Keeping Cool Under the Sea

July 26, 2013 Comments Off on Keeping Cool Under the Sea

Octopus AloneI know, I know, I’ve left you high and dry without reading material for nearly a month (vacation will do that); plus, I neglected to give you a birthday pick for July’s parties. So, in order to make it up to you, I am not only going to recommend a fabulous, brand-spanking-new book that you can give to everyone celebrating a birthday this summer, but I’m going to end with an EXTRA-LONG LIST OF THEMATICALLY SIMILAR BOOKS for you to read to your own kids (heck, you could even bundle some for an extra-special gift, like I did for a friend earlier this month). Are you ready?

Much like reading about snow in the winter, one of my favorite things about summertime reading is the excuse to read books about the sea (it’s no coincidence that I featured an octopus story for last summer’s birthday pick as well). Whether you’re spending time on the beach or simply looking for a mental escape from the heat, summer is the perfect time to introduce children to underwater worlds: landscapes so different from ours that they have their own inhabitants and laws, their own colors and sounds, their own unique set of experiences and problems. And yet, much of the best sea-themed fiction immerses kids in these foreign worlds while at the same time drawing parallels between their own emotional lives and the lives of the fishy dwellers within.

Trust me, you will want to dive straight into the pages of Divya Srinivasan’s Octopus Alone (Ages 3-6), where a bright orange octopus is set against an enticing palette of turquoise, seafoam green, and bright pink. I first fell in love with Srinivasan’s unique stylized graphics in Little Owl’s Night (reviewed here). Now, in the much longer Octopus Alone, we are treated to a more involved plot alongside her vivid art. I can’t say that Srinivasan’s narrative voice is as strong or coherent as her illustrations; and yet, the story’s theme—venturing outside one’s comfort level and finding the reward of new friendships—resonated loudly with both my kids. Any child who has felt overwhelmed walking into a preschool classroom or has stood on the periphery watching older kids at the playground will see a little of herself in the bashful octopus, who is so uncomfortable around the outgoing seahorses that she initially retreats from the coral reef into the deeper, darker, lonelier waters. Any child who often stands silently amidst others (but doesn’t shut up at home) will see a little of herself in the octopus, who imitates the dancing moves of the seahorses in private before allowing herself to see how much fun it might be to dance with others.

Like any great sea-themed book, there are countless opportunities for underwater discovery in Octopus Alone. Our family’s favorite would have to be the indisputably charming endpapers, which label (in cursive!) each of the sea creatures that make an appearance in the book (my son is prone to the “puffer fish,” while my daughter’s finger goes straight to the “butterfly fish”). My kids giggle every time Octopus releases her ink to “hide her blushing” or to escape the hungry eel, a nice reminder of aquatic adaptation. The book even makes some (albeit subtle) references to the complex ecosystem of coral reefs, like cleaner shrimp eating algae off the back of a nurse shark or baby dominoes playing hide and seek in the “swaying anemones.” (Older kids can build on these with Jason Chin’s equally stunning and richly informative non-fiction picture book, Coral Reefs…sorry, couldn’t wait until the end to plug that one.)

Our oceans and lakes, our sandy tide pools and rocky bluffs, can be a source of endless fascination for our kids. We have the power to channel this fascination into imagination, education, and hopefully even conservation. So go ahead: dip their toes in the water and start reading.

Other Favorite Under-the-Sea Stories (from youngest to oldest ages):
Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef, by Marianne Berkes & Jeanette Canyon (Ages 1-3; board book)
I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean! by Kevin Sherry (Ages 1-4)
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6; ONE OF MY ALL TIME FAVS)
The Pout Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen & Daniel X. Hanna (Ages 3-6; best read in the style of the blues!)
Swimmy, by Leo Lionni (Ages 3-6)
Big Al, by Andrew Clements & Yoshi (Ages 4-7)
If You Want to See a Whale, by Julie Fogliano & Erin Stead (Ages 4-7; also brand new)
Kermit the Hermit, by Bill Peet (Ages 4-8)
Jangles: A Fish Story, by David Shannon (Ages 4-8)

Some Favorite Sea-Themed Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Voyage of Turtle Rex, by Kurt Cyrus (Ages 4-8)
Coral Reefs, by Jason Chin (Ages 5-10)
Island: A Story of the Galapagos, by Jason Chin (Ages 6-12)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, by Jennifer Berne (Ages 5-10)
Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas, by Molly Bang (Ages 6-12)

Make Way for “Hippopposites”

June 13, 2012 Comments Off on Make Way for “Hippopposites”

If there was ever a children’s book destined for the Museum of Modern Art, this would be it. Until then, Janik Coat’s newly published Hippopposites (Ages 18 mos-5 yrs) will find a perfect home alongside the Oeuf cribs and Tripp Trapp Chairs of today’s urban nurseries. From the thick oversized board pages, finished in an ultra high gloss, to the bold die-cut silhouettes, this book is a tour de force in graphic design. But artistic achievement aside, what impressed me most when I encountered this gem on the shelves of my local bookstore is: FINALLY, a book that actually teaches the concept of opposites. There are lots of fun rhyming read-alouds that make use of opposites to tell their stories (see my list below), but they’re equal part silliness. Until now, I’m going to bet that kids have never mastered their opposites from reading books. Enter Hippopposites, where on each double spread, two hippos are contrasted with a simple text word beneath each one; props and background scenery are used sparingly, providing just the right amount of detail to get the point across. The usual suspects are touched on in the early pages: “small” versus “large” (with the first hippo miniaturized next to a skyscraper); and “light” versus “dark” (with the second almost completely obscured by a black background). But we quickly advance into more exciting territory, with “thin” versus “thick” (denoted by the width of the silhouetted line), “opaque” versus “transparent,” “dotted” versus “striped,” “invisible” versus “visible,” and “alone” versus “together” (in this last pairing, the only difference is that the hippo in the second picture has a bird perched on its back). The book’s artsy publisher, Abrams, doesn’t miss an opportunity for some seriously cool touch-and-feel action: the “soft” versus “rough” page makes use of delicate pink chenille and a woven burlap sack. Don’t let the board book format fool you: this book will hold its own with older preschoolers, introducing concepts like “squared” versus “rounded,” as well as “left” versus “right.” Now if I could only pry the book out of my husband’s hands, I could actually read it to my children…

Other Favorites With Opposites (albeit of the goofier, less educational sort):
Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox (Ages 1-3)
Big Little and Quiet Loud, by Leslie Patricelli (Ages 1-3)
Go Dog Go, by P.D. Eastman (Ages 2-4)

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