Roald Dahl’s Antidote to Screen Time

February 5, 2015 § 10 Comments

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald DahlLast month, we had six mornings where school was delayed because of weather (in Virginia, this translates as a dusting of snow, a threat of snow, or some ice spotted on a road). It will come as no surprise that I spent all six of these mornings reading to my kids. This is equal parts good parenting and pure laziness. When my kids storm my bedroom at 7am and learn that school is delayed by two hours (AGAIN), I want nothing less than to climb out of bed and make them breakfast. Truth be told, I don’t want to do much of anything; but I will happily settle for two soft bodies nestling into either side of me. And, building on our December success, it seems I am on a winning streak of choosing chapter books that appeal to both my four and seven year old.

I decided to begin the year with a Roald Dahl marathon, and we’ve kicked off with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I ask you this: is there a more entertaining read-aloud chapter book?

I mean, it’s quite possibly THE MOST FUN BOOK EVER. « Read the rest of this entry »

Feeling Witchy

October 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

"I Am A Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster“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 »

When Bigger Really is Better

September 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Runaway Tomato" by Kim Cooley Reeder & Lincoln AgnewOn a Saturday morning towards the end of summer, on our way to go swimming, we swung by our local bookstore, so that I could run in and grab a gift for a birthday party later that day. My kids waited in the car with my husband, and when I returned a few minutes later, they asked with excited curiosity, “What book did you get?” I told them that I had picked a brand new one, by Kim Cooley Reeder, titled The Runaway Tomato (Ages 2-6). “RUNAWAY TOMATO?!” they shrieked, throwing their heads back in laughter. And thus commenced twenty minutes of their regaling us with their own ideas of where a runaway tomato might come from and what it might do.

Perhaps it’s because our attempt at growing tomatoes this year was such an Epic Failure, that my children think the idea of harvesting gigantic tomatoes is pure absurdity. Or perhaps there is just something innately hilarious about stories starring fruits and vegetables gone rogue (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has always been a favorite of JP). Either way, we had to return to the bookstore a week later to get a copy for ourselves. « Read the rest of this entry »

Fueling Up With Poetry

April 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Poem-Mobiles by J. Patrick Lewis & Douglas FlorianOn 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 »

A Tasty New Chapter Series (Sprinkles Included)

March 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie KellerRaise 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 »

Groundhog Day (& Other Books About the Weather)

January 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Groundhog Weather SchoolMy six year old doesn’t understand why Groundhog Day isn’t a school holiday. I tried to explain that, with February 2 being a Sunday this year, it’s sort of a moot point. “But it’s not always on a weekend, Mommy.” So then I tried to explain that the government only picks a few of the most important people in our history (ahem, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.) to honor with a school holiday—and that contrary to what he might think with ALL THESE SNOW DAYS, kids are supposed to be IN SCHOOL, learning stuff that their parents don’t have the patience to teach them. “Well, Punxsutawney Phil IS very important because he can PREDICT THE WEATHER.” This is a fair, if debatable, point.

The children’s books on the subject of this Very Important Holiday tend to be either factually straightforward (Gail Gibbons’ Groundhog Day! is usually the teacher’s favorite) or purely fictional (read: silly and unhelpful). But this year, I stumbled upon a find that combines fact, fiction, and An All-Around Good Time: a book titled Groundhog Weather School: Fun Facts About Weather and Groundhogs (Ages 5-9), by Joan Holub, with illustrations by Kristin Sorra. This is precisely the type of book I knew JP would enjoy reading by himself (and, as parents of newly independent readers know, we’re always on the hunt for “that book”). « Read the rest of this entry »

Unlikely Companions

October 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Sophie's SquashChildren form attachments to the oddest things. Take, for example, the dried out husk of a seed for which my six year old spent a recent afternoon constructing a shoebox house, complete with a toilet-paper-tube flag post and a felt blanket and pillow that he actually sewed himself. Did you get that? For a seed. There was also the time that he and his sister took their plastic straws from a restaurant to bed with them. These are not children who are hurting for baby dolls or stuffed animals; they simply choose to imprint on the less obvious choices.

So, is it any surprise that they would love Sophie’s Squash (Ages 3-7), a new picture book by Pat Zietlow Miller (fellow children’s book blogger), where a little girl develops a steadfast affection for a squash that her parents pick out at the farmers’ market and intend to cook for dinner? Sophie uses black marker to draw a face on the butternut squash; she names it Bernice (love); she wraps it in a baby blanket and rocks it to sleep; she takes it to story time at the library (double love); and she even organizes play dates for it with other squash (triple love). In other words—as her very patient parents soon realize—this squash is no dinner. « Read the rest of this entry »

Counting Down to Halloween

October 12, 2013 Comments Off on Counting Down to Halloween

Ten Orange PumpkinsOur decorations are up, the kids’ costumes are ordered, and earlier this week, right on cue, a streak of stormy weather moved in. All in all, the perfect time for getting out our Halloween-themed books and sharing tales of ghosts and goblins with my revved up trick-or-treaters (it’s not just about the sugar, my sugars). Honestly, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this year’s Halloween offerings. Of course, last year was particularly exceptional: we were treated to Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina—all three brilliant and all three enjoyed (since none actually mention Halloween) long past pumpkin-carving season. But speaking of pumpkins, it has been a long time since a great pumpkin book has entered the scene, and this year of slim pickings has at least given us that.

