December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments
Shhhhh. The final post for my 2018 Gift Guide is here, but I don’t want my husband to know. (And not just because he would like me to start doing things around the house again—sheesh.) You see, I’ve written to Santa and asked him to put this book into my husband’s stocking. (And not just because the kids would fight over it.) If there was ever a guaranteed Christmas Morning Crowd Pleaser, this book is it. I simply cannot wait to read this (oh right, let my husband read this) to our group as the tissue paper flies. Mwahahaha!
Adam Rex is hands down one of the cleverest and funniest contemporary picture book creators. (Our family’s favorites are too numerous to list here, but The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors and Chloe and the Lion would be at the top.) But taking on Darth Vader? Now that seems a bit risky. Or gimmicky. Or, at least, not worth time on a blog about fine literature.
Turns out it was a risk worth taking. Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (Ages 5-100) wasn’t even on my radar until a week ago, when the great Betsy Bird included it on her list of 2018 Funny Picture Books, describing it as Darth Vader meets The Monster at the End of This Book (remember that throw-back Little Golden Book with everyone’s favorite Sesame Street monster on the cover?). Well. I took the bait and got my hands on it.
Are You Scared, Darth Vader? is not just one of the funniest books of the year. I would venture to say it is the funniest. You can almost hear Adam Rex cracking himself up as he writes it. Darth Vader emerges every bit the Scrooge we love to hate.
An off-page narrator heckles Darth Vader, determined to find something which scares him. (“I DO NOT GET SCARED. NO ONE HAS THE POWER TO FRIGHTEN LORD VADER.”) Oh yeah? How about a vampire? Or a ghost? How about a wolfman? (“I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLF, AND I AM NOT AFRAID OF A MAN. SO NO, I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLFMAN.” “It could bite you.” “IT COULD NOT. I AM WEARING ARMOR.”)
Well then, a witch. A witch could curse you. (So sorry, but I’m about to give up the best spread.) Wait for it…
The Dark Lord may have a deadpan comeback for all the usual suspects our narrator puts in front of him, but he fails to anticipate the oldest trick in the book. Who can topple such surliness, such moroseness, such darkness? An entourage of exuberant kids, of course.
Especially the kid (or husband) reading the book. After all, reading is its own form of the Force.
Published by Disney and Lucasfilm Press. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
That concludes my 2018 Gift Guide! I’ll see you one more time next week (when I tell you about the chapter book we’re reading aloud this holiday break) and then I’ll take a few weeks off before seeing you again in the New Year. In the meantime, I always stay active on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and as of today (!) Instagram (@thebookmommy). Happy gift giving, and I hope you’ve found what you needed in my posts! (If not, do let me know.)
October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment
When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.
Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.
As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)
What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:
…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.
Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.
As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)
I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.
All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.
But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.
Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.
Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.
Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.
…and Jenny’s head fell off.
I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.
I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.
The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.
The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.
While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?
Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)
A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.
This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.
We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.
With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:
Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.
So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.
You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.
And, of course, the most blood.
The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.
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Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 7, 2017 § 4 Comments
Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.
So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.
Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes.
For those yet to expose their kids to audio books, let me offer a thought. Oftentimes, what my children enjoy most—and what tends to be easiest for them to follow (after all, the road can be distracting)—is listening to books they have already read (or have listened to me read). Speaking from personal experience, kids forget much of what they’ve heard in the past, and they listen with the fresh ears of whichever emotional milestone they’re encountering right now. In other words, great books are great each and every time they’re read.
One last thing before we begin: it so happens that this list is almost exclusively classics—or, at least, most are published over forty years ago. Trust me when I say that we listened to plenty of contemporary selections this past year. It’s just that the ones below rose to the top, both in content and in performance, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. There’s something about these books that, even the first time we hear them, feels like old friends.
Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery, Howliday Inn, The Celery Strikes at Midnight, Nighty Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, and Bunnicula Strikes Again! written by James Howe, read by Victor Garber (Ages 8-12)
Vampire bunnies, mysterious night happenings, and haunted hotels—all with a healthy dose of misunderstanding and mayhem? A better series for October you won’t find. The only reason we didn’t keep going with the series after the first six (!) books is because Broadway actor Victor Garber stopped reading them. At that point, we were so invested, so enamored, so used to laughing our heads off at the banter—there’s Harold, the pragmatic middle-aged canine narrator; Chester, the hyper-paranoid cat (Woody Allen’s “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after me” comes to mind); and Howie, the gullible sidekick puppy—that the new reader’s voices felt ALL WRONG, and we all three started yelling, “Turn it off! Turn it off!”
At one point last year, my son turned to me and said, “Mommy, you are getting really good at making food that I like.” I realize this was (probably?) intended as a compliment and not a backhanded nod at my servitude, but I still thought my children might benefit from listening to stories about families for whom everyday life is about making ends meet, sharing workloads, and prioritizing family togetherness. There is perhaps no sweeter cure for entitlement than Sydney Taylor’s classic about a Jewish-American immigrant family (think five daughters with another on the way), living in turn-of-the-century New York City. These are stories about penny-pinching, but they’re also stories about growing up in a time when being tall enough to reach the letterbox was a thrill worth savoring, when a single lost library book could lead to weeks of hard work and sisterly collaboration. As a bonus, my kids got a primer on Jewish traditions and holidays, and Toren’s rendition of the father’s Yiddish accent is pretty awesome.
Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones (Ages 6-12)
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s loosely autobiographical stories have inspired some of the best hours I’ve spent with my children this year—and not just listening to them, but discussing them. I had read the first five books to my children years ago and they loved them then, but what we lose in Garth Williams’ warm pencil sketches is more than made up for with the addition of real fiddle music, which opens and closes chapters and which Pa delights in sharing with his girls. Cherry Jones is a masterful reader, quiet and understated, conjuring up young Laura’s wide eyes as much as Pa’s seasoned chuckling ones, and enfolding us in her storytelling like we were all snuggled up under a warm quilt. We are now seven books in and gearing up to finish with Laura’s “grown-up” years in These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years.
HOLD UP, people. I need to say two things to the nay-sayers (among them, my husband, who playfully teases us, “So what happened in the book today? Did they paint the house and sit around for four hours watching it dry?”). For those who think the Little House books are boringly old-fashioned or (horror) just for girls, I offer up my nine year son as proof: no one gets in the car faster to listen to the next installment than him—not even his younger sister, who talks about Laura, Mary, and Carrie as if they were her own siblings. Pioneer life is fraught with hardship and ruin at every turn, be it blizzards or bears or fire or swarming grasshoppers. It’s the very essence of grit.
For those who think the Little House books are racist: you’re right. The treatment of Native Americans, while realistic for the period in which the stories are set, is grossly stereotypical, often uncomfortable, and certainly—as with many classics—demanding of discussion and supplemental reading (I strongly suggest the historically accurate Kaya series by American Girl, about a Nez Perce girl living in the 1700s).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, performed by Anne Hathaway (Ages 6-12)
This recording alone might be enough to justify an Audible subscription (Audible likes to put out exclusive recordings by Hollywood celebs). Before listening to Anne Hathaway perform L. Frank Baum’s original text—more lighthearted, humorous, and fabulously weird than the Judy Garland movie, with a vast and ever-changing cast of characters—I would not have thought it possible for one person to create so many unique voices. How Hathaway manages to do just that, then seamlessly bounce back and forth between them all, I’ll never know, but I guess that’s why she gets paid the Big Bucks. Here’s another case where we had read the book together as a family a few years ago, but it was like falling in love all over again.
The Witches, written by Roald Dahl, performed by Miranda Richardson (Ages 8-12)
While we’re on the subject of witches (and celebrities), let’s talk about my favorite Roald Dahl book from when I was a child (yup, here I go, telling you once again to share Roald Dahl with your children). True, this one is not for the faint of heart, being about real witches lurking under the disguise of regular-looking people, but the breathless terror with which I turned its pages as a child no doubt contributed to my love of reading today. How then could I resist a performance by Miranda Richardson, whose voice for the Grand High Witch will come dangerously close to blowing out your car speakers, at the same time that her soft, matter-of-fact delivery of the protagonist’s Grandmamma will make you wish you had a Norwegian grandmother of your own? As with all Dahl’s stories, the cleverness of a hapless young child outsmarts the lot of them.
