December 8, 2015 § 3 Comments
In my 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, I ran a post dedicated to parents desperate for a break from incessant nightly rounds of Goodnight, Gorilla. It strikes me that the two books that I’m discussing today (Ages 2-5) would line up beautifully alongside those others. They are perfect bedtime stories. They are perfect for reading every single night (because, trust me, that’s what you’ll be doing). They are quintessentially sweet, dear, and innocent. And if, after reading them, you want to clutch them to your own chest, I promise not to tell.
We begin with Ida Pearle’s stunning The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House (Ages 2-5). Shhhh, I know I’m not supposed to pick favorites, but if I were to call out the illustrations of only one book this year, it would be this. Brooklyn-based Ida Pearle has got to be one of the most evocative children’s artists today, using her talents in figurative drawing and cut-paper collage (her choice of papers, many of them Italian or Japanese-designed, is sheer eye candy) to produce something at once charmingly old-fashioned and refreshingly modern. In my old store in Chicago, we used to display and sell Pearle’s wall prints. I’m positively giddy that her art is finding a more accessible expression now in picture books (Caldecott Committee, are you listening?).
Pearle’s subject—the moon—is a common one in children’s literature. For good reason. Since my children first started to become aware of the world beyond their fingertips, they have been fascinated with the moon (remember this?). Even now at eight and five years of age, they will interrupt whatever conversation we are having in the car to exclaim exuberantly, “Look, there’s the moon!” They feel a personal, intimate relationship with this glowing sphere that seems to follow us as we drive up and down and around our neighborhood streets. Apparently, they are not alone in feeling this way.
Pearle’s book is reminiscent of an older favorite in our house—Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay’s I Took the Moon for a Walk—where the young narrator pays homage to the way the moon seems to keep step with him as he walks home one evening. In The Moon is Going to Addy’s House, the child’s journey has a more contemporary context, immensely relatable to children, as Addy travels by car from a friend’s house in the city (“Addy, your play date is over,” calls Mama. “It’s time to go home!”), down the bustling, summertime streets, across a long bridge, and into the rolling hills of her home in the country.
On each page, as the sky increasingly darkens and the city lights fade away, Addy and her little sister crane their heads to follow the moon. If they lose the moon behind a tree or a cloud or a boulder, it is “only for a moment.”
The narrative voice is replete with the naive egocentricity of a young child: The moon was going to my house! Even during bath and pajama time, the moon is never far.
At last, Addy comes to her favorite moment of the day: “my nighttime dance,” in which she cartwheels through the grass in her pink-footed pajamas against the brilliant backdrop of the moon.
There is similar nighttime romping—albeit of the less picturesque and more adorable kind—in Patrick McDonnell’s Thank You and Good Night (Ages 2-5), a story about a girl named Maggie who hosts a sleepover for her stuffed bunny (Clement) and his two pajama-clad friends, an elephant (Jean) and a bear (Alan Alexander). McDonnell first stole my heart with The Monster’s Monster, and he endows this new story with the same understated affection and gentle humor (including great names).
The three friends are determined to take full advantage of their togetherness: jumping on the bed, playing hide and seek, doing the “chicken dance” followed by restorative yoga poses, wishing on a shooting star, and enjoying a bedtime story that Maggie reads to them.
Maggie’s relationship with these three animals reminds me of my all-time favorite series for two and three year olds: Polly Dunbar’s books about a girl named Tilly, who lives in a yellow house with a litany of anthropomorphic animals, for whom she is both a silly playmate and a nurturing caregiver. Maggie, like Tilly, is exercising control in an imaginative domain of her own making, entirely outside adult supervision and participation.
Yet, Maggie is just the gentle touch that these animals need to settle down for sleep. As the moon emits its soft light outside the darkened room, Maggie recites a list of things for which they can all be thankful. There are few things that make me want to go back and have kids all over again, to savor those little hands to hold, those little foreheads to kiss. This page is one.
The sun, the moon,
a red balloon.
fun with friends,
a shooting star wish
that it never ends.
a happy surprise,
night birds singing
old and new,
read with love,
In their own ways, The Moon is Going to Addy’s House and Thank You and Good Night both end on a note of gratitude. Gratitude for companionship and for constancy. They make the listener feel safe. And important. And loved. And they make us parents feel like drawing out those nighttime dances and subsequent snuggles just a little bit longer, to embrace the majesty of the moon and the fleetingness of time—before the sun comes up again.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss the rest of my Holiday Gift Guide! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.
Review copies provided by Penguin and Little Brown 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!
December 6, 2015 § 3 Comments
I realize I’m late to the game with my Holiday Gift Guide, and I apologize. Lest you think I was taking a few weeks off from children’s books, I assure you that is rarely the case. Rather, I was drafting book lists for many of the parents in my children’s school, in preparation for our annual Book Fair (my favorite fundraising event of the year!). In other words, I’ve been reading even MORE than usual. And now, all of you will benefit! Over the next ten days, I will be posting several installments of my annual Gift Guide, with recommendations of picture books, chapter books, and non-fiction for all the young book lovers in your life. I’ve saved singing the praises of many of my 2015 favorites until now, because they have undeniable Gift Power. It has been hard to stay quiet all these weeks and months, when I’ve wanted to scream, GET YOUR CHILDREN’S HANDS ON THESE BOOKS RIGHT NOW!
