Moving the Classroom to the Woods

March 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

(Friends, these are rough times. I feel you all. And I promise to keep showing up for you with book ideas for all ages. In addition to these weekly posts, I have (almost) daily recommendations on Instagram, so follow me there. We’ll get through this pandemic with the help of fictional worlds and gripping history and funny comics. Worst comes to worst, we can always use the pages to wipe our bottoms.)

It was only the second morning of #pandemicparenting, and the kids and I were already on the verge of strangling one another. My husband needed a quiet house for conference calls, so I threw out our daily schedule (just one day old) and drove the kids to the woods…where we stayed for four hours. It was cold and drizzly when we arrived, and I found myself willing it to be over. We walked and walked, saw no one, walked some more, and eventually settled into our own rhythms. My daughter ran off trail to climb on logs and rocks. My son stopped talking about his stress level and moved through the world quietly. We got lost, had to scramble up rocky ledges to find the trail again, discovered deserted outcroppings of beaches. The sun came out. I sat and listened to the water, while the kids skipped stones. Later, my son threw his arms around a tree, and I laughed out loud.

We’ve had our fair share of highs and lows these first two weeks of social distancing, but I am endlessly grateful that the trees still welcome our closeness. If there are silver linings amidst this collective heartbreak, one is an opportunity to return our children to nature. I never wanted to homeschool my kids; I knew I’d be rubbish at it. (I knew my kids would be equally rubbish at it.) Thankfully, they still have their wonderful teachers, even if they can only see them on a screen right now. I figure, for as long as we’re packed in together like sardines, I can give my kids two blessings: I can read them books; and I can gently push them towards the trees.

You know what social distancing is good for? Secret gardens. If your children need convincing to let nature step in as teacher, read them the extraordinary new picture book biography, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver (Ages 7-10). My kids were riveted. Evocatively written by Gene Barretta and accented with richly expressive oil paintings by Frank Morrison, the story demonstrates how young George Washington Carver’s intimate relationship with nature as a child grew into a passionate career as a botanist, inventor, and activist.

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2019 Gift Guide: Favorite Picture Book of the Year (and How Family Should Be)

November 21, 2019 § 6 Comments

How it’s almost Thanksgiving I’ll never know, but the season of giving will soon be upon us. Seeing as I’ve read more this year than any other, I think it’s fair to say my 2019 Gift Guide won’t disappoint. I’m aiming to include something for every child and teen on your list. As has become tradition on this blog, I begin with my favorite picture book of the year (although spoiler: this year I have TWO, so stay tuned). Past years have seen this, this, and this. It has been hard keeping this one a secret…although timing for today’s reveal feels especially fitting.

Growing up, I always preferred Thanksgiving to Christmas. I would never have admitted this; it seemed odd as a child to prefer a holiday of sitting around, eating off formal china, and making conversation with grown-upsover one with presents and candy and caroling. But there was something about the warmth and coziness of Thanksgiving which seduced me: returning home frozen after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to an apartment abounding with hissing radiators and the smell of roasting turkey. There was the comfort of looking around the room and seeing the people I loved and not having the distraction of which gifts might be under the tree and which, disappointingly, might not.

It’s not lost on me that the timing of Thanksgiving plays a role in its appeal. After all, Thanksgiving kicks off the Holiday Season. It’s a time of anticipation, and there’s nothing more alluring to a young child than possibility. It may not be the holiday of presents, but it’s a road sign pointing towards the presents. Pointing towards the twinkling lights and crackling fires and colorful wrappings.

Still, there can be a kind of magic in and of itself created by family—and, if we’re lucky, it becomes almost tangible on Thanksgiving Day. For a few short hours, the world outside falls away, and the inside jokes and knowing glances and lingering hugs take center stage. Dishes are prepared with love and displayed in beautiful ways, and we relish the bounty of this precious togetherness.

