The Surprising Backstory Behind The Monopoly (Wo)man

September 27, 2018 Comments Off on The Surprising Backstory Behind The Monopoly (Wo)man

Children are never fools when it comes to laying claim to our attention. They know exactly what they’re doing when they pull out a wordless book for us to “read,” quickly sabotaging our hope of a quick bedtime. Similarly, when our children walk into the room with Monopoly under their arms, they know they’ve turned our innocent consent to a family game into a lost Sunday afternoon. Show me a child who loves Monopoly, and I’ll argue that the appeal is more than the sum of dealing money, lining up those little green houses, and the rush of saying to one’s parents, “You owe me $2000!” (that’s Boardwalk, with a hotel). Because I was once a child, who enjoyed nothing more than racing my dad to see who could lay claim to Boardwalk and Park Place, I know that the Very Best Part of Playing Monopoly is that it takes for-freakin’-ever.

The story of how Monopoly came to be may not be as long-winded as the game itself, but it did span decades. « Read the rest of this entry »

Subterranean Thrills

May 19, 2016 Comments Off on Subterranean Thrills

"The Secret Subway" by Shana Corey & Red Nose StudioThere was a moment on the subway, during our recent trip to New York City, when my five-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Wait. Mommy. Are we actually underneath buildings and streets?” At first, I was a bit taken aback. Since birth, she has ridden on the subway, both in New York and at home in Washington DC. Why is she just grasping this now? And yet, the more I watched her absorb my affirmative answer, then spend the next several days kneeling on her seat, staring out the window into the blackness of the roaring tunnel, the more I realized that the whole concept of the subway is in itself quite astonishing.

Astonishment is exactly what the “distinguished citizens, reporters, and government officials” of New York City felt on February 26, 1870, when an inventor named Alfred Ely Beach led them into a 294-foot-long tunnel that he had helped build underneath the streets of New York, in order to showcase his fan-powered train that he believed would solve the city’s transportation problem. How this came about and what happened next—the largely forgotten story of New York’s unofficial first subway, which predated by 42 years the city’s plans to build an official subway system—is detailed in the fascinating new picture book, The Secret Subway (Ages 6-12), by Shana Corey and illustrated by Red Nose Studio. « Read the rest of this entry »

Seduced by Engineering

July 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert FordOne of the Great Surprises of my life came on a hot, clear summer day last August. My sister in law was visiting, and she and I decided to take the kids over to National Harbor in Maryland. “You know, Mommy, I heard they built a Ferris wheel there. I think we should ride it,” offers my eldest.

SAY WHAT? Now, I’ve read the parenting books, and I know we’re not supposed to label our children. So, in lieu of describing my seven year old as cautious, I’ll just say that he prefers to apply the road sign, PROCEED WITH CAUTION, to as much of his life as possible. If JP determines something to be of physical risk, he’ll likely avoid it all together—or spend weeks (ahem, years) ruminating on it, observing others doing it, until he’s absolutely sure he can proceed safely and confidently and without anyone’s assistance (see: bike riding). Heck, there are slides in our neighborhood that he still deems too tall to slide down.

So, I’m suddenly supposed to believe that my son is going to leave the safety of the ground aboard a giant rotating wheel that he has never actually laid eyes on? Don’t get me wrong, I was positively giddy at the prospect (wait, do you think we can start going to theme parks and rock walls?!), although I was careful to do my best nonchalant impersonation when I answered him, “Yeah, sure, we can do that, maybe, whatevs.” No need to jinx things with my shock and excitement.

On the ferry ride over, as we caught first sight of the Metal Monstrosity, hanging precariously out over the pier, I once again thought, NOT A CHANCE. And I once again was floored. “Wow, it’s a lot bigger than I thought, Mommy. But we are definitely riding it.”

As we got in line and paid a mere fortune (honestly, I would have forked over any amount to reward this burst of spontaneity), I watched with trepidation as the color began to drain from JP’s face. I realized he was listening to the attendant, who was loading people into what turned out to be giant glass-enclosed cars and then pointing out the large red “panic” buttons located in each interior. “Why do they need those buttons?” JP asked me.

“Um, in case someone feels sick and they want to come down and get out. I’m sure they hardly ever get used,” I quickly responded. Although I was beginning to wonder the same thing.

And then we were bolted in, quickly rising higher and higher, until we were suspended over the water on one side and the itty bitty figures of people waiting in line on the other. And then—as is the custom with every Ferris wheel I’ve ever been on—we were paused, dangling, SWAYING, for what seemed like an eternity, as a new round of people boarded at the bottom. And we still had four more laps to go.

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I looked at JP. “How are you feeling, buddy?”