I’m going to begin today by telling you about two of the most gorgeous picture books published this year. And I mean, Holy-Moley-Mind-Blowing Material. These are books whose pages invite endless study; books whose paintings draw us in so completely that we forget everything that’s happening around us. They are books that challenge the traditional relationship between author and reader, between artist and spectator. They invite us to participate fully in what we are seeing and to make our own meaning out of what we find.
We begin with Pamela Zagarenski’s The Whisper (Ages 5-10), about a red-hooded, rosy-checked girl, who borrows an anthology of stories from her teacher for the night. On the walk home from school, the words spill out from between the book’s covers and are caught in the net of a shifty fox.
If that seems surreal, it is. Some of you will remember my fascination with Zagarenski (Sleep Like a Tiger was a pick for my 2013 Gift Guide and went on to earn a Caldecott Honor). Her mixed-media art is like nothing else in print today: an evocative hybrid of the real and the dreamlike. It’s rich on symbolism—with crowns, teacups, wheels, and yellow orbs making appearances across all her books. There’s an element of mystery and randomness and bizarreness to Zagarenski’s art that is positively fascinating to the elementary child, whose own imagination is beginning to call to her in everything she does.
When the little girl gets home, her eyes fill with disappointed tears upon discovering that the book has no words. It’s just not a book of stories, without any words, she thought. But a whisper—which may or may not come from the fox who watches through the window—is carried to her across the evening breeze:
“Dear little girl, don’t be disappointed.
You can imagine the words.
You can imagine the stories.
Start with a few simple words and imagine from there.
Remember: beginnings, middles, and ends of
stories can always be changed and imagined differently.
There are never any rules, rights, or wrongs in imagining—
imagining just is.”
In the seven exquisite double-page spreads that follow, the little girl sits at the perimeter of each story and tries her creativity at making up something from what she sees. What we as readers get are the girl’s first few sentences, followed by an ellipse, which invites us to fill in the rest.
I won’t lie: this doesn’t come easily to our heroine, and it doesn’t come easily to our children. The first time I shared this book with my kids, they protested: “Come on, Mommy, you make it up.” We settled on my adding a sentence and then each of them adding a sentence—until, eventually, I couldn’t shut them up. The next time we read the book, they quickly fell back on the story lines we’d previously created. “Can we think up something new?” I gently pushed. And we did. Much like our heroine—who eventually “drifted off into a dream-world woven out of the threads and the pictures and the stories she had imagined”—we were equally exhilarated and exhausted by the end.
The animation in the little girl’s voice, when she rushes to greet her teacher the next day (“I have so many stories to tell you!”), is the same precious, unadulterated joy that makes our job as teachers and parents the best in the world.
Joy—tentative at first and exuberant by the end—also graces the pages of The Wonder (Ages 5-10), where British author-illustrator Faye Hanson makes her awe-inspiring picture-book debut. The story stars a boy “whose head is filled with wonder.” That’s a nice way of saying that his head is stuck in the clouds. What this looks like to the adults in his life—to his mother (who begrudgingly buttons his jacket while the boy stares off into space), to the bus driver (as the boy bumps into fellow passengers), to the science teacher (when the boy knocks over a beaker)—is tardiness, distraction, and messiness. “Wake up, daydreamer!” “Pay attention!” the adults berate the boy time and time again.
(I’ll admit to feeling more than a tinge of guilt each time I read this story to my daughter. Emily—always singing to herself, always with eyes darting everywhere but where she is supposed to be looking—is the epitome of Distracted. And it frequently Drives. Me. Batty.)
Yet, this story demonstrates the very power and importance of wonder. As it turns out, the boy’s head is in the clouds because he is literally thinking about the clouds. Puzzling out who makes them. Or where the birds are flying to. Or how the crossing guard’s sign would taste. Or what the world’s best playground would look like. Or any number of things that escape the adults in his life.
It’s only when his art teacher presents him with a blank piece of paper that the boy begins to make sense of the disjointed images in his head, to weave and combine them into intensely detailed, brilliantly colorful, fantastical scenes.
Savvy readers will recognize elements from the early pages in the five glorious double-page spreads that make up the middle of the book. This time, there are no words to start us off: we are getting a privileged glimpse into the imagination of a child, and the conclusions are ours alone to draw.
Hanson’s story, by way of the imagination, may venture into the fantastical, but it ends fully grounded in reality. If we initially assume that these awesome spreads represent what the boy puts down on his sheet of paper, we later realize our mistake. After all, neither children nor adults rarely get things down on paper exactly as they see them in their minds. I love that the story ends with the boy’s actual artwork, which looks like something my children or your children might make.
