classic nursery rhymes (“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,” “This little piggy went to market,” “Star light, star bright,” etc.), only woven into an actual narrative and with a refrain to boot! How are such disparate poems tied together? By the simple premise of a boy and girl being put to bed by their Mother-Goose-loving babysitter, affectionately referred to as “Skinny Doug.” After each of Doug’s enchanting renditions, the children beg for another: “‘We love it! We love it!’ said Bonnie and Ben./ ‘How does it go? Will you sing it again?’/ ‘Some other time,’ said Skinny Doug./ ‘But I’ll tell you another/ I heard from my mother.’ And so on and so forth. Horacek’s whimsical illustrations add an extra layer of charm, projecting the children and their babysitter into the periphery of each rhyme; so we see them picking up their own order at the pat-a-cake bakery or driving by to wave at the piggy squealing “wee wee wee.” An inventive way to feed the nursery rhyme obsession (no 300 page anthology necessary!).
Can you imagine anything worse than a child (or, in this case, a small winged animal who calls himself a “Snatchabook”), who doesn’t have someone to read him a bedtime story each night? I’m sad just thinking about it! But that’s the premise of this affectionate new story about a young rabbit that sets out to discover why books keep disappearing from the forest at night. Helen and Thomas Docherty’s The Snatchabook (Ages 3-6) is filled with twilight-infused illustrations, depicting owls, squirrels, and hedgehogs tucked into trees and burrows, listening to “tales of dragons, spitting flames” and “witches playing spooky games”—and “every child in every bed,/ listened hard to each word said.” When these books start getting snatched, our lupine heroine, Eliza Brown, locates the Snatchabook, sits him down on her lap, and gives him a stern reproach: “You can’t just come and help yourself/ to every book on every shelf.” And yet, Eliza quickly softens when she learns of the Snatchabook’s plight: “I know it’s wrong, but can’t you see—I’ve got no one to read to me!” Together, the two form a plan that meets everyone’s needs: The Snatchabook returns each book (like a little Montessorian, Eliza stands watch to make sure the books are put back on the shelves very neatly). In return, the animals agree that the Snatchabook can join any of their nightly story times. I can’t imagine a better way to end our little ones’ days than with a story filled with such kindness and compassion.
Confession: Mary Logue and Pamela Zagarenski’s piercing Sleep Like a Tiger (Ages 3-6) is technically not a new book; it came out in 2012. Not only that, but it received considerable media attention earlier this year when it won a Caldecott Honor. Nonetheless, I am including it here, because 1) I have found that few people actually know it (or, let’s see, their social media circles aren’t dominated by news of children’s books?), and 2) I am completely obsessed with everything about it and have been waiting for the perfect time to tell you. Earlier, I mentioned that kids can be slow to warm up to new titles (an argument for owning books that you feel passionate about). In the case of my kids, my being obsessed with a book is often the Kiss of Death. I’ve learned to feign indifference around a new book in the hopes that my kids will see their picking it up as their idea. But, in the case of Sleep Like a Tiger, I couldn’t suppress my delight—and so, for a long time, my daughter squealed “Noooooo” each time I suggested we read it. But now it is among her most beloved favorites. So what’s so great about this book? Well, for one thing, it’s a little bit weird (in the way that many of the Greats are). It’s suspended somewhere between the real world and the dream world—in that blurred spot where the subconscious comes alive. It’s also filled with the most beautiful observations of the natural world, made by the parents of a crown-sporting little girl, as she stalls (“I’m not sleepy”) by asking questions about different animals’ sleeping habits. We learn that whales sleep while swimming in circles, that snails “curl up like a cinnamon roll inside their shell,” and that grizzlies sleep through the winter (“That’s too long!” the girl exclaims). But it’s the girl herself who reminds her parents that the tiger is the mightiest sleeper of all: “that way he stays strong.” The glorious, restorative spell of sleep eventually overtakes our heroine, and Zagarenski’s incredible mixed-media illustrations (done on wood in the same way as her stunning Red Sings from the Treetops) morph the two worlds into one: the girl wriggles under the covers until she finds the warmest spot like the cat who sleeps by the fire; she “folds her arms like the wings of a bat”; and she rides on the back of the whale in her dreams. And, of course, she curls her back like the tiger. Strong, serene, asleep. Shhhhhhhhhhh. (Now quick: exit the room and congratulate yourself on a job well done.)
Other Favorite Bedtime Stories from 2013:
Rock-a-Bye Room, by Susan Meyers & Amy Bates (Ages 1-3)
Lena’s Sleep Sheep, by Anita Lobel (Ages 2-5)
Hank Finds an Egg, by Rebecca Dudley (Ages 2-6) (OK, technically not a bedtime story, but this sweetest of stories has a gentle, lulling quality, a quiet wordless format, and boasts a bedtime scene in the middle of it…so, there, I’m including it.)
November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
Six 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!”
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.)
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.