(Whatever you do, don’t let your kids listen to Roald Dahl’s The Twits. It’s a liability. I simply cannot endorse it. I mean, you would be setting a bad example—your children might laugh at such disgusting, despicable behavior. Heck, they might even start making up their own stories about beards that never get washed or gluing furniture to the ceiling. Ok, fine, I can see some of you are going to do it anyway. Just don’t say you did it on my advice.)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien, read by Barbara Caruso (Ages 8-12)
Of all the stories listed here, this is the most complex: a fantastical tale of a group of escaped, highly intelligent lab rats, who build a high-tech civilization under a stretch of farmland, and an ordinary field mouse, who discovers their secret on her quest to save her children. But it might also be the most intellectually rewarding. It won the Newberry Medal in 1971, and it was another favorite of mine as a child (I remember thinking Mrs. Frisby was the bravest mother in the world). What I didn’t remember are the fascinating ethical questions raised by the novel. What is intelligence? What if every species could learn to read? What is community? How should we treat one another—and at what expense?
I’ve already alluded to the joy of listening to these stories in a previous post, so I’ll just leave it at this: if you ever have the chance to listen to E.B. White read his own prose, seize it with open ears.
Boredom can be good, certainly it is necessary, but it doesn’t have to happen in the car. I promise my next list will include more contemporary reads, but in the meantime, happy back-to-school season and happy listening.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com (Audible) affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
October 22, 2015 § 2 Comments
My daughter loves to tell us that she isn’t afraid of anything (Me thinks thou doth protest too much!). While JP is cowering under a pile of stuffed animals during a thunderstorm, Emily will announce, “I’m not a bit scared of thunder.” Last Halloween, when JP screamed bloody murder as a suspended bloody hand lunged towards him in a haunted house, Emily was quick to point out, “That’s not even real.”
But ask her to go upstairs to get something in the evening, when the lights haven’t been turned on yet, and she will rattle off every excuse in the book as to why she can’t. “I’m super busy helping my baby use the potty right now.” Not surprisingly, JP can’t resist taunting her: “Are you scared of the dark, Emily?” “I’m not scared, JP. I just don’t like it. Also, sometimes you jump out at me.”
In case you missed my list of favorite Halloweeny-but-not-Halloween-specific books, which was featured last week on local blog DIY Del Ray, you can find it here. But before we wrap up one of the best holidays for reading aloud, I want to tell you about one other new picture book. It features ghosts and witches, but it also introduces a broader conversation about what children find scary—and how talking can sometimes be the best cure for what lurks in the dark.
Written by Emily Jenkins (who has yet to write a book I haven’t loved) and charmingly illustrated by Hyewon Yum, The Fun Book of Scary Stuff (Ages 5-8) is told almost entirely through dialogue, via speech bubbles (this is becoming quite the theme lately) between a little boy and his two (talking) dogs. Our protagonist has made a list of “everything that frightens” him, and as he runs down the list in front of his pets, the dogs expose different flaws in his logic. Witches might “put spells on you,” the larger of the two dogs concedes, but “what are they cooking in that cauldron?” (Food trumps fear if you’re a bull terrier.)
Trolls are on the list, because, according to the boy, “they’re just gross. All bubbly and warty.”
When did you see trolls? [asks the dog.]
When did you see trolls?
You keep being scared of stuff that probably doesn’t exist.
I’m just saying.
The banter between child and canines is equal parts hilarious and endearing. Because it turns out that even macho dogs have their limits. Halfway through, the story moves from monsters and trolls to real-life occurrences, like sharks, or the cousin who once put ice cubes down the boy’s pants (“two times!”). Or the “bossy” crossing guard by the school. “I’m scared of her, too,” confesses the pug, “She smalls like gasoline.”