He shot me a look like, don’t you dare talk to me right now or I’m going to start screaming like a banshee. Or maybe I’m just projecting how I was feeling. That panic button was calling to me. My sister in law looked equally frozen. (My three year old, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed.)

But we did it. All of us. All five laps. We oooed and we ahhhed, and then we ventured that we might, we might, do it again someday. As we stepped off, I turned and asked the attendant (out of earshot of JP), “How often do people use that panic button?” She rolled her eyes. “You have no idea,” she said. But I did.

Weeks later, I asked JP what made him decide to ride the Ferris wheel. He started rambling about metal and motors and making grand gestures with his hands—and, suddenly, it dawned on me that it was sheer engineering that had seduced him. Even before he saw it in real life—when it was just something he had seen in pictures—the lure was magnificently romantic.

As if right on cue, Kathryn Gibbs Davis’ Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (Ages 5-10), a fascinating picture book biography of the man who invented the Ferris wheel, was soon published and quickly became a favorite in our house (along with the other engineering-themed picture books listed at the end of this post).

Once again, as with the best non-fiction children’s books, I was learning alongside my children.

Like many of history’s greatest inventions, the Ferris wheel was born out of competition. It was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in an attempt, not only to “impress the world,” but to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, which had debuted ten months earlier. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., an American mechanical engineer, was already famous for designing some of our country’s biggest bridges, tunnels and roads. As he watched the earliest skyscrapers rise in front of his eyes on “elegant steel frames” (modeled after birdcages, as we learn in one of the fascinating asides in the book), he began to ask himself, what if I take the skyscraper concept and have it “dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower?”

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Of course, it wouldn’t be a story if there weren’t plenty of speed bumps along the way. After initially flat-out rejecting George’s proposal as “so flimsy it would collapse,” the Fair committee later reluctantly awarded him the bid, on the contingency that George secure his own funding (which he did by depleting his personal savings, so fervently did he believe in his dream).

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Next, there was the stress of time: Ferris had only FOUR MONTHS to source materials, hire a crew, construct a perfect, enormous circle (“834 feet in circumference, rising 265 feet above the ground”), and then make it spin with the “precision of a small watch.” Oh, and did I mention that the passenger cars were the size of living rooms, with enormous picture windows and velvet seats to boot?

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The next time your child tells you something is impossible, have them think on that.

Still, if those challenges aren’t enough to rivet your child’s attention, let me tell you about my son’s favorite page (can we say dynamite?). When George and his crew first began work on the foundation, in the middle of one of Chicago’s coldest winters, they not only had to blast through layers of ice, but they had to battle 35 feet of quicksand (yes, that’s right, the Fair’s site turned out to be atop QUICKSAND).

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

All these happenings are narrated seamlessly and compellingly by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, appealing to a wide range of ages. Some of the more technical information is presented in optional asides (not optional for us, of course), but even the engineering specifics feel accessible.

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Still, not being an engineer myself, I have to say that, for me, the greatest appeal of this book lies in Gilbert Ford’s exquisite mixed-media watercolors, which twinkle and soar and PERFECTLY ROMANTICIZE the dream, the ambition, the teamwork, the national pride, the engineering prowess, the magic, and the fun surrounding the Chicago World Fair. The fantastical color palette of turquoise, hot pink, deep purple, and midnight blue makes the experience of reading the story even more magical.

I get goosebumps just thinking about how the Ferris wheel must have looked to the people who stood before it, especially when it was lit up at night. At that time, houses were still predominantly lit with candles, so this was most people’s first chance to see electricity in action. Farmers and executives alike came to see the 3,000 electric light bulbs in action. Why, it must have seemed like the work of fairies. At least, that’s how it is painted.

"Mr. Ferris and His Wheel" by Kathryn Gibbs Davis & Gilbert Ford

Of course, Davis’ story reminds us that the wheel was, in reality, four months of incredibly hard, back-breaking labor, nearly all of it performed by human hands. Not to mention exacting conceptualizing, measuring, and overseeing by human brains, most notably those of George and his engineering partner, William Gronau.

During the nineteen weeks the wheel was in operation, 1.5 million passengers rode it. It revolved more than 10,000 times, withstood gale-force winds and storms, and did not need one repair.

Perhaps, no matter how cautious we might consider ourselves (or our children), we are powerless to resist the seduction of the Ferris wheel. Untethered from the ground, given over to pure engineering beauty, we feel the awe-inspiring magnitude of the human spirit.

But it does feel good to be back on firm ground when it’s done.

