Feeling Witchy

October 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

"I Am A Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster“Mommy, you know how those witch hats got there?” my four year old casually ventured, as we walked through the Halloween section of our local variety store. Then, before I could answer, she stopped and turned towards me, her expression suddenly serious. “The witches dropped them,” she whispered.

I love October. Not for the costumes, or the weeks of planning that go into them (read: daily changing of minds). Not for the candy, which I can never get out of the house fast enough. I love it for its air of anticipation. That mysterious, slightly uneasy, could-it-might-it-be-real feeling that pokes at the back of our minds. As the evenings darken, the wind picks up, and the creaks on the roof grow louder, the lines between real and imaginary begin to get a little messy. You might say that for these few weeks, we get a taste of the way our kids feel all year long.

Indeed, many of my favorite “Halloween” stories to share with my kids are, in fact, not about Halloween at all—which means (hooray) that they can be enjoyed all 365 days. I’m referring to gems like Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina. This year’s newcomer is  I Am a Witch’s Cat (Ages 2-6), by Harriet Muncaster: a simple picture book narrated in the voice of a little girl, who loves to dress up like a little black cat, because she believes her mother to be a witch (“but I don’t mind, because she is a good witch”). « Read the rest of this entry »

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)

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

June 5, 2012 Comments Off on You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Before homework and competitive athletics, long before college essays and declaring majors, there’s preschool. And, in preschool, there’s one thing all parents hope for: that our little ones will learn how to make a friend…or two. So I can’t help but get a little choked up every time I read a story about the blossoming of a young friendship, like the one that saves the day in Otis and the Tornado (Ages 3-7), by the incredibly talented Loren Long. Otis and the Tornado is actually the second story Long has written about an old tractor named Otis, rundown in age but not in spirit (the equally charming first book is titled simply Otis). No one can match Loren Long’s ability to engender sympathy in his readers for inanimate objects; and he does this by endowing them with a range of soft, subtle, but highly emotive facial expressions (see also his spectacular adaptation of The Little Engine That Could). Whether he looks joyful, bashful, worried, or brave, we can’t help but love this tractor and his “putt puff puttedy chuff”s (say that three times fast). Otis is also a hit on the farm, beloved by geese and sheep alike; together they enjoy hours of rounds of Follow the Leader, with everyone taking a turn to lead (it’s a regular preschool class!). But every class has the potential for a bully, and this farm is no exception: “Everyone was so friendly, except…the bull. The bull was nobody’s friend. When he was not in his pen, he was kept in a pasture all by himself.” The bull, it seems, has brought this isolation upon himself: every time the animals approach his pen, he snorts and snarls and huffs; one time he even charged into the gate towards Otis. Luckily, this is a story about Second Chances, and the bull gets his clean slate when a tornado approaches the farm. As the sky darkens, the farmers race down into the cellar, leaving Otis to unlatch each of the animal’s pens and lead them down to the lowest point of Mud Creek (yes, your child will now know exactly what to do in the face of an approaching funnel cloud). “But just as they squeezed close and tight, Otis heard an awful bellowing cry…the sound of a large creature in trouble.” It’s the bull, of course, and Otis must race against the clock to go back and free him before the tornado touches down. It doesn’t matter how many times JP has heard this story: when we reach this part, his body tenses in suspense, his milk cup freezes mid-sip. Time is running out, and when the latch on the bull’s pen proves stuck, Otis “threw himself into reverse, revved his engine, and charged backwards into the gate. CRASH! The gate shattered into pieces.” (Cheers erupt and JP relaxes.) Otis leads the bull to the safety of the other animals, and they all huddle in the Ultimate Snuggle. When the tornado passes, the animals emerge to a badly damaged farm, but the narrative ends on the sweetest and most hopeful of notes: when all the clean-up is done, they have a new friend in the bull, a new buddy to join in Follow the Leader. And the bull? Well, “instead of a snarl and a glare, he wore a happy grin and a friendly gaze.” Because, really, isn’t having a friend the best? (Congratulations to this year’s preschool and pre-K graduates!)

Otis the tractor rescuing the bull

Huddled in safety from the storm (the Ultimate Snuggle)

Other Favorite Animal Tales Where a Friendship Saves the Day:
Otis, by Loren Long (Ages 2.5-5)
Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys, by H.A. Rey & Margret Ray (Ages 2.5-5)
The Lion and the Little Red Bird, by Elisa Kleven (Ages 2.5-6)
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6)
Pete and Pickles, by Berkeley Breathed (Ages 4-8)
Chowder, by Peter Brown (Ages 4-8)

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