Bit by bit, the dogs begin to betray some of their own vulnerability, culminating in the book’s highly entertaining conclusion, where the boy drags the dogs into a closet with him and closes the door, attempting to illustrate his greatest fear: the dark (“Nameless Evil could be lurking!”). The dogs start freaking out and howling and freaking out about who is howling and the whole thing is downright hysterical to my children who, of course, are listening to the story in a brightly lit room tucked around me on our comfy sofa.
And yet, who saves the day by calmly reminding everyone that you can turn on the light? That’s right: it’s our young human hero who answers the distress calls of his four-legged friends. In the process, he realizes that he might be braver than he thinks. Sometimes.
Somewhere between humor and heart, the book subtly delivers an empowering message to its reader: It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to be afraid of things both imagined and real. It’s OK for us to poke fun at our neuroses, and it’s equally OK to curl up in a ball and howl.
But when the lights go out, before we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the worst, we might try to look deep within us to see if we can remember how to turn on the light.
Have a safe and happy Halloween, but don’t give up reading spooky-themed stories when November 1 arrives. Reading and talking about the dark throughout the year makes it a little sillier, a little more transparent, and a little easier to navigate.
Other Favorite Picture Books About the Dark:
Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night, by Jon Davis (Ages 4-8)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)
The Dark, by Lemony Snicker and Jon Klassen (Ages 5-10)
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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!
October 8, 2015 § 2 Comments
At a time of year when people (ahem, my husband) seem to think it’s funny to leave plastic rats lying casually around the house, I thought there might be some value in remembering that even the creepiest and crawliest of creatures have some pretty awe-inspiring merits. Or, at least, maybe we don’t need to run screaming all the time.
Recently, I’ve been noticing that there seems to be a new kind of science picture book afoot—a refreshing companion to the National Geographic-types, which pair a myriad of facts with in-your-face photography. Don’t get me wrong: my son loves himself a fat, meaty information-packed book. My daughter, on the other hand, won’t touch one with a ten foot pole. Maybe it’s that she’s only five; maybe it’s a gender thing; or maybe it’s just that she’s wired differently. But I tend to think she craves the same kind of information—just in a different format.
Allow me to introduce two books in this new genre, which for lack of a more official term I am calling Conversational Non-Fiction. These are picture books with disarming first-person narrators, whimsical illustrations, a hefty dose of humor, and loads of true and fascinating facts slipped casually between the pages. These books—at least the two I’m about to discuss—are also the first informational picture books that my daughter has ever requested to hear again and again.
It’s no surprise that the first of these new books, I Don’t Like Snakes (Ages 5-10), is written by Nicola Davies, who has always had a gentle, narrative touch when it comes to non-fiction. (Heck, she made MICROBES both interesting and comprehensible to me (I mean, my children) with last year’s exceptional Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes.)
I Don’t Like Snakes stars a hair-bow-toting, fashionably-dressed little girl, whose Nightmare Come True is that she lives with a family that has snakes—lots of snakes—as pets. (I, for one, totally feel her horror: I’m still recovering from the time I was nine and slept over at my friend Joanna’s house, and she had a boa constrictor that slithered right up to MY SLEEPING BAG. Nope. No thank you. No can do snakes as pets.)
As our heroine stares disbelieving at her family, casually adorned with snakes curled around their neck, she informs them for the 100th time, “I really, really, REALLY don’t like snakes.” Her father, mother, and brother ask her the only possible question: WHY?
For every one of the girl’s responses (They slither! They’re slimy! They have flicky tongues and creepy eyes!), her family offers a simple but intriguing explanation. “Snakes HAVE to slither,” said my mom. “They don’t have legs, so they bend like an S and use their ribs and scales to grip. It’s the only way they can move.” Illustrator Luciano Lozano then gives us the first of many full-page factual asides, this one about the three different types of slithering.