In her exquisite new picture book, Home in the Woods (Ages 4-8)one of the finest examples of bookmaking I’ve ever encountered—Eliza Wheeler invokes her grandmother’s childhood to tell the story of a family who manages to make magic for themselves, even in the toughest of times. (You might remember Wheeler from this long ago favorite. Since then, she has mostly illustrated others’ texts. So happy to see her back in the seat of author and illustrator, because her writing is every bit as evocative as her art.)

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Gift Guide 2018: An Early Reader to Celebrate

December 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.) « Read the rest of this entry »

A Christmas Love Story

December 11, 2017 § 4 Comments

I’m pressing pause on my Gift Guide to tell you about something you shouldn’t wait until the 25th to give. There has been a disappointing dry spell in stand-out Christmas picture books in the past few years. Every December, fresh from cutting down our tree, my children squeal with delight when they unpack old favorites tucked around ornament boxes—treasured stories like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Little Santa, Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas, and Shall I Knit You a Hat?. New titles just haven’t brought the same magic.

I’m pleased to report that this year, according to our family, a new classic has been born. Matt Tavares’ Red and Lulu has everything we’re looking for in a Christmas book, beginning with a cover—two bright cardinals soaring through soft snow above the illuminated tree in Rockefeller Center—which is sheer gorgeousness. Is there anything more romantic than New York City in the snow at Christmastime? « Read the rest of this entry »

Laughing Our Way Back to School

September 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt(Before we get started—HELLLLOOOOO AGAIN!—I thought I’d link to three guest posts that I wrote as part of a Summer Reading Series for the local blog, DIY Del Ray. There’s one on picture books about the garden; one on recent new installments in our favorite early-chapter series; and one on my favorite middle-grade chapter books so far this year.)

And now, let’s get down to today’s business.

As I write this, my kids have been back in school for a few short hours. The house is blissfully, rapturously, guiltily quiet. The good news is that I can finally do laundry in the basement without my children scootering—and I mean, quite literally scootering—around me. The bad news is that I can’t get cuddles or kisses or giggles whenever I want.

As my kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to see summer end. I will miss my buddies. I will miss our lazy mornings (only the mail carrier knows how long we stayed in our pajamas). Most of all, I will miss our adventures—the way every new shade of green, every sun-kissed rock, every goldfinch and swallowtail and cicada becomes something to marvel at and remark on.

And I will, of course, miss the many hours we curled up to read together (as well as the times when we were too busy catching a ferry or celebrating a swim meet or chasing fireflies to read at all). Lest you think my silence this summer meant that we didn’t discover piles of new books, I can promise you redemption this fall. We have a lot to catch up on.

Beginning with what we read at the very end of our summer break. « Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time… « Read the rest of this entry »

Waking Up the Garden (Ushering in Spring with a Classic)

March 10, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett & Inga MooreThe setting in which a book is read can create magic beyond the words on the page. I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, to my children on a long weekend last month. We were nestled beside a roaring fire in the lobby of a grand, historic inn in the mountains, while the snow that would strand us for an extra day of vacation came down in big, soft flakes outside the tall arched windows. With my children pressed against me in rapt attention, it didn’t seem like life could get much better.

Little did I know that even more magic would come in the weeks ahead, when we brought the book back home and continued reading it while the first hints of spring began to transform the earth outside our front door. And that’s when it hit me: The Secret Garden (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)—and, in particular, artist Inga Moore’s enchantingly illustrated unabridged gift edition—may be the BEST WAY EVER to usher in spring. « Read the rest of this entry »

Mid-Summer Reading Roundup

July 16, 2015 Comments Off on Mid-Summer Reading Roundup

"The Blue Whale" by Jenni DesmondRemember how last summer I waited until August to tell you about my favorite beach-themed picture books of 2014? Well, this summer, you’re in luck, because I’ve only waited until July (you’d think by now I would have a clue as to how impossibly little a parent can accomplish when school is not in session).

"Ice Cream Summer" by Peter SisAnyway, in case you missed the Facebook posts, I recently did three 2015 summer reading guest posts for the wonderful local blog DIY Del Ray. The first (read it here) was about my favorite new beach-y Picture Books: Sea Rex, Pool, Ice Cream Summer, and The Blue Whale.

