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)

Learning from the Big Thinkers (Summer School Continues!)

June 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

On a Beam of LightAlbert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Then by this account, should we embrace the endless string of questions by our children throughout the day? A recent British study found that children ask on average 300 questions a day. I’m pretty sure that my almost six year old has this daily average beat by the thousands; and while there are many moments when I relish his curiosity, there are also times when I long for an “off” button. These last instances most frequently occur when we’re in the car, because there’s nothing like being locked in a metal box with your children to bring out their obsessions with a full, unadulterated intensity. “Why are the clouds moving that way? Is there going to be a storm? How do the weather people know there’s going to be a storm? What happens if lightning hits our car? Why does red have to mean stop?” (This last one as we pull up to a stoplight and I realize that I can’t expect his brain to pause just because the car does.)

I was driving back from the pool the other day (having been turned away by the threat of storm clouds), and I may or may not have erupted with “I can’t take it anymore!” But then, I had a rare flash of brilliance, and I declared, “It’s Mommy’s turn to ask questions.” I began my own litany of questions, only to discover that JP had answers waiting just as quickly as I could rattle them off. ‘”What are clouds made of?” (“Water droplets!”) “Why does a ball fall if you drop if in the air?” (“Gravity!”) “Why am I not hungry?” (“Because you probably ate enough lunch!”) “Wow,” I said, “you are just as good as answering questions as you are at asking them.” “That’s because I ask so many questions!” he roared, and he and his sister laughed their heads off for the next two minutes (I’ll take my breaks where I can get them).

I recently posted about the value of sharing picture book biographies with children, and I included a list focused on true stories of the Ordinary Doing Extraordinary. But, of course, we mustn’t neglect the born geniuses, the legendary minds, the Great Thinkers that are responsible for shaping our very understanding of the world. In recent years, a slew of exceptional artistic and richly informative picture books have emerged (see my list at the end of this post) to celebrate such minds as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, most recently, Mr. Curiosity Himself: Albert Einstein.

Jennifer Berne’s On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein (Ages 5-10) is the kind of book you’ll want to share with your kids when they’re five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Berne’s highly approachable narrative voice speaks directly to children (she first won me over in Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau). In Einstein’s case, she brings to life, not only Albert’s awe at the mysteries of the world, but also his many personality quirks—from his disruptive questioning in elementary school to the saggy, baggy clothes he always wore as an adult (“My feet are happier without socks!”). These quirks are further emphasized by Vladimir Radunksky’s loosely drawn pen, ink, and gouache drawings, at once frenetic and playful, serene and innocent, like little windows into Albert’s own ever-shifting imagination. In JP’s favorite spread, Albert imagines what it would be like to ride his bike up the beam of sunlight that’s shining down on the sidewalk in front of him. “And in his mind, right then and there, Albert was no longer on his bicycle, no longer on the country road…he was racing through space on a beam of light. It was the biggest, most exciting thought Albert had ever had. And it filled his mind with questions.”

I’m no physicist. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid taking a Physics class in both high school and college (I regret this now). I have never felt terribly confident talking about energy and heat and magnetism and motion with my children, and goodness knows what I’ll do when I have to help them with equations involving E = mc2. But here I am, reading this book—this beautiful literary depiction of these scientific concepts—and I think, “Why have I never realized that physics is everything?!” Like the searching, wondering eyes of our little ones, Albert sees everything as a question. How could “a lump of sugar dissolve and disappear into his hot tea?” How could the “smoke from his pipe…disappear into the air?” And, of course, what would happen if he traveled near the speed of light? (The answer: “Only minutes would pass for Albert, while years and years went by for the rest of us!”)

Albert “asked questions never asked before. Found answers never found before. And dreamed up ideas never dreamt before.” Because of him, we were able to build spaceships and travel to the moon (there’s a great afterward that gets into more detail about the repercussions of Einstein’s discoveries, along with a list of additional reading material). Naturally, there are many questions still at large about how the universe works—and, fittingly, the book’s dedication reads, “To the next Einstein, who is probably a child now.” If my son and his peers are any indication, there’s likely a whole crop of future Big Thinkers out there. Children who won’t let a mere stoplight slow them down from asking their questions, questions, questions.

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'" In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots ("Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Here, kids are introduced to the idea that everything is made up of “teeny, tiny, moving bits of stuff—far too tiny to see—little bits called ‘atoms'” In a perfect marriage of text and illustration, Radunksky’s corresponding picture is broken up into hundreds of tiny dots (“Even this book is made of atoms!”).

Other Favorite Picture Books About Great Scientific Minds:
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown (Ages 5-10)
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd (Ages 6-12)
Noah Webster and His Words, by Jeri Chase Ferris (Ages 6-10)
I, Galileo, by Bonnie Christensen (Ages 7-12)
Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer, by Robert Byrd (Ages 8-12)
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, by Peter Sis (Ages 8-12)

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