May 7, 2020 § 3 Comments
For many of us following stay-at-home orders, social media is a welcome lifeline to the outside world. And yet, its lure can be as powerful as its trapping. If occasionally I used to fall down the rabbit hole of comparing my children’s accomplishments to those paraded out on Facebook, I now find myself in weaker moments comparing houses. We may be leading similar lives—working, schooling, eating at home—but our backdrops are wildly different. Maybe I’d be going less crazy if I looked out my window and saw mountains. Sure would be nice to have a swimming pool in my backyard. Sure would be nice to have any backyard. Oh man, are they at their river house right now? I’m sure I could homeschool better if we had a creek.
Of course, these thoughts are inane. Inanely unproductive. Inanely indulgent. At no time for my generation has it been more of a blessing to have our health and a roof over our heads. Not to mention money for food and ample time to steer our children through these rocky waters.
Still, I would be lying if I said there aren’t cracks in my resolve to be gracious and mindful.
With our recent move, our living space has been significantly downsized. I can’t spit without hitting another person. Heck, I can hardly do anything without being watched or whined at. My husband gave me grief for packing up no fewer than four boxes of books to bring with us to these temporary digs. But you know what? We are rich in stories. We have stories painted with breathtaking backdrops, stories which quicken our pulse or tug at our heart or seduce us with beauty…all from the cozy confines of our couch. Some days, I look at the piles of books haphazardly lying around and I think, Why does no one clean up? Most days, I look at them and think, We are the luckiest.
One need look no further than Aesop’s fables for proof that stories have long been offering hope in turbulent times. Tales like “The Lion and the Mouse” (or my favorite as a parent, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) have been told and retold around the world for 2,500 years. Until now, I didn’t realize that the allegedly true story of Aesop himself—a slave in Ancient Greece who earned his freedom through storytelling—also bears telling, lending meaningful context to Aesop’s beguiling fables while offering proof that stories are richer than gold.
Ian Lendler’s 63-page trove, The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), luminously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, is not your typical picture book biography. It’s more of an anthology of fables encased in a broader, biographical context. Like an onion, each turn of the page reveals another layer of story and art, the sum of which is one of the most spellbinding books of 2020. It can be read in a single sitting or paged through out of order. If we’re talking about losing ourselves in the sublime for a time, this is just the ticket.
February 6, 2020 § 1 Comment
A year or so ago, I was at a summer garden party, all twinkling lights and umbrella drinks, when the conversation took a dark turn. Several folks, none of whom I knew terribly well, began to discuss and debate the provisions they had stored away in the event of an apocalypse. I sat quietly, picturing my own basement with its boxed wedding dress, foosball table, and toys I’d stashed hoping my kids wouldn’t notice so I could gradually move them to the donation bin, and realized how far a cry this was from the scene being described. No crates of non-perishable food, no industrial sized jugs of water, no iodine pills in the event of a nuclear attack, no walkie talkies, no axes, definitely no guns to take down squirrels that could comprise my protein quota.
“Don’t you worry about how you’re going to protect your family?” someone said to me, after I tried to make a joke about my foosball table. I conjured up an image of myself, defending my children against other crazed survivors—all of us presumably reduced to looters or murderers—and I said, only half joking, “In the case of an apocalyptic event, I think it would be best for the future of humanity if my family made a quick exit.” To put it mildly, living off the land in the dark and cold for an extended period of time isn’t really in our wheelhouse.
Last month brought a fresh wave of worry for those of us working hard not to picture End of the World scenarios. We were on the brink of a war with the Middle East. The continent of Australia was burning. A mysterious and deadly virus was (is) rapidly spreading out of China. If we believe apocalyptic-themed fiction, it’s not long until we will be wandering alone in the dark and cold, assuming we are unlucky enough to survive.
And yet, at a time when the news threatens to send us into an ethos of fear and anxiety—to fathom ways of constructing safe houses around our loved ones—children’s literature is there, reliably, with a hefty dose of optimism, a welcome respite from the dark and cold. Especially where gems like Hannah Salyer’s debut picture book, Packs: Strength in Numbers (Ages 5-9), are concerned, we would do well to remember that the animal kingdom has always survived when it turns towards, not away, from one another.