What this books shows us is that the internal life of the imagination is richer and meatier and more brilliant than the outside world realizes. It is our children’s Greatest Gift to the World to grow up and unleash their creativity—to challenge the way we do things, they way we think, the way we define success.
Both The Whisper and The Wonder ask us to think about the way we seek out and decipher meaning. This kind of meaning-making from picture books—where someone isn’t handing us a straightforward narrative—can initially be as intimidating to parents as it is to children (OMG how long is this going to take to read?!). But I venture to suggest that it’s important work. It’s important to encourage our children to think outside the box, to interpret and re-interpret, to make meaning in less obvious ways.
I think about the creativity that will be required to bring peace and healing to our world, and I can’t help but think of these books.
Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss the rest of my Holiday Gift Guide! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.
Review copies provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Candlewick 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!
December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything
When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.
That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.
The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.
They are both a little bit Magic.
For starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « 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 »
October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments
The other evening, after cleaning up from dinner, I walked into the living room to find JP sticking his nose out the mail slot of our front door. “Mommy, I can smell winter coming! I forgot how delicious it smells! I thought I wanted summer to stay, but now I want winter to come!”
Perhaps because of my children’s innate excitement around seasonal transformations, or perhaps because of wanting to sway my own ambivalence about the onset of winter towards something more positive—either way, I have always had a special place in my heart for stories about fall (remember Fletcher and the Falling Leaves?). This year, I have discovered my most favorite presentation to date. It’s not a story. There are no frantic animals preparing for hibernation (see Bear Has a Story to Tell), or children frolicking in pumpkin patches (although you should still read Otis and the Scarecrow). Rather, there is a simple phrase on each page, accompanied by a stunning picture, and the meaning lies in the intersection between the two.
Fall Leaves (Ages 4-8), by Loretta Holland, with illustrations by Elly MacKay, is one of those picture books that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its simplest, it reads as a kind of lyrical, free verse poem, with one line per page. But each phrase is also a kind of headline, with a smaller-print paragraph below, containing detailed and carefully chosen information about a unique aspect of fall, like the migration of birds, the hibernation of perennials, or the heavy downpours (am I the only one who is consistently blind-sided by these rainy days, assuming every morning is going to bring a bright cloudless sky against which to pick apples and pumpkins?). « Read the rest of this entry »
October 16, 2014 § 4 Comments
“Mommy, you know how those witch hats got there?” my four year old casually ventured, as we walked through the Halloween section of our local variety store. Then, before I could answer, she stopped and turned towards me, her expression suddenly serious. “The witches dropped them,” she whispered.
I love October. Not for the costumes, or the weeks of planning that go into them (read: daily changing of minds). Not for the candy, which I can never get out of the house fast enough. I love it for its air of anticipation. That mysterious, slightly uneasy, could-it-might-it-be-real feeling that pokes at the back of our minds. As the evenings darken, the wind picks up, and the creaks on the roof grow louder, the lines between real and imaginary begin to get a little messy. You might say that for these few weeks, we get a taste of the way our kids feel all year long.
Indeed, many of my favorite “Halloween” stories to share with my kids are, in fact, not about Halloween at all—which means (hooray) that they can be enjoyed all 365 days. I’m referring to gems like Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina. This year’s newcomer is I Am a Witch’s Cat (Ages 2-6), by Harriet Muncaster: a simple picture book narrated in the voice of a little girl, who loves to dress up like a little black cat, because she believes her mother to be a witch (“but I don’t mind, because she is a good witch”). « Read the rest of this entry »
May 15, 2014 § 1 Comment
We’re all about birds this spring. Well, to be fair, I’m all about birds, but I’m filling my kids’ baskets with bird-related books, in hopes that they will catch on, too. I can’t help myself. There’s something about Spring Fever that drives me to obsess about some natural wonder alive and transforming outside my window (see past years’ obsessions with trees and worms). And what better way to drag my children along on this journey than through non-fiction picture books, which pair beautiful illustrations and poetic text with fascinating information?
I didn’t exactly choose birds as this year’s subject matter. They chose me. They chose me by waking me up at 4:30am with their frantic, high-pitched chirping. They chose me by making a nest between our roof and my bedroom ceiling, fast and furious work that sounded as if a much larger animal was ripping down sheets of metal. They chose me by distracting my children over breakfast, encouraging bowls of oatmeal to sit half-eaten, in favor of watching a pair of cardinals dancing in the dogwood outside our dining room window (my children are convinced that “Buddy” and “Lady Buddy” followed us two years ago when we moved up the hill to our current house). Let’s just say that the time seemed ripe to learn a thing or ten about the busy birds around us.
What I discovered was a treasure trove of non-fiction picture books starring birds, many published in recent years. I’ve shared my complete list of favorites at the end (with picks through age 10), but I had so much trouble choosing one to focus on here, that I have to expound on two. The first is Rita Gray’s Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Ages 3-6), illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is one of those deceptively simple picture books that educates as it delights. « Read the rest of this entry »