"Dory and the Real True Friend" by Abby HanlonThe second post (read it here) was focused on new titles in Early Chapter Series, guaranteed to keep those newly-independent readers from losing momentum over the summer: Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny, The Case of the Weird Blue Chicken, Pop Goes the Circus, and Dory and the Real True Friend (this last one hit bookstores just this week— WHOOOP WHOOOP—we have mad love for the first Dory book in our house, if you recall).

"Circus Mirandus" by Cassie BeasleyThe third post (read it here) starred middle-grade novels for the 9-14 year old crowd, especially those who love escaping into rich, meaty stories—in this case, those tinged with everyday magic (after all, nothing beats summer for magical escapades): Circus Mirandus, Echo, A Snicker of Magic, and (my favorite YR novel of last year, now in paperback) The Night Gardener.

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetWant more? I was feeling nostalgic (lazy?) and dug up some old posts from my archives, books that are still read frequently around our house, especially in these hot, sticky, lazy days of summer. Remember last year’s ode to Reading Deficit Disorder and this poetic cure? If the poems in Firefly July are too long, you can’t get any shorter than seasonal haikus (with some zen meditation thrown in for good measure).

"Picture a Tree" by Barbara ReidThere’s no time like summer for instilling a love for the natural world. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for books about trees, titles like Picture a Tree and The Tree Lady. Oh, and never forget how The Lorax can make stage-worthy readers of us all. Then there’s Miss Maple’s Seeds, which I could pretty much read every day to my children, so lovely is this message of care taking and growing up.

"The Dandelion's Tale" by Kevin Sheehan & Rob DunlaveyIf you, like me, are desperately trying to recruit your children to help pull up the mountains of weeds that seem to erupt in the backyard after every downpour, then you might have luck piquing their interest with books about worms. Or dandelions. Or bugs. Or birds (seriously, these bird books are amazing).

"The Night Fairy," by Laura Amy SchlitzAnd please, if you haven’t spent a few glorious firefly-studded evenings reading The Night Fairy, then tarry no longer. While we’re on the subject of chapter books that pay homage to the natural world, need I also remind you about the sequels to The Cricket in Times Square, where the scrappy Manhattanites become seduced by the charms of the Connecticut countryside?

"The Noisy Paint Box" by Barb Rosenstock & Mary GrandpreOccasionally, I wake up in summer and decide we’re all going to learn something. And off we go to a museum, after which I have to spend a few days lying about basking in the glow of my parental ambition and warning my children not to talk to me. If I’m really feeling fancy, I pair these museum or zoo outings with books about art history or books about astronomy or books about archaeology or books about zoology. Sometimes, I just can’t bear the thought of another packed picnic lunch, and so we make do with staying put and reading about Famous People and the Really Important Stuff They Did.

"Boy, Were We Wrong About the Weather!" by Kathleen V. KudlinskiIf you live in my house, you are privy to 70 daily discussions about the weather, 90% of which are generated by my seven year old. And that was last year, when the weather was relatively uneventful. This summer, the daily discussions have risen to 700, almost as frequent as the hourly changes to the weather forecast. Boy, Were We Wrong About the Weather! is my son’s new obsession—that is, when he isn’t lecturing me about the devastating effects of global warming, as evidenced in this other favorite.

"Jangles: A Big Fish Story" by David ShannonAnd last but not least, don’t forget about our finny friends, the ones lucky enough to spend their whole year plunging beneath the clear, cool water. Many of my favorites are listed in this post from a few years ago (Jangles!), which incidentally concludes with my longest and most diverse reading list to date. Of course, we must add this year’s magnificent non-fiction picture book, The Blue Whale, and now we’re right back where we started.

Happy summer, happy reading.

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The Book That Saved December

December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments

"Winterfrost" by Michelle HoutsReading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.

What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.