A snake’s skin is surprisingly dry; it only looks slimy because of its “shiny, see-through outer skin,” which it sheds, “like your old clothes that get too scruffy or too small.” It turns out this is exactly the kind of language that connects with both my daughter and the girl in the book. Her dad even sits down and draws mosaics with her, to illustrate the different warning and camouflage patterns of a snake’s scales.
“OK,” I said. “Maybe now that I know something about them, I do like snakes—just a little bit.” And that’s when Brother sees his opening. “Well, in that case, I’ll tell you something that’ll really scare you—how they kill things.” And here ensues an appropriately gruesome exposition on poison and strangulation.
In the book’s final pages, our heroine reveals a surprise of her own for her family. She shares her research on a subject of personal interest: the different ways that snakes have babies. It turns out that everyone brings something to the table in the name of science, and through understanding comes greater appreciation all around.
The (unseen) narrator of Bethany Barton’s equally charming—albeit more boisterous—I’m Trying to Love Spiders (Ages 4-8), doesn’t prove quite as easy to convince as our snake girl, but she (or he) does make many valiant attempts. In this case, the narrator already knows quite a bit about arachnids—for instance, they’ve been around for millions of years, and their web-swinging skills make them “like bug ninjas.” She reminds herself of these and many other talents, as she stares down each one that scurries across the page.
Before inadvertently squishing it to death.
Not surprisingly, the most fun for the reader comes from helping the narrator smoosh these eight-legged, eight-eyed monstrosities; there’s even the outline of a human hand to show where the reader is intended to put hers. (I can’t help but have flashbacks to my children’s shrieks of laughter each time I read them Ethan Long’s inane Tickle the Duck when they were toddlers—blessedly out of print now—where the narrator keeps taunting the reader, whatever you do, don’t tickle the duck…).
Still, our narrator is determined to suppress her squashing instinct, at least occasionally. After each unsuccessful attempt, we are treated to more surprisingly interesting facts about spiders, like their different web construction techniques, or their absence of teeth (“spiders rely on their venom to dissolve their dinners, making bugs soft and slurpable!”).
The most amount of time is spent on the question of just how poisonous spiders really are to humans, and this got the attention of my kids BIG TIME. As it turns out, only a few spiders—the female black widow and the brown recluse—“are poisonous enough to ruin your day.” My weather-obsessed son’s favorite takeaway from the book: “fatal spider bites are so rare, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning!”
Come on, now, let’s try to pet the spider.
As luck would have it, just when the narrator finally comes around on the topic of spiders—after watching one make quick work of the swarms of mosquitoes and gnats buzzing in circles around the page—she is confronted by a new “frenemy” in town: the American cockroach. Whether there are any redeeming characteristics of the cockroach, though, is left for another day (in the meantime, get your shoe ready).
So, this Halloween, when you’re out trick or treating with your kids and some hairy animatronic spider jumps out at you, or you hear a rattling sound from behind a bush, or those freakin’ plastic rats keep showing up under your pillow, do your kids a favor and try not to scream. Too loud.
Because there’s a new PSA in town. I’m calling it Conversational Non-Fiction. And it just might get your kids to give ophiology or entomology or arachnology or creepology a chance.
Other Favorites About Taking the Creepy Out of the Crawly:
Disgusting Critters Early-Reader Series: The Spider, The Worm, The Slug, The Fly, Head Lice & The Rat, by Elise Gravel (super fantastic, and you’ll notice there isn’t one about the roach)
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Review copy provided by Candlewick and Penguin, 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!
October 1, 2015 § 5 Comments
You know when you read something and you realize, WAIT, you mean other people’s children do that, too? You mean other mothers feel that way, too? You mean I’m not spinning alone in some upside-down bubble in this roller coaster we call parenting?
And then you think, I need to read this more often (much cheaper than therapy).
That’s the central driving force behind my willingness to oblige my children and read to them Scott McCormick and R.H. Lazzell’s graphic chapter series about the illustrious troublemaker, Mr. Pants, over and over again. As a general rule, I’ll usually do whatever it takes to avoid reading graphic novels aloud (yes, I know they can be amazing, but I find them incredibly awkward to read aloud; plus, my eight year old is so obsessed with all things comics that he’s perfectly happy to read them quietly to himself).
