Where Imagination Reigns

September 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

"The Way to the Zoo" by John BurninghamI’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before. When I was ten, I was obsessed with Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, the award-winning novel about a boy who runs away to live in a hollowed-out tree in the Catskill Mountains. This (naturally) meant that I started pretending that my New York City bedroom, a tiny room off the kitchen, on the opposite end of our apartment from my parents and sister, was actually the top of a mountain, covered with rocky terrain and miles from civilization. When I’d wash my face before bed, in the teeny adjoining bathroom, I’d turn on the cold tap, close my eyes, and imagine that I was splashing myself from an icy mountain stream.

Yes, I was a book nerd (still am). But I’m letting you in on this little secret twenty years later to make a point: for children, bedrooms have always been magical gateways to flights of imagination. Take Where the Wild Things Are, my four-year-old daughter’s current obsession. Is it a coincidence that young Max is sent to his bedroom before the walls fall away and he journeys to the land of the Wild Things? Of course not. The boy’s adventures behind closed doors are entirely his own. They are private. They are bizarre. They are scary. They are magnificent.

I told you recently about how my daughter claims a raccoon visits her each night while she sleeps, making a “racket-tacket” loud enough to wake her up. So I instantly knew that John Burningham’s The Way to the Zoo (Ages 3-7)—a new picture book about a girl who discovers a secret door in her bedroom leading to a zoo, thereby unleashing a slew of nightly visits from different animals—would be a slam dunk for us. « Read the rest of this entry »

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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With Babies, It’s All in the Delivery

June 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

When you’re reading aloud to babies and toddlers, never discount the Performance Factor. I’ve always considered myself a fairly compelling read-aloud-er when it comes to young audiences (I’ve presided over my fair share of story times at my old store in Chicago), but I’ll admit to being humbled the first time I attended story time with my infant daughter at Hooray for Books!, our fabulous independent bookstore here in Alexandria, VA. These bookstore gals can really hold their own against a crowd of antsy toddlers—and they do so by throwing their own inhibitions to the wind, while invoking no shortage of funny voices, animated gestures, and ad lib phrases.

Before I became a regular at these events, I had never given much thought to Lucy Cousins’ Hooray For Fish! (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs), a board book about a Little Fish who meets and greets all kinds of crazy-looking fish before swimming back to his Mommy Fish. Sure, I’ve always appreciated Cousins’ child-accessible art style: her colorful, loosely-decorated fish, coarsely outlined in black, look as if they came from the hand of a child. But, if I’m honest, the subject of fish doesn’t rank terribly high on my excitement meter (give me a farm animal any day); and I can’t say my son ever cared much for Hooray for Fish! when I read it to him on a plane trip down to Florida when he was one.

But now, four years later, listening to it being read aloud by a bookseller who has obvious passion for made-up fish names like “gripy fish” and “ele-fish” and “twin fin-fin fish,” I realize that it’s all in the delivery. And, being the mindful student that I am, I’m proud to say that I have now adopted the necessary flair this book requires; lo and behold, it is now one of my daughter’s favorites. We both wave enthusiastically each time Little Fish says “Hello” to a new fish; we take our fingers and trace the spiral that is “shelly fish”; we make our scariest faces for “scary fish”; we cover our heads for “shy fish” and flap our fins like “fly fish.”

But the finale is where we break out all the stops: “Where’s the one I love the best, even more than all the rest? [turn page with exaggerated suspense] Hello, Mom. Hello, Little Fish. [more excited waving] Kiss, kiss, kiss, hooray for fish! [throw arms up in air and cover each other with kisses].” Hooray for books that make us adults remember that being silly is a sure way to get undivided attention from our little ones.

Other Favorites That Can Be Dramatically Read Aloud to Little Ones:
Cows in the Kitchen, by Arlie Anderson (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs)
Clip-Clop, by Nikola Smee (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
What Shall We Do with the Boo Hoo Baby?, by Cressida Cowell & Ingrid Godon (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
Barnyard Dance!, by Sandra Boynton (Ages 9 mos-2 yrs)
Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, by Bob Shea (Ages 1-3)
Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle & Jill McElmurry (Ages 1-3)
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Helen Oxenbury (Ages 1-4)

Ce N’est Pas Un Box

April 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

For adults, the worst part about moving is cardboard boxes. For kids, the best part about moving is cardboard boxes! We managed to save a giant wardrobe box from our last move, and we bring it out on rainy days. It’s the Mother of All Boxes. Don’t get me wrong: they also love playing with diaper boxes, amazon.com boxes, and wine boxes (that these seem to be the predominant boxes around our house at any given time probably says much about our priorities). Our “house rule,” when a new box shows up, is that the kids get it for one week—and then (because Mom can’t take it any longer) it’s dumped in the recycling bin, regardless of how beautifully decorated it is by then. But that wardrobe box is still kicking around some 18 months later, because, well, it’s just THAT AWESOME. One of the more originally executed children’s books of the past decade is Not a Box (Ages 3-5), by Antoinette Portis. The book deceives: at first glance, its sparse text and simple graphics appear to be designed for a very young child. In fact, the perfect audience for this book is the precocious preschooler, who’s just beginning to forage into Imaginary Play. Through a little bunny’s mind, a simple cardboard box becomes a burning building, a hot air balloon, a robot, or a rocket, among other things. Like said bunny, my own preschooler can come up with endless roles for a cardboard box. Sure, he sat through the book when he was a two year old, but it wasn’t until he turned three that he finally “got” it, that he related not only to the bunny’s pretending but also to the bunny’s frustration each time the narrator asks him about his “box” and gets the answer, “It’s NOT a box!” Ah, to be young again, where our imagination can totally usurp daily life! Why just tonight, when I was pointing out to JP that I was still seated at the dinner table because I hadn’t yet finished my food, his answer was “But Mommy, firefighters have to leave EVERYTHING when the alarm goes off!” (What was I thinking?) Another reason why this book is lost on a younger audience is in its unique (out-of-the-box, if you will) outside: with its matte-finish, brown-paper, and jacketless cover, the book itself resembles a cardboard box (just make sure you get your hands on the hardcover, as the recently-released board book edition falls flat in this regard). Like with so many things, sometimes the best books (and boxes) are worth waiting for.

Other Favorites About Pretending With Boxes (& Sofa Cushions):
King Jack and the Dragon, by Peter Bently & Helen Oxenbury
Sitting In My Box, by Dee Lillegard & Jon Agee
A House is a House for Me, by Mary Ann Hoberman

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