I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out. « Read the rest of this entry »

When Bigger Really is Better

September 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Runaway Tomato" by Kim Cooley Reeder & Lincoln AgnewOn a Saturday morning towards the end of summer, on our way to go swimming, we swung by our local bookstore, so that I could run in and grab a gift for a birthday party later that day. My kids waited in the car with my husband, and when I returned a few minutes later, they asked with excited curiosity, “What book did you get?” I told them that I had picked a brand new one, by Kim Cooley Reeder, titled The Runaway Tomato (Ages 2-6). “RUNAWAY TOMATO?!” they shrieked, throwing their heads back in laughter. And thus commenced twenty minutes of their regaling us with their own ideas of where a runaway tomato might come from and what it might do.

Perhaps it’s because our attempt at growing tomatoes this year was such an Epic Failure, that my children think the idea of harvesting gigantic tomatoes is pure absurdity. Or perhaps there is just something innately hilarious about stories starring fruits and vegetables gone rogue (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has always been a favorite of JP). Either way, we had to return to the bookstore a week later to get a copy for ourselves. « Read the rest of this entry »

Mischief Making

September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

"The Troublemaker" by Lauren CastilloEvery spring and fall, there are a few weekends where my husband and I become so absorbed in the Giant Time Suck that is yard work, that we essentially ignore our children. Going into these weekends, I always envision this picture of domestic bliss, where JP and Emily will be working alongside us, shoveling heaps of mulch into the flower beds, or hauling handfuls of leaves into bags (because aren’t kids supposed to relish any chance to be around dirt, not to mention dangerous tools?). Quickly, though, our kids tire of manual labor; their attention wanes, and they’ll announce, “We’re going inside,” where they will drag every toy into the center of the living room and play, largely unsupervised, for hours. I say largely unsupervised, because I don’t want you to think that I’m completely negligent. Sometimes I look in the window to discover that they have prepared themselves lunch (oh, is it that time already?).

But in all seriousness: isn’t it astounding how much we can get done when our children are off entertaining themselves? And yet, no good thing lasts forever, and there is that moment—it might come after three minutes, it might come after three hours—when it all goes to pot. When boredom begins to rear its ugly head, and the temptation to Make Mischief takes over. And when you’re a big brother, and you have at your disposal an unsuspecting little sister, this temptation is often too much to resist.

So it is perhaps no surprise that our entire family—especially the aforementioned little sister—has become fans of Lauren Castillo’s The Troublemaker (Ages 3-6). In this charming story, a boy and his stuffed raccoon surreptitiously kidnap the little sister’s stuffed rabbit and set it blindfolded and sailing across a pond, all while the parents are harvesting tomatoes (see, it’s not just me). « Read the rest of this entry »

Taking Cues from Mother Nature

June 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

"The Dandelion's Tale" by Kevin Sheehan & Rob DunlaveyJP has decorated his summer journal and is ready to record our adventures (here’s hoping his motivation extends past the first week). Many of these adventures will take us into nature, where there are always metaphors to be discovered about life. Take, for example, our vegetable garden: each morning we wake to budding strawberries, and each evening we return to discover that they have been devoured by the squirrels and cardinals (how dare the latter betray me after I sung their praises right here?!). There’s a lesson somewhere in there about patience and not expecting to get things right the first time. And so we return to bed with renewed hope.

The Dandelion’s Tale (Ages 4-8), a new picture book by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey, offers us another metaphor, this one about the fleeting, cyclical nature of life. This gem of a book takes what can be a heavy subject and delivers it in such a subtle, eloquent, kind, and accessible way, that children won’t realize they’re being taught a Great Lesson. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it stars a dandelion. You’d be hard pressed to find a child that isn’t obsessed with dandelions. A yellow flower that I can pick with no adult getting mad (not to mention wind into chains, tuck behind my ear, or proudly proffer to whatever grown-up happens to be standing near)? A billowy white flower with such delicate seeds that the tiniest puff of breath sends them sailing across the grass? Yes, a child’s love for dandelions runs deep. « Read the rest of this entry »

An Easter Bunny All Moms Can Get Behind

April 15, 2014 Comments Off on An Easter Bunny All Moms Can Get Behind

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold ShoesWhen JP was three years old, and I went from working full time to staying home full time, these were the thoughts that kept me up at night: What will happen when my children see me as “just a mom” instead of as a mom and a professional? Will they respect the work I do? Will they think of it with the same importance that they bestow upon their father, when he leaves for the office every morning? Will they grow up believing that women aren’t capable of the same career success as men—or entitled to make the same sacrifices, reap the same compensation for comparable work? Will I be a role model for them or merely someone whom they take for granted?