Don’t get me wrong: the Mr. Pants books (Ages 6-10) are fan-freaking-tastic for developing or reluctant readers to read themselves. I’m just saying that I will gladly pounce on the chance to read them aloud. Because, well, it’s like reading about our life. ONLY FUNNIER. Much, much funnier. As in, tears running down my face as my kids roll around on the floor clutching their sides. It’s possible that I’m just really, really good at this…although I have faith that you’ll rise to the challenge, too.
Mr. Pants (nickname: Slacks) is a young, orange, anthropomorphic cat, who lives in a modern apartment with twin feline sister Foot Foot (nickname: Feet) and baby feline sister Grommy (no nickname)—as well as their distinctly nondescript human mother. (In the boy to girl ratio, Mr. Pants is severely outnumbered.)
The fact that Mr. Pants is a cat is irrelevant. What you need to know is that this amped-up, prank-loving, sister-teasing, physically-comedic, competition-obsessed, explosion-sound-making character is none other than your son (oops, did I say your son? I meant my son).
Only—and here’s the icing on the cake—as much as Mr. Pants may be a Whole Lotta Trouble, he’s equal parts Big ‘ol Softie. Think Calvin and Hobbes if Calvin used more innocent language and had a baby sister he couldn’t resist. You getting this?
In the first installment, Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time!, we learn about Mr. Pants’ propensity for bribery: his disdain for back-to-school shopping (especially when he gets conned into a princess unicorn backpack) is placated only by the promise of a family game of laser tag.
The second book, Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action!, dives deeper into the laugh-out-loud sibling dynamics at hand (Mr. Pants must help host his sister’s Fancy Hat Tea Party), while also revealing Pants’ budding success (or not) as a documentary film maker.
And, now—just in time for Halloween—I’m positively giddy to introduce you to Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet!, where Mr. Pants’ dream of winning a ten-pound bag of candy in Zombie Tag in his grandparents’ town is shattered by a blizzard that strands his family overnight in an airport on Halloween. So much for Mom’s best-laid plans.
Can we talk for a moment about Mr. Pants’ mom? She ROCKS. She is my literary parenting idol. Sure, she occasionally falls asleep reading to her kids. Sure, she has been known to raise her voice at the dinner table (haven’t we all?). And, sure, she once made Halloween costumes for her children that were so embarrassing, they refused to leave the house to trick or treat (hey, crafting isn’t my thing either).
But she never fails to see the humor in a situation. And she isn’t afraid to partake in her kids’ shenanigans, especially if it means beating them at their own contests and bets. (Did I mention she also kicks butt at laser tag?)
But I digress. Because we’re supposed to be talking about Halloween—and how to save it when you’re stranded in an airport. As Mr. Pants quickly discovers, games of tag on the People Movers and races in wheelchairs only work until Airport Security catches you.
It doesn’t take long before Mr. Pants and his sisters are bemoaning (you can hear the take-no-prisoners whining, can’t you?) the fact that nothing around them looks or feels like their favorite holiday.
Never underestimate maternal resourcefulness. With a little make-up from her purse, Mom transforms her brood into something kinda sorta resembling zombies. Halloween Airport Style commences with a widespread game of Zombie Tag, joined by the other stranded passengers and airport personnel, big and small. Even the disgruntled Security Guard can’t resist.
The only catch? Mom thinks that all this talk of eating brains is a little archaic. The sisters are quick on the uptake: how about VEGAN zombies who only eat GRAINS? As in quinoa and oats and barley and amaranth (say what?).
No, you aren’t misunderstanding me.
These books are just that good. They’re just that entertaining. They’re just, well, one more day in the life of modern parenting.
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Review copy provided by Penguin. 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!
September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments
Wherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.
This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.
In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.
Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.
This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.
As far as I know, he never had any nightmares.
And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?
Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.
And yet, still no nightmares.
I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).
The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.
Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.
This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.
To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).
Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.
Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top. Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.
All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!