Other Favorite Engineering-Themed Picture Books:
Building Our House, by Jonathan Bean (Ages 4-8)
Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts (Ages 4-8; reviewed here!)
Violet the Pilot, by Steve Breen (Ages 4-8)
Pop’s Bridge, by Eve Bunting & C.F. Payne (Ages 6-12)
Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building, by Deborah Hopkinson & James E. Ransome (Ages 6-12)
The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness (Ages 7-14)

AND get this: there is ANOTHER picture book bio about George Ferris coming out this fall, titled The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris, by Betsy Harvey Craft. As far as I can tell, it details the same story but with more text and information, so it could potentially be great for an older child. It also looks beautifully illustrated (by Steven Salemo)—in a completely different way than Gilbert Ford’s.

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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!

 

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 4): Three Books for the Scientist (Ages 5-12)

December 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

If I had a dollar for every time my children tell me they are doing a science experiment, I would be a rich Mama. Most of these experiments involve putting water in a cup with some household item and sticking it in the freezer (spoiler alert: it freezes). Sometimes, usually with the help of birthday gifts, they might raise their game by building baking-soda volcanoes or citrus-powered clocks.

Our children’s natural curiosity about the inner-workings of the world has been given extra-special treatment in books this year. Today, I’ll be singing the praises of two novels for the 9-12 crowd, which seamlessly weave science into the drama of middle-school life (one stars a boy, the other a girl). For the younger elementary child, a picture book biography on Carl Sagan will prove the perfect entrée into the mysteries of the cosmos. Without further ado, let us begin.

"Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor" by Jon Scieszka[Warning: this book may cause your child to talk like a robot well beyond the last page.] Author Jon Scieszka, long-time advocate for the reluctant boy reader (see his inspiring tips here), embarks on the ultimate Science is Cool chapter book series, with Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud). Frank Einstein is a kid-genius inventor—with a special fondness for his Grampa Al, as well as for his Grampa Al’s Fix-It! Shop (“the greatest place in the world to test any invention you might think of”). Determined to win the Midville Science Prize and reap a large cash reward to pay off Grampa Al’s debts, Frank, his best-pal Watson, and two self-assembled artificial intelligence entities named Klink and Klank (my son’s new favorite literary characters), create a Fly Bike powered by an Antimatter Motor. Naturally, all this gets complicated by Frank’s arch-nemesis: the doomsday-plotting, idea-stealing, robot-napping T.Edison. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Stuff That Doesn’t Grow on Trees

October 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

"The History of Money" by Martin JenkinsOne of the most enjoyable afternoons I spent with my son this past summer had nothing to do with summer. It didn’t involve beaches or roller coasters or ice cream. It didn’t cost a cent, although it was all about money.

JP turned seven last week, and we had been telling him for awhile that we would begin giving him an allowance on his seventh birthday. Then, last June, it occurred to me that the kid had no practical knowledge of money, an inauspicious beginning to forging a lifetime relationship with the stuff that doesn’t grow on trees. I decided to make it my Goal of Summer 2014 to teach him, not only how to count and sort coins and bills, but also about how money came to exist in the first place—and how it has changed over time. Like most of my endeavors in parenting, this one started with a book.

The timing turned out to be perfect, because Candlewick happened to send me a copy of their newly published 52-page chapter book titled The History of Money: From Bartering to Banking (Ages 7-12), with text by Martin Jenkins and  cartoonish illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura. From page one, JP was riveted. The book reads as a kind of anthropological, time-travel narrative, beginning in the early age of man when “nobody had any money.” « Read the rest of this entry »

Biking for Beginners and Pros

July 5, 2013 Comments Off on Biking for Beginners and Pros

"Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle" Chris RaschkaWe interrupt our Summer School Series for some good ‘ol fashioned outdoor play—and because there happens to be two seriously awesome new picture books about riding a two wheeler (the Ultimate Summer Challenge, really). The first book is for the I-Think-I-Can-Beginners; the second is for the experienced, daring, and creative bikers (especially those with a love for all things Space).

Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle (Ages 3-6) is a simple but poignant “how to” look at mastering a two wheeler, first with training wheels and then without. Now, if I were going to write a step-by-step guide to teaching a five year old to ride a bike, it might go something like this:

Lug ten tons of second-hand steel to park, at the request of eager child.

Help eager child up into bike seat.

Become temporarily deaf by imminent screaming of “NOOOOOOO get me off get me off get me off!”

After much cajoling and pleading and promising for the 45th time that you are going to hold on the whole time, convince child to remount bike and begin pedaling forward.

After 10 minutes, whereby you are still holding fast to the training-wheeled bike and said bike has moved exactly 10 feet, suggest that he try turning.

Feel an abrupt jerk as child slams on the breaks (this, oddly, comes very naturally), jumps off bike, and announces that he is Most Definitely Not Doing This Right Now.

Lug ten tons of steel back home.

Fortunately, Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle paints a much rosier picture of a child learning to ride a bike, along with the help of her patient and gently encouraging father.