In the past four years, I have largely reconciled my angst around these questions. I’m keenly aware that even to have the choice to stay home is a luxury not afforded to all—and one that could abruptly end for me someday. The work that I do every day on behalf of my kids, my husband, and our house makes all of us happy. But I’m also aware that when I did work 9-5, the time that I made for my (at the time only) child was quality, focused time. I got down on the floor and played with my son more than I probably do today, when too often I’m in the kitchen or chatting to other moms on the sidelines of playdates. I think about my own mom, who was around every single day, and how out-of-this-world excited I got when my dad’s car pulled into the driveway at night. There is perhaps some inevitability in taking for granted quantity and romanticizing quality.

But perhaps at no time do I feel greater validation as a mother—stay-at-home or not—than when I take out The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (Ages 4-10) and read Du Bose Heyward’s 1939 classic to my kids each Easter season. As much as the story is a celebration of traditional motherhood, it is also one of the earliest feminist tales—for a simple mother bunny outwits her bigger, stronger, prouder, and more handsome male competitors to earn the coveted position of fifth Easter Bunny. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Thomas Jefferson by Maira KalmanMy wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).

Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both). « Read the rest of this entry »

Groundhog Day (& Other Books About the Weather)

January 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Groundhog Weather SchoolMy six year old doesn’t understand why Groundhog Day isn’t a school holiday. I tried to explain that, with February 2 being a Sunday this year, it’s sort of a moot point. “But it’s not always on a weekend, Mommy.” So then I tried to explain that the government only picks a few of the most important people in our history (ahem, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.) to honor with a school holiday—and that contrary to what he might think with ALL THESE SNOW DAYS, kids are supposed to be IN SCHOOL, learning stuff that their parents don’t have the patience to teach them. “Well, Punxsutawney Phil IS very important because he can PREDICT THE WEATHER.” This is a fair, if debatable, point.

The children’s books on the subject of this Very Important Holiday tend to be either factually straightforward (Gail Gibbons’ Groundhog Day! is usually the teacher’s favorite) or purely fictional (read: silly and unhelpful). But this year, I stumbled upon a find that combines fact, fiction, and An All-Around Good Time: a book titled Groundhog Weather School: Fun Facts About Weather and Groundhogs (Ages 5-9), by Joan Holub, with illustrations by Kristin Sorra. This is precisely the type of book I knew JP would enjoy reading by himself (and, as parents of newly independent readers know, we’re always on the hunt for “that book”). « Read the rest of this entry »

“Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

November 21, 2013 Comments Off on “Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

The Tree LadyI’m completely obsessed with trees right now. I know what you’re thinking: this is not news. And, you’re right, I’ve written about my love for trees (and stories featuring trees) here, here, here and here. But I’m really, really obsessed with trees right now—and that’s because I have recently been tree shopping. When my kids were baptized last spring, their grandmother offered to buy each of them a tree to grow up alongside. So, earlier this fall, the kids and I did what we do best: we walked, we scooted, and we drove around our neighborhood looking at trees. How had we missed so many of these beauties before? “How about we get one of each?” my son ventured.

