Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Other-Worldly Encounters For the Young Artist

December 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

JourneyWhen I was young, one of my favorite picture books was Harold and the Purple Crayon, where a little boy makes his own adventures with the help of a single purple crayon. As a child, I loved to draw, but I think the greater appeal for me lay in Harold’s vivid imagination—an imagination that empowers him with an inner resourcefulness, that entertains him when he can’t fall asleep, that gets him out of any sticky situation (drowning? simply draw a boat).

This same spirit echoes across Aaron Becker’s Journey (Ages 4-8), easily the most stunning picture book of 2013 and an inspiration for young artists and adventure-seekers alike. Unlike Harold, a simple visual presentation of purple and white, Journey makes use of a broad palette, although weighted emphasis is given to red, the color of the crayon with which a girl begins her escape by drawing a door (after all, what else can you do when your mom is cooking, your dad is working, and your big sister is too busy?). « Read the rest of this entry »

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.

March’s Hot-Off-the-Press Birthday Pick

March 6, 2013 Comments Off on March’s Hot-Off-the-Press Birthday Pick

Dream FriendsThis one goes out to all the little girls out there—or rather, to their little friends who have spring birthdays. Debut author-illustrator You Byun’s brand new Dream Friends (Ages 2.5-6) is full of the stuff of little girls’ dreams. I’m talking about sugar and spice and everything nice—or, more specifically, bunny rabbits and tea parties and baby chicks and Santa Claus and cupcakes and flowers and, of course, friendship.

Melody has a friend, a best friend, only he’s not your typical friend: for starters, he’s big and white and furry (an ambiguous but lovable dog-cat-raccoon looking thing that my daughter has taken to kissing on the nose each time he makes an appearance). The bigger problem is that this magical friend only visits the little girl in her dreams (although these dreams are filled with such delights as dancing on flower-shaped clouds or watching fireworks explode in the shape of ice cream cones and lollipops).

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My Favorite Christmas Books

December 7, 2012 § 4 Comments

ChristmastimeI was recently approached by the wonderful local parenting blog Del Ray Baby about doing a guest post on children’s books. After considering a bunch of thematic possibilities, I kept coming back to one: Christmas books!  When I worked at my old store, the boxes and boxes of holiday books that I’d ordered would start arriving as early as October. We had to wait until at least Thanksgiving to put them out, so we’d sit at our desks in the stockroom with towers of Christmas titles all around us. Those were wonderful weeks for me, filled with anticipation at ushering in another holiday season and the chance to get these magic-filled treasures into people’s hands.

Yes, I have a weakness for Christmas books. Read all about my favorites here, and I’m betting you’ll love them as much as I do. And a heartfelt thanks to Del Ray Baby for the opportunity to share my musings with a new audience!

The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

August 30, 2012 Comments Off on The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about traditional fairy tales. True, I buy into the argument made by many literary and child development scholars that our children are reassured by seeing young heroes and heroines persevere through creepy, frightening situations. True, out of the hundreds of books I loved as a kid, it was a fairy tale—Hansel and Gretel, to be precise—that made the most lasting impression on me. And yet, with the sheer wealth of original, high quality children’s books being published today, I tend to forget about reading fairy tales to my kids.

Until I remember what may be the very best reason to read them: if your kids don’t know the original stories, how will they appreciate all the fantastic fractured versions that have popped up in recent years? My new favorite is one that was actually discovered by my husband (that’s right, he recently took the kids to a bookstore and managed to buy a book that I didn’t know about—and a brilliant one at that!).

Hot off the presses, it’s an urbanized retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, titled Jack and the Baked Beanstalk, by Colin Stimpson (Ages 4-8). This debut author-illustrator is a Brit (like him already) and a former art director for Walt Disney; the latter is relevant because his impressive cinematic illustrations combine the grittiness of a cityscape with a Disney-esque glossiness.

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You Thought You Could Talk on the Phone?

May 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

It’s a situation we moms know all too well: The kids are playing nicely together; it’s quiet, even harmonious. You tiptoe to the other end of the house to make a “quick phone call.” As soon as the person on the other end answers the phone, there’s a tug on your leg. Suddenly, someone needs milk. Another someone is stepping over you trying to pull the scissors down to open a Zappos box (didn’t you leave that package on the porch)? Another someone has decided now is an opportune time to start poking his sister’s eyes. Another someone (or is it the same someone?) would like dinner and would like dinner NOW but not broccoli no way not eating that and why can’t we have mac ‘n cheese like so-and-so does every night and blah blah blah.

So, it’s no surprise that we sympathize with the mom in While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat (Ages 3-6), by newcomers Amy Reichert and Alexandra Boiger (pub. 2012). Bedtime is approaching, so Mama asks her daughter (think Eloise with red hair): “Rose, dear, please get ready for bed while I have a quick chat with your Uncle Fred. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. It’s getting late! I want you in bed by half past eight.” Naturally, Rose is well intentioned and would go straight to bed (truly), but what’s one to do when the doorbell rings and your mom doesn’t hear it and so you open the door and in bursts a team of men with party supplies for a party you didn’t know you were throwing?

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Chapter-a-Night Adventure

May 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

How do chewing gum, hair ribbons, and six magnifying glasses help a little boy rescue an enslaved baby dragon on a wild island of ferocious talking animals? There are few early chapter books written with as much wit, cleverness, and heart as Ruth Stiles Gannett’s beloved trilogy, first published over 60 years ago: My Father’s Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, & The Dragons of Blueland (Ages 4-9). With short digestible chapters, about 200 words per page, and enchanting black-and-white sketches peppered throughout, they are perfect for reading aloud.

JP and I started these books on a recent train ride to New York and finished them a few days later, only to start them over again. At the heart of the stories is the relationship between Elmer and his dragon, an evolving friendship that brings out the best in both parties. But the real draw for kids is the adventure (no shortage of “close-calls”) and the magic (who doesn’t love thinking about riding on the back of a flying dragon?).

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Alison Jay, Cloud Creator

April 25, 2012 § 3 Comments

If you haven’t discovered the amazing British children’s artist Alison Jay, you’re in for a real treat. Or, if you’re as obsessed with her as I am, you’ll love her latest masterpiece, a fairy tale of sorts titled The Cloud Spinner (Ages 3-6), by Michael Catchpool (a fellow Brit).

The Brits have an unparalleled knack for creating books that feel Quintessentially Childlike, seamlessly blending fantasy with realism, and sprinkling on a quirkiness that makes these stories memorable for a lifetime. Alison Jay’s artistic signature, which she employs in all her work, is a “crackle finish” layered over her paintings, a technique which gives them a vintage look. In contrast, her animals, landscapes, and people feel anything but old-fashioned (here’s where that endearing quirkiness comes into play).

It seems that Jay’s artistic style has not gone unnoticed by JP, my four year old. Our favorite alphabet book is Jay’s ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book, which I’ve been reading to him since he was a baby (and which is jam packed with hidden surprises), along with a handful of her other storybooks (see my list at the end). A few months ago, while perusing the shelves at our local library, JP stumbled upon an Alison Jay book he’d never seen before (William and the Night Train), and he called out, “Look Mommy, it’s one of those books with the crazy clouds!” I had never thought of it that way before, but he was right: Alison Jay does have a very specific way of painting clouds.

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