Stephen Savage’s Ten Orange Pumpkins (Ages 2-6) is billed as a counting book—and it’s true that there are opportunities to count on every page, as ten pumpkins become nine, become eight, and so on. But the “trick” of the book lies in how each pumpkin disappears, and the answers are (often quite subtly) revealed in the striking illustrations. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Rules of Play

October 10, 2013 § 2 Comments

Tea Party RulesAs parents, we are continually hounded by parenting experts about the importance of getting down on the floor and playing with our children. I’m fairly easily wooed when it comes to playing Candy Land or doing a giant floor puzzle or even painting alongside my kids; but when it comes to imaginative play, a little part of me wants to scream, “Please don’t make me do it!!!!” Why, you ask? Or maybe you don’t need to ask, because you already know about ALL THE RULES that our children arbitrarily force upon us from start to finish during these games. And nowhere is this more evident than when my daughter wants to play tea party.

E: “Mommy, let’s have a tea party!”
Me: “OK, where should I sit?” (I’ve learned better than to presume.)
E: “Right here”
Me. “OK’ (Sitting down.)
E: “No, you don’t sit like that! You have to cross your leg.”
Me: (making adjustments) “OK, I’m ready for my tea now.”
E: “No! First we are having a snack.”
Me: “OK, what’s for snack?”
E: “You don’t ask the question! You wait and I bring you the snack.”
Me (minutes later after being served a wooden egg and a plastic cucumber) “Mmmmm, thank you, this is so tasty!”
E: “MOMMY! It’s not time to eat yet! You have to wait for your tea!”
Me (an eternity later, when pretend tea is finally served): “Mmmmm, this tea is toasty warm.”
E: “It’s COLD tea!”
Me: “This tea is nice and refreshing. I think I’ll put some sugar in it.”
E: “That’s honey!”
Me: “I’m putting in some honey.”
E: “NO! You don’t pour it in, you have to use a SPPPOOOOOON!”

Thank you, but I will stick with Candy Land. « Read the rest of this entry »

Apple Picking for Beginners: Part One of Two

September 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

In our family—more than back-to-school, more than lightweight jackets, even more than colorful leaves—fall means apple picking! I’ve already established my obsession with using farms as a classroom for my children. Now add to that curriculum some apple picking (complete with wagon rides, ladders, and pie), and you’ve got a hands-on opportunity for kids to participate in the selection of their own food—while at the same time learning where that food comes from.

When JP turned one, we had his birthday party at an apple orchard outside Chicago. I can still envision him gripping the top of our full basket on his wobbly little legs, removing one apple at a time, taking a bite, returning it to the basket with a single set of teeth marks, and then picking up another and another—until he’d put his teeth on nearly every apple he could reach. We lost a lot of apples that year, but it seemed a small price to pay for a love of apples that has stayed with him since.

For the youngest apple pickers, my favorite introduction to the topic is One Red Apple (Ages 2-4), by Harriet Ziefert, with evocative paintings by Karla Gudeon. The book begins with a single red apple, ripe on the branch of the fall apple tree; it goes on to trace its life cycle, as it’s picked, eaten, dropped, and released back into the earth to sprout a new tree. Children are drawn into the action, as each of the single sentences comprising each page begins with an active verb: “Pick a red apple from a tree.” “Leave an apple core for the birds to eat.” “Watch tiny apple seeds scatter in the wind.” “See small sprouts peek out from the earth.”

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The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

August 30, 2012 Comments Off on The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about traditional fairy tales. True, I buy into the argument made by many literary and child development scholars that our children are reassured by seeing young heroes and heroines persevere through creepy, frightening situations. True, out of the hundreds of books I loved as a kid, it was a fairy tale—Hansel and Gretel, to be precise—that made the most lasting impression on me. And yet, with the sheer wealth of original, high quality children’s books being published today, I tend to forget about reading fairy tales to my kids.

Until I remember what may be the very best reason to read them: if your kids don’t know the original stories, how will they appreciate all the fantastic fractured versions that have popped up in recent years? My new favorite is one that was actually discovered by my husband (that’s right, he recently took the kids to a bookstore and managed to buy a book that I didn’t know about—and a brilliant one at that!).

Hot off the presses, it’s an urbanized retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, titled Jack and the Baked Beanstalk, by Colin Stimpson (Ages 4-8). This debut author-illustrator is a Brit (like him already) and a former art director for Walt Disney; the latter is relevant because his impressive cinematic illustrations combine the grittiness of a cityscape with a Disney-esque glossiness.

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Every Day is Pizza Day

August 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

My having eaten a slice of pizza every day for lunch while I was pregnant may have something to do with the fact that my nearly two-year-old daughter is very, very obsessed with Pizza at Sally’s (Ages 2-4), by Monica Wellington. But given that my son was equally obsessed at age two with Truck Driver Tom, by the same author, it’s perhaps more probable that Wellington knows a thing or two about how to talk to kids.

At first glance, Wellington’s books might be quickly dismissed: the gouache, brightly-colored, and largely two-dimensional paintings could come off as a bit juvenile, perhaps not of the same artistic caliber as what I normally review here. But it would be a mistake to pass up these books. At closer inspection, the illustrations are packed with visual gems, including (in the case of Pizza at Sally’s) tiny photographs pasted in for fresh ingredients and even for the finished slices of pizza themselves.

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Food: Not Just for Eating

June 1, 2012 Comments Off on Food: Not Just for Eating

What do you get the kid who has everything (including an extensive library filled with storybooks)? How about a brand new book that’s unlike any other, a rhyme-filled romp through magical lands made entirely out of—wait for it—FOOD! Carol Warner, a London-based still-life photographer, has created a clever and engaging picture book, titled A World of Food (Ages 2.5-8).

I like food. My kids like food. Really now, who doesn’t like looking at gorgeous photographs of food? Organized by color, each double-page spread reveals a fantastical scene where watermelons become boats (with asparagus as masts), dried cornflakes resemble falling foliage, chocolate KitKat bars stand in for train tracks, and pork ribs morph into jagged mountains (OK, you might want to pass this up for your vegetarian friends).

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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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