Eventually, we narrowed down our choices, but then there was the question of how and where to buy the trees. I initially thought, I’ll look for a deal on the Internet. But then my gardening friend reproached me: you need to see a tree before you buy it, need to study its form, need to find one that speaks to you. This is why, one crystal clear November morning, I found myself standing in a wholesale nursery an hour away in Maryland, surrounded by 600 different varieties of trees. I was walking up and down rows of trees, examining curves of trunks and canopy shapes, paying way too many people to follow me around offering their opinions, and starting to feel like I was going to have a hard time explaining to my husband how this simple decision to buy two trees had gotten totally out of hand. Did I mention how much fun I was having? « Read the rest of this entry »

Unlikely Companions

October 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Sophie's SquashChildren form attachments to the oddest things. Take, for example, the dried out husk of a seed for which my six year old spent a recent afternoon constructing a shoebox house, complete with a toilet-paper-tube flag post and a felt blanket and pillow that he actually sewed himself. Did you get that? For a seed. There was also the time that he and his sister took their plastic straws from a restaurant to bed with them. These are not children who are hurting for baby dolls or stuffed animals; they simply choose to imprint on the less obvious choices.

So, is it any surprise that they would love Sophie’s Squash (Ages 3-7), a new picture book by Pat Zietlow Miller (fellow children’s book blogger), where a little girl develops a steadfast affection for a squash that her parents pick out at the farmers’ market and intend to cook for dinner? Sophie uses black marker to draw a face on the butternut squash; she names it Bernice (love); she wraps it in a baby blanket and rocks it to sleep; she takes it to story time at the library (double love); and she even organizes play dates for it with other squash (triple love). In other words—as her very patient parents soon realize—this squash is no dinner. « Read the rest of this entry »

Digging in the Backyard: Summer School Wraps Up!

August 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yucky Worms by Vivian FrenchEarlier this summer, the kids and I were on a morning walk—JP in the lead on foot, Emily trailing on her scooter, and me bringing up the rear. It had rained most of the night before, and the sidewalks were still damp. Abruptly, JP let out one of his characteristic ear-splitting screeches (at almost six, the boy still has no regard for volume control): “STOOOOOOP, EMILY!” Before I could launch into my characteristic lecture about not screaming into people’s faces, especially when that sweet face belongs to your little sister, JP followed it up with, “MOMMY, EMILY WAS ABOUT TO RUN OVER A WORM!” I looked down and, sure enough, the sidewalk was covered in worms, evidently displaced from the previous night’s storm. Is it wrong that I immediately assumed JP’s reaction was based on the grossness factor of squashing a worm between one’s scooter’s wheels? I’ll admit I felt slightly guilty when, once everyone calmed down (by now Emily was screaming nonsensically about worms as well), JP explained, “We have to be so, so careful not to hurt these worms. They need to go back into the dirt to make the plants grow!” I wasn’t going to tell him that these worms didn’t look like they were going anywhere ever again; Emily and I simply followed in tow as he went first and pointed out any worms that we should steer around.

It’s moments like these—rare, fleeting moments—when I wonder if maybe I’ve done something right as a parent. That somehow in all my blabbing on about trees and seeds and caterpillars, my kids have begun to develop an appreciation for the natural world that surrounds them. I would have to credit any success I’ve had to books like Yucky Worms (Ages 4-8), by Vivian French and Jessica Ahlberg, which is part of a fantastic Read and Wonder Series published by Candlewick Press. This is natural science for young kids at its best: fictional stories packed with scientific facts that are woven accessibly into the narrative. In Yucky Worms, a boy gets a lesson in Wormology from his green-thumbed grandmother (perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was first introduced to spiders and butterflies by my two grandmothers?).

Quick to exclaim “Yuck! Throw it away!” when his grandmother digs up a “slimy, slithery, wiggly worm,” the boy in the story gets schooled on the different parts of the worm, how it tunnels through the ground, what it eats, and how its poop enriches the soil. It turns out that worm poop—white curly forms called “casts”—are very plentiful in our backyard. It also turns out that most earthworms do not regenerate when accidentally cut in half by a gardening spade (I now get schooled regularly on this by my “backseat gardeners”). There is much to love about this book, from the sweet relationship between grandmother and grandson, to the hand-drawn diagrams of the worm’s anatomy, to the answers to questions kids don’t even know they have, like what happens to worms in the winter. But perhaps the biggest appeal for kids are the word bubbles that occasionally come out of the mouths of the worms themselves, reinforcing the lessons in the book while adding some enticing humor. What is it about worms that seem to invite speech bubbles? Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss incorporate a similar technique in their hilarious series, Diary of a Worm (more fun than fact but still surprisingly illuminating about these creatures). Worms have a lot to say, evidently, as they dodge predators or feast on moldy fruit.