July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.
I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
Last year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12).
Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). « Read the rest of this entry »
September 24, 2013 § 2 Comments
JP turned six today. As you may recall, we are All About Birthdays this month, having just celebrated my daughter’s third birthday two weeks ago. At some point over the summer, my kids realized that their birthdays were (sort of) approaching, and many of their conversations turned to what kind of parties they wanted to have (“Snakes and a pinata!” from JP; “Balloons and flowers!” from Emily) and whom they wanted to invite.
This latter debate became increasingly complicated for my youngest, because in addition to her now having a few similarly aged friends, she still claims most of her brother’s friends as her own (having been toted around to his play dates for three years). Back when JP turned three, we had exactly three children over for a nice, contained party. When Emily turned three, we found ourselves with 25 kids running around our backyard. Throw in a giant inflatable bounce house, a craft station, and soccer goals, and it would appear that my husband and I have finally embraced this moving-to-the-‘burbs thing. But I digress. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
With the local library only one block from our house—well, let’s just say that when we moved here, the librarians were the first people to learn my children’s names. It’s on these late-afternoon visits to the library that my kids get to experience that rush of adrenaline that comes from being endowed (however briefly) with the freedom of unlimited choice. My son JP wanders the aisles of the children’s department; takes down any books that look interesting; makes a big pile at one of the child-sized tables; pages through each of them in a (somewhat futile) effort to narrow down his selections; allows Mommy the power of veto (which I try to use sparingly); and then drags his bountiful stack over to the circulation desk. At this point, no longer able to contain his excitement a second longer, he will announce triumphantly to any bystanders, “Looks like it’s Book Day for us!” (All this while my toddler daughter ducks in and out of aisles trying to engage anyone in a game of peekaboo—she has her own Library Experience.)
With all those shelves of possibility, all those enticements to imagination, it’s no wonder that anyone walking through the library’s door will instantly fall under its spell. But what if that someone isn’t a child at all—but a lion? Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes explore just this question in Library Lion (Ages 3-7), where a lion wanders into (what appears to be) The New York Public Library, sits down for story time, and is instantly spellbound. In fact, he is so hooked, that when story time ends, he unleashes a loud and despairing “RAAAHHRRRR!” This disruption quickly earns the lion an ultimatum, issued by the kindly but rule-enforcing Miss Merriweather: he can stay so long as he keeps his roars to himself. The obedient lion becomes a regular at the library, giving children a boost to reach high shelves and helping Merriweather lick envelopes for overdue notices (apparently libraries hadn’t discovered the Internet in 2006, when this book was first published).
The only one unwilling to accept the newcomer is the uptight, bowtie-sporting Mr. McBee. Like your typical “villain,” McBee patiently waits for the opportunity to banish the lion from the library once and for all. His chance comes when Miss Merriweather, restocking one day with the help of the lion, tumbles off a step stool and breaks her arm. Unable to move, she sends the lion to get help from Mr. McBee; and the lion, unsuccessful in his first attempts to convince McBee to follow him, resorts to the one way he knows will draw attention: he roars. Mr. Tattletale goes sprinting down the hallway, gleefully shouting “Miss Merriweather! The lion broke the rules! The lion broke the rules!”; and the lion, head hung, walks slowly out the front door and never comes back.
As the days drag on and it’s evident that the library has lost much of its charm with the lion’s departure, Mr. McBee finally throws down his villain card and hunts down the lion to make amends. “I thought you might like to know…that there’s a new rule at the library. No roaring allowed—unless you have a very good reason—say, if you’re trying to help a fiend who’s been hurt.” No one, not man nor beast, should be denied his afternoon at the place where dreams get seeded.
Other Favorites About Libraries and Their Magic:
Bats at the Library, by Brian Lies (Ages 3-6)
Wild About Books, by Judy Sierra & Marc Brown (Ages 4-8)
The Library, by Sarah Stewart & David Small (Ages 4-8)
Miss Dorothy And Her Bookmobile, by Gloria Houston & Susan Condie Lamb (Ages 4-8)
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 7-12)