August’s Birthday Pick

August 8, 2013 Comments Off on August’s Birthday Pick

Count the Monkeys Mac BarnettSometimes we need a Crowd Pleaser. How many times have we rushed to the store (on the morning of the birthday party, no less) and stared at the shelves, thinking “What do I even know about this child, this person in my daughter’s class whose name I’d never heard until last week?” Our children are often no help: “Ummm, I don’t know, he likes Star Wars, I think…” And then there’s the latest trend in birthday parties—the book exchange—which, naturally, I find charming and all, except that now we have the additional challenge of finding a book that will appeal to any one of the number of children at the party. Enter the Crowd Pleaser: a book that’s guaranteed to make boy, girl, preschooler, first grader laugh; a book they can listen to or read themselves or read to their siblings; and, of course, a book that’s Brand New and Off the Beaten Path and all that good stuff.

Now enter Monkeys. Because if there’s any animal that’s universally loved by children (and their parents) it’s the monkey. We all call our children monkeys; we all think of them as little monkeys (incidentally, we also think that this comparison is an entirely novel notion). Anyway, monkeys are good. Monkeys are safe.

Now enter Mac Barnett, one of the most original and—conveniently, in our quest for a Crowd Pleaser—one of the funniest picture book creators around. Last year, along with the talented Adam Rex, he wrote Chloe and the Lion (Ages 4-8), a hilarious (and surprisingly educational) look at the process of writing and illustrating a picture book, whereby Barnett and Rex essentially “argue” the book into creation. This year, he teams up with Kevin Cornell to lend his deconstructionist approach to Count the Monkeys (Ages 3-7), another book that appears to take form right before our eyes. The book begins with a simple premise: “Hey, kids! Time to count the monkeys! It’s fun. It’s easy. All you have to do is turn the page…” Except that the monkeys are nowhere to be found, scared away by a king cobra, who in turn is scared away by two mongooses (“or is that 2 mongeese?”), who in turn are scared away by three crocodiles…and you get the picture.

The genius of Count the Monkeys, apart from Cornell’s irresistibly mischievous drawings of gluttonous grizzly bears and “polka-dotted rhinoceroses with bagpipes and bad breath,” is the invitation for children to interact with every page. If you’ve ever read Herve Tullet’s groundbreaking Press Here to your children (and if you haven’t, please proceed immediately to your nearest independent bookstore), you are already familiar with this now trendy trick of modern picture book artists. These are books that invite children, not only into the reading process, but into the creation process as well. They make children feel like they themselves are driving the direction of the story. On every page in Count the Monkeys, the narrator (still obsessed with getting back those elusive monkeys) asks us to perform various tasks to get rid of the imposter: tell the lumberjacks to “scram” (“Say it even louder!”); don’t look the wolves in the eyes (“In fact, cover your eyes while you turn the page”); move your hand in a zigzag to “confuse” the crocodiles; etc. I triple dare any child (heck, I dare any parent) to refrain from doing any of the things Barnett demands; it’s simply too much fun to take a backseat on this one. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a Crowd Pleaser.

Seeing the World in Color

March 23, 2013 § 3 Comments

Baby Bear Sees Blue“It’s bud season! It’s bud season!” chanted my children earlier this week, after some long-awaited warm sunshine had beckoned us into the backyard. Thankfully, they were referring not to the beer (although my son’s soccer team does call themselves the Silver Bullets), but rather to the discovery of tiny little green bursts on the ends of our hydrangea bushes and crape myrtles. Since this is the first spring in our new house, our backyard is full of surprises, including yellow daffodils and purple crocuses and little red berries, all of which the children were delighted to point out to me as they raced back and forth across the lawn.

This springtime exuberance is exactly why I love Ashley Wolff’s Baby Bear Sees Blue (Ages 1-4), about a baby bear venturing forth from his den to discover the colors of the world. “Who is warming me, Mama?” asks Baby Bear. “That is the sun,” Mama says, as Baby Bear steps into a pool of brilliant yellow; “Baby Bear sees yellow.” And so begins a series of introductions to different colors, from the blue of the jays to the red of the strawberries to the grey of an approaching storm cloud. For months now, I have been trying (and failing) to teach my two year old her colors; at two and a half, she knows the names of all the colors and loves to exclaim “that’s purple!” or “that’s red!” for things that are, in fact, green or blue. I’m not obsessing about this, having drunk the Montessori Kool-Aid that she’ll learn on her own time (either that or someone will eventually tell me she’s color blind). But I figured it couldn’t hurt to start reading her books about colors, a rich topic in children’s literature (see my complete list of favorites at the end of this post).

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The “Perfect” Christmas Tree

December 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Mr. Willowby's Christmas TreeThis past weekend, we partook in one of our favorite family traditions: chopping down our Christmas tree and driving it home to trim. We started this tradition five years ago, when JP was one year old. I like the idea of my children understanding where their Christmas tree comes from; plus I enjoy supporting the family-owned tree farms in our area; plus, well, we all know that I love any excuse to unleash my urban children on a farm.

By now, the excursion has become fairy predictable. JP (eager to get his hands on a saw) begins by pointing to the first tree he sees and announcing, “This is the perfect one!” I meander deep into the fields, weaving in and out of the rows, sizing up each possibility and muttering oohs and ahhs. And my husband (who has carefully measured our nook at home and tried to set appropriate expectations before we left the house) rushes after me, chastising, “That one is too big! It won’t fit! You promised this year you’d be reasonable!” He has a point, my husband, but I can’t help myself. Something overcomes me out there in the crisp open air, beautifully manicured trees stretching out on all sides of me, and I WANT BIG.