Here, the story continues on the side, while the worms take front stage with their tunnels and word bubbles.

Here, the story continues on the side, while the worms take front stage with their tunnels and word bubbles.

I have tried my darndest this summer to get my kids out into nature. When it comes time to make dinner, it’s all I can do to resist the temptation to turn on the TV, shooing them instead into the backyard. Inevitably, I am called out moments later to settle some dispute over an ancient half-broken toy that has been unearthed from the shed and is suddenly the Only Thing Worth Playing With. But, in time, they settle into the rhythm of things and begin to take closer notice of their surroundings. Once again, my dinner making is interrupted by yelling: “Mommy, come out here RIGHT NOW!” I trudge outside more than a little exasperated, only to find the kids, not fighting over toys, but instead huddled over a corner of the deck. I bend down to see a spider’s web glistening from drops of water that have fallen out of the just-watered planters above. “It’s just like the one in the book!” JP exclaims, referring to Helen Frost’s stunning photograph of a dew-covered spider’s web in Step Gently Out, which we had just been reading that morning. “Only it’s even more beautiful,” he adds. “Yes,” Emily pipes in. “It’s sooooo boootiful.”

Other Favorites About Backyard Critters:
Step Gently Out, by Helen Frost (Ages 3-6)
Where Butterflies Grow and The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder & Lynne Cherry (Ages 3-6)
The Honeybee Man, by Lela Nargi (Ages 4-8)
Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Spider, & Diary of a Fly, by Doreen Cronin & Harry Bliss (Ages 4-8)
Insect Detective: Read and Wonder, by Steve Voake & Charlotte Voake (Ages 4-8)
Seeds, Bees, Butterflies & More: Poems for Two Voices, by Carole Gerber & Eugene Yelchin (Ages 5-10)
Plus these favs mentioned in a previous post about Young Naturalists!

June’s Birthday Pick

June 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

Water in the ParkLast Friday, after a long week of 90 degree days, the kids and I were driving around struggling to fill the few hours between school and dinner. I suddenly remembered that earlier that day, I’d picked up a stack of just-published books at the store, and so I proposed that we head home to read in the AC. “Reading Party! Reading Party!” my son immediately began chanting, a phrase left over from when his sister was a baby and I would coax him into lying down with me while she took her morning nap in the other room, under the pretense that he could load up the bed with books and we’d have a “Reading Party” (true, my motivation was entirely selfish—must lay head down—but I’m also a big believer that, as parents, our excitement around reading rubs off on our kids).

So, as we sat down to read last Friday, I thought I’d use my kids’ reactions to decide which title to make my birthday pick for the month. I had all my money on Mini Grey’s new Toys in Space, because it’s hard to go wrong with a story involving a fleet of misplaced toys, a spaceship, a conflicted alien, a Wonderdoll blessed with storytelling prowess, and Grey’s hilarious (if occasionally crass) speech bubbles. (Incidentally, I chose another Mini Grey book for last July’s birthday pick, so there must be something about warm temperatures that puts me in the mind of Toys Coming Alive). As expected, Toys in Space captivated my kids and elicited no shortage of laughs. But when all was said and done, it was the final book in our pile that they asked to read a second and a third time—and which they both chose as their favorite.

