When a House Becomes a Home

December 3, 2020 § 6 Comments

It has only been a week since I finished my 2020 Gift Guide and already I need a do over! I started this year’s guide earlier than usual, which meant I was still digging myself out of a hefty “to read” pile, and I’ve since discovered a few gems that positively beg to be included. Like Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House (Ages 3-8). Honestly, this book is so good I might have chosen it as My Favorite Picture Book of the Year (although no disrespect to the two I did choose, because they’re perfection). For sure, it feels like nothing I’ve read this year. It’s raw and tender and gorgeous and loud. It features a single father who reads aloud during bath time, shreds on the electric guitar, and holds space for his son’s feelings, the bad along with the good. And while the story is centered around a modest little old house, it reinforces what it really means for a house to be a home.

My mom has an expression she employs each time I’m preparing to moving into a new space, from dorm rooms, to my first apartment, to the temporary digs we moved into at the start of this pandemic, after breaking ground on renovating what I hope will be our forever home. Whenever I start to worry—That dorm is a 1960s disaster! This apartment hardly has any windows!—she always says with confidence, “You have to make it cute.” Those seven words have become a kind of mantra for me, because there’s inherent optimism in them. It’s the idea that hanging a few pictures, puffing up a few pillows, and putting down a plush rug can transform the spirit of any place. It’s working with what you have. It’s simple. It’s doable.

And it’s true: when we put effort into brightening up our house, we can relax into it. When we make our four walls a tiny extension of ourselves, we can live a little freer, a little louder, a little more boldly. And then there’s the emotional decorating. Because making a house “cute” comes as much from the life we lead inside it: the love we foster, the heartbreak we overcome, the laughs that surprise us, the memories we make. What we give to a house comes back to us as a home.

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Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation. « Read the rest of this entry »

Taking the Stage

May 26, 2016 Comments Off on Taking the Stage

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintockThis past Sunday, my five year old took the stage for her first ballet recital. She had been on a similar stage in previous years, for the culmination of her creative movement classes, but this was the first time that she was—in her words—“going to look like an actual ballerina.”

And she did. Not so much in her tentative leg extensions and arm raises; not so much in the piece of satiny fabric draped around her waist (which looked nothing like the tutu Emily had envisioned her costume would entail); but in her gorgeously perfect posture. I sat three quarters of the way back in the audience, my life’s blood just a pink speck on the stage, but oh my goodness did she stand upright like she had all the confidence in the world: her shoulders down her back, her chest lifted, her chin tilted upwards ever so slightly. It was the posture of someone whose body has never failed her, who has not yet felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, who stands like that simply because she is totally and completely at home in her person. It also happens to be the posture of a ballerina. « Read the rest of this entry »

Dancing Outside the Comfort Zone

July 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra BoigerSomewhere along the way, in our frenzy to make sure our children are anything but ordinary, we’ve stopped letting them be bad at things. So fervently do we want them to feel the taste of success from an early age (as if this guarantees them achievement later in life), that we steer them almost immediately in the direction of things at which we believe they’ll excel.

With so many of today’s children starting instructive activities at younger and younger ages, joining in a few years down the road can feel to a child like everyone else is light years ahead of him or her—a daunting prospect at best. And we parents get squirmy around daunting. We fear the fallout of failure, despite contemporary psychologists berating us, Failure is good! Failure is critical! It’s through failure that children learn how to stand firmer on their own two feet!

What’s stopping us from all holding hands and letting our children outside their comfort zone?

Cue the power of summer camp. For ten summers, I attended the same sleep-away camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The camp was the opposite of fancy (“It’s homey,” my New York City mother announced dubiously the first time we pulled in.). But I adored how laid back and accepting it was. As a camper, you could wander into any activity. As a counselor, you could teach virtually any activity (skill secondary to enthusiasm). Fortunately, my parents weren’t sending me there to master tennis or horseback riding or to emerge at the end of the summer with perfectly glazed pots that might justify the hundreds of dollars they were spending.

That camp became a haven for me. A place to experiment. To discover and be embraced for who I was. And I failed constantly. I failed to advance to the next swimming level. I failed at fighting off homesickness. I failed at having the right frayed jean shorts. I failed at friendships. There were no parents around to lecture or moralize or pick me back up or interfere on my behalf. And, boy, did I love it.

There are still moments in my life where I would give anything to run out my problems in bare feet across that giant archery field, flanked by the beauty of the mountains.

In addition to its nostalgic camp setting, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, the newest in the charming picture book series by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger—and my personal favorite to date—does a magnificent job of exploring a girl’s growing pains at starting (and not necessarily succeeding at) something new. « Read the rest of this entry »

For the Dancers

July 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

"Deer Dancer" by Mary Lyn Ray & Lauren StringerOne of our greatest rewards as parents is watching our children experience joy. For me, I get to see that look of joy upon my daughter’s face each time I peek through the fogged glass into the studio where she takes her weekly dance class. It’s a look that’s markedly different from the furrowed brow of concentration she often wears when observing something new; or the aghast expression of betrayal when her brother knocks over her tower of blocks; or her silly mischievous grin while tearing across the park with friends. When she dances, she is lost in the moment; she is happy; she is free. It’s no wonder that she asks me almost every single day, “When’s my next dance class?”

In a world in which our girls are dying to get their hands on pink tutus, ballet slippers, and all the glitter that seems to equate ballerinas with princesses, I love that Emily’s class is very deliberately titled Creative Movement. True ballet, with its discipline and choreography, doesn’t start until age five at this studio. In the meantime, the emphasis is on movement, on body awareness, on feeling the music. The girls and boys imitate animals, hop through hula-hoops, and roll across the big open floor.

Where children’s books are concerned, there are many charming, full-of-heart stories featuring the indoor world of ballet (my favorites are mentioned in the lengthy list at the end of this post). Still, I find it especially refreshing that, in their new picture book, Deer Dancer (Ages 3-6), author Mary Lyn Ray and illustrator Lauren Stringer have taken dance out of the mirrored studio and into nature, where the trees make their own music, and where movement is at its freest and purest form. To put it another way, Deer Dancer is as green as it is pink. « Read the rest of this entry »

Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them. « Read the rest of this entry »

Anyone Can Learn to Dance

October 3, 2012 Comments Off on Anyone Can Learn to Dance

Calling all wannabe ballerinas! If you’re headed to a girl’s birthday party this month, you must give this irresistibly charming (and seasonally appropriate) new book, Vampirina Ballerina (Ages 3-7), by Anne Marie Pace, with pictures by LeUyen Pham. This book has everything ballerinas-in-the-making (and their supportive parents) would want in a book: tutus, pirouettes, a Swan Lake-inspired recital, encouragements about practice and effort (as opposed to perfection), and a subtle but poignant message about accepting someone who looks different.

In addition, this book has something most people don’t associate with ballet: a family of vampires. That’s right, Pace’s text reads like a “how to succeed in ballet” handbook, only it’s directed at a young vampire girl, who is eager and nervous to begin her ballet education alongside a troupe of human girls and their instructing Madame. Along with some predictable directives about form and style (“a true ballerina is always on pointe” and “always move with your head held high”), our young Vampirina is given some important life lessons: “Whatever happens, don’t be discouraged. The road to ballerinadom can be bumpy.”

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