I guess in this way I’m a lot like Mr. Willowby, the mustached tycoon in one of my favorite Christmas stories to read aloud to my kids (or, in the case of last week, to my son’s preschool class). Originally published in 1963, Robert Barry’s Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (Ages 3-8) was reissued last year with newly colorized pen-and-ink sketches that brim with delight. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree comes straight off the hills—“full and fresh and glistening green—/The biggest tree he had ever seen.”

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

November 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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Hoot Hoot

July 24, 2012 Comments Off on Hoot Hoot

As a city girl who spent her summers in the country, I was easily awed by how pitch black the night could get in the absence of city lights. My kids are similarly fascinated and spooked by the Darkest of Nights, like the ones they recently experienced while vacationing at my grandmother’s lake house in Ontario. Especially on cloudy nights, with the lake on one side and the woods on the other, everything becomes enveloped in pure blackness—and yet the darkness is alive with a chorus of strange and unusual sounds.

I love reading books that infuse nighttime with a dose of friendliness—with delight, if you will—and encourage kids to see the darkness outside their windows as something accessible. I also happen to think that owls in picture books are ridiculously cute (including how my 22-month-old daughter says “hoot hoot” with a perfectly rounded mouth); and, as luck would have it, some of the best books about nighttime happen to star precocious and energetic young owls.

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Show Me the Moon

June 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Moon” was one of the very first words uttered by both of my children. When they’re playing outside at dusk, they will shriek at the top of their lungs—“MOOOOOOON!”—upon catching sight of it emerging in the still-blue sky.

If the sheer volume of children’s storybooks dedicated to this subject is any indication, my children are not alone in their enthrallment with the moon. It’s nearly impossible for me to choose one favorite story to profile here (see my lengthy list below), so I will simply go with the newest addition to this already impressive repertoire: Red Knit Cap Girl (Ages 2-5), written by first-time author Naoko Stoop. I’ve mentioned before my weakness for Japanese-influenced picture books; and, like so many of her predecessors, Stoop (who grew up in Japan and now lives in Brooklyn) has created a work that holds together like a perfectly wrapped present: each word is chosen with the utmost care, each picture serves a clear purpose. In a wholly original move, Stoop’s expressive, whimsical watercolors of a little girl and her woodland friends, on a quest to speak to the moon, are painted on pieces of plywood; children can actually see the grain of the wood shining through the paintings, an effect which is especially fitting for a story set in the forest.

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Getting Up the Giggles

May 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Let’s face it: being a parent can sometimes feel like a thankless job (does he realize I’m missing precious minutes of “American Idol” while I’m washing his uniform for tomorrow, composing a creative note for his lunchbox, and picking crumbs off the floor so it will stop looking like the inside of a barn—all while he is hollering from upstairs about “one last drink of water”?).

Suffice it to say that we parents will take an Ego Boost where we can get one. And that’s why I love reading books like A Visitor for Bear (Ages 3-6), the first of the delightful Bear and Mouse books by Bonny Becker, with illustrations by Kady MacDonald Denton. Now, I could love this book because of the witty banter between the two strangers-turned-friends, or because Mouse speaks in a decidedly British accent, or because a bear dressed in an apron is just so darn cute. But, on those rare occasions when JP allows me to choose his bedtime book, the reason I run to grab this gem off the shelf, is because it makes him LAUGH OUT LOUD.

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A Chomp Through Berryland

May 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

Today’s excursion to pick strawberries at Shlagel Farm in Maryland was the perfect excuse to break out an old favorite: Jamberry (Ages 1-3), by Bruce Degen. Not that we need an excuse to read this rollicking rhyme of a boy and a bear romping through fields and down streams on a quest for every kind of berry. But as the kids and I were filling our buckets with the plumpest, juiciest strawberries I’ve ever tasted, our fingers and shirts and mouths stained red, I couldn’t help but hear in my head: “Three berry/ Four berry/ Hayberry/ Strawberry/ Finger and pawberry/ My berry, your berry/ Strawberry ponies/ Strawberry lambs/ Dancing in meadows/ Of strawberry jam.”

We didn’t encounter any strawberry lambs (although there were goats and some very vocal chickens), and my children are likely to eat all the strawberries before I get a chance to make them into jam, but the spirit of the book was very much alive as we chomped our way through the farm. Our excitement continued to build, as we got deeper into the patch, launching ourselves into uncharted territory wherein (as we imagined it) lay the biggest berries.

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Send-Off for Sendak

May 8, 2012 Comments Off on Send-Off for Sendak

Today we remember Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), arguably the most game-changing children’s author and illustrator of the 20th century; he took age-old storytelling conventions and turned them on their head (or, rather, sent them on a wild rumpus through the forest). His beloved Where the Wild Things Are has topped more recommended book lists than any other children’s book in history—as much for its glorious depiction of a boy’s uninhibited reign over his imagination as for its foray into previously shushed subjects like parental abandonment and night terrors. Sendak’s later books took even more risks, got simultaneously darker and more brilliant (and not without their fair share of controversy).

But for me and my family, Sendak’s “sweet spot” lies in his earliest works–no less memorable, even if they didn’t upset the status quo at the time. Before his characters were banished to their rooms without supper or left to wander the streets of New York without clothes, there were the deliciously sweet, make-me-want-to-read-to-my-children-all-day-long moments between a little bear, his parents, and a quirky ensemble of friends. I’m referring, of course, to the Little Bear books (Ages 3-7) by Else Holmelund Minarik, which Sendak illustrated in his 30s.

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