Emily Jenkins and Stephanie Graegin’s Water in the Park: A Book About Water & the Times of the Day is a quiet, unassuming, lyrical portrait of the transformations that take place in a city park over the course of a typical hot summer day, from the early-morning canine visitors to the tottering babies putting their hands in sprinklers to the adults taking their lunch breaks on shady benches to the evening strollers that get caught in the cooling rain. Of course, there are lots of obvious reasons why my kids (and your kids) would like this book, most especially because it fits entirely into their frame of reference (dogs! swings! parents! nannies! boo-boos! containers of apple slices! tears over leaving the park!). In a season where the heat can make being outside feel oppressive, it’s nice to celebrate that water can be poured into sandboxes to make moats or drizzled down scorching metal slides; that a stray cat can enjoy a sip in a lingering puddle; and that a timid dog might finally decide to wade into the pond. One also can’t ignore the widespread and very natural representation of diversity among the children and adults at the park (Jenkins took her inspiration from weeks spent observing Prospect Park in Brooklyn).

But I think the biggest reason why my kids love this book (and why you shouldn’t hesitate to give it for your next birthday gift) is the sheer comfort that comes from reading a story that’s grounded in the natural progression of a day, whose very text echoes a predictable rhythm of dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, and night. Very early on, children develop a fascination for time, but it’s not for many years that they truly grasp the meaning of “ten o’clock” or “noon,” that they recognize patterns not only in their own day but in the strangers and animals around them (gasp: the park has a life even when I’m not there?!). There’s a wonderful calm that comes from reading a story that helps to make sense of the order of things. And when the rainstorm descends to cool us all off, there’s comfort in knowing that the sun will shine again.

Water in the Park

“Around one o’clock, grown-ups wander in, squinting from their shops and office buildings…Two old people stand [near the pond] with a bag of bread crumbs…On very hot days, the ice cream truck comes early…Children get soft-serve cones and bright Popsicles…Sticky fingers and faces are rinsed in the sprinkler.”

A Story to Grow Up On

May 7, 2013 Comments Off on A Story to Grow Up On

Miss Maple's SeedsIf you’re big into symbolism (or if you, like me, tear up when inscribing books for gifts), then you’re going to want to give Miss Maple’s Seeds to all the young seedlings celebrating birthdays this spring. There are lots of wonderful picture books about seeds (Jean Richards’ A Fruit is a Suitcase for Seeds and Bonnie Christensen’s Plant a Little Seed are two favorites), but none have the magical realism of Miss Maple’s Seeds (Ages 3-7), written and illustrated by newcomer Eliza Wheeler.

Miss Maple is an eccentric, not-quite-of-this-world sort (a bit like my neighbor, who converses with chipmunks in her backyard). Out of her home inside a hundred-year-old Maple tree, she runs a kind of orphanage for lost seeds, dividing her time between searching for “seeds that got lost during the spring planting” and caring for those seeds until they’re strong enough to lay down roots of their own. “‘Take care, my little ones…for the world is big and you are small,’” she continually reminds her seeds—all the while bathing them, taking them on educational outings to learn about different soil types, reading to them “by firefly light,” and giving them chances to practice “burrowing down into the muddy ground” during thunderstorms. “She’s taking care of them like they’re her babies!” my son was quick to point out, an observation that quickly captured the attention of his younger, doll-obsessed sister.

The story’s prose is unquestionably beautiful: lyrical, concise, and easy to connect back to our own children and the figures (parents, relatives, teachers) who so lovingly and carefully nurture their growth. But it is Wheeler’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations, light and airy and with just a touch of whimsy, which make this gem soar. Sporting a willow weed hat, pointed nose, and delicate slit eyes, Miss Maple epitomizes tenderness in all that she does, whether sweeping her hearth to welcome new seeds or bidding each one farewell as she sends them down the river in lantern-lit leaf boats to find new homes.

One of our favorite illustrations looks like something out of a naturalist’s guide, depicting twenty seeds with their species’ names captioned below in cursive writing (presumably from the hand of Miss Maple). From the fat acorn to the oval pumpkin seed to the single grain of wild rice, the page exhibits not only the visual diversity of nature’s seeds but also the magic which seems to lie within (a giant sunflower grows out of THAT minuscule thing?).

We could all use some of Miss Maple’s tenderness in our own relationship with the Earth, just like our own children need the reassurance that “even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.” I dare you not to tear up when you copy that quote inside the cover of this book for your next gift.

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