But, actually, what I love about this book is that things are not always smooth sailing: the little girl has lots of false starts, falls down again and again, and needs both hugs and Band-Aids. “Oops! You nearly had it,” the book coaches. “Don’t give up. You’ll get it. Find the courage to try it again, and again, again, and again, again, and again, and again, until by luck, grace, and determination, you are riding a bicycle!”

Rashchka’s signature watercolors, seemingly effortlessly executed with thick, breezy, rough strokes of paint, are perfectly suited to the subject at hand. Every single painting exudes movement—whether it’s the little girl pulling her father’s hand toward the bike shop, her sideways and backwards tumbles off the bike, the neighborhood kids zooming past her on their colorful two wheelers, or her triumphant forward-leaning fast-pedaling stance at the end.

Rashchka’s greatest gift has always been his ability to capture emotional expression with just a few brushstrokes; and it’s the determination, bewilderment, frustration, joy, and pride on the little girl’s face that will make this gem relatable for children—those struggling to ride and those who’ve newly mastered the skill. I’m not promising this book will work miracles, assuming there might be other parents out there who are having similar bicycling battles on the playground (please tell me I am not alone); but I can promise that your child will identify a kindred spirit on the page.

Moving on to morHow to Bicycle to the Moone advanced bicycling (and a longer, more sophisticated story), I fervently recommend How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers: A Simple but Brilliant Plan in 24 Easy Steps, by Mordicai Gerstein (Ages 5-10). If the irreverent title alone hasn’t sold you, let me sing the praises of this most entertaining book, particularly for the kid who loves science, invention, numbers, the Moon, and bossing people around (that would be my son to a T, minus the bicycling).

First, when was the last time your child read a work of fiction that was laid out in steps? Each of this book’s 39 pages outlines a different step, numbered 1 through 24, many of them sub-categorized with letters (12a, 12b, 12c, 12d, etc.). Kids love this stuff; it’s exactly the way their mind works when they are bossing us around.

Secondly, there’s the very idea of bicycling into outer space, not to mention for the purpose of planting sunflowers to cheer up the Moon’s “big, sad clown face.” Thirdly, there’s the intricately involved and scientifically supported plan that the boy conjures up—a plan involving 2,000 used truck inner tubes, a 25-foot flagpole, a ship’s anchor, 238,900 miles of garden hoses wound tightly around a giant spool, a rented XS space suit from NASA, and various provisions, including “nourishing, flavored Glop, squirted through a straw in your space-helmet.”

Finally, there’s the climactic adventure itself, Boy On Bike, pedaling up miles of garden hoses that have been anchored into the Moon’s surface, stopping to wonder at “the trillions of stars.” Within the largely comic narrative, written in the boy’s instructive voice, there are also many clever descriptions, my favorite being the notion that the Moon looks “like a coloring book that hasn’t been colored yet.”

Gerstein’s pen and ink drawings have a comic-book feel, but the crudely colored line art is mixed with grace and subtlety (the Moon’s changing expressions are a particular delight). This is the same Gerstein who wrote and illustrated one of my (and my son’s) favorite books: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Ages 4-8), the true and serious story of Phillipe Petit’s dramatic tightrope walk between the World Trade Towers in 1974. The two books could not look or feel more different (a rare feat for a picture book artist); yet, oddly, they both involve moving atop a skinny, rope-like material suspended over great heights.

Gerstein writes books about dreams—about the mystery, wonder, and excitement in planning for and achieving those dreams. I have a dream that my children will both ride two wheelers some day, that they will taste the victory that comes from balancing up high on their own, and (as I vividly remember doing as a young girl) that they’ll speed around the block, dreaming and scheming and making their own Big Plans.

Hot-Off-the-Press for November’s Birthday Parties

November 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

If there’s something all kids can agree on, it’s the thrill of being in the driver’s seat. Getting their choice—heck, coming up with the choices in the first place—seeds the adrenaline that drives our little ones forward in their quest for independence and control. Perhaps no author-illustrator understands this better than Chris Van Dusen, who has a knack for knowing what kids (especially boys) want and serving it up in rollicking rhyme and neo-futuristic illustrations. Years ago, when If I Built a Car was published, it instantly became my shop’s “go to” book for anyone headed to a four or five year old’s birthday party; we only stopped stocking it when virtually every family in a 15-mile radius owned the book.

The good news is that Van Dusen has now written an equally captivating follow-up—and one with an arguably broader appeal (girls will dig this, too). In If I Built a House (Ages 3-6), a young boy named Jack describes with contagious enthusiasm his dream house. I challenge any child to come up with a TV show or video game with more allure than a house containing an anti-gravity room, an underwater chamber, an art room with walls made of drawing paper, a bedroom atop a high tower with the world’s longest spiraling tunnel slide for descent, and a jet-powered Plexiglass Playroom that detaches to fly around the neighborhood.

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