Where Imagination Reigns

September 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

"The Way to the Zoo" by John BurninghamI’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before. When I was ten, I was obsessed with Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, the award-winning novel about a boy who runs away to live in a hollowed-out tree in the Catskill Mountains. This (naturally) meant that I started pretending that my New York City bedroom, a tiny room off the kitchen, on the opposite end of our apartment from my parents and sister, was actually the top of a mountain, covered with rocky terrain and miles from civilization. When I’d wash my face before bed, in the teeny adjoining bathroom, I’d turn on the cold tap, close my eyes, and imagine that I was splashing myself from an icy mountain stream.

Yes, I was a book nerd (still am). But I’m letting you in on this little secret twenty years later to make a point: for children, bedrooms have always been magical gateways to flights of imagination. Take Where the Wild Things Are, my four-year-old daughter’s current obsession. Is it a coincidence that young Max is sent to his bedroom before the walls fall away and he journeys to the land of the Wild Things? Of course not. The boy’s adventures behind closed doors are entirely his own. They are private. They are bizarre. They are scary. They are magnificent.

I told you recently about how my daughter claims a raccoon visits her each night while she sleeps, making a “racket-tacket” loud enough to wake her up. So I instantly knew that John Burningham’s The Way to the Zoo (Ages 3-7)—a new picture book about a girl who discovers a secret door in her bedroom leading to a zoo, thereby unleashing a slew of nightly visits from different animals—would be a slam dunk for us. « 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 »

Send-Off for Sendak

May 8, 2012 Comments Off on Send-Off for Sendak

Today we remember Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), arguably the most game-changing children’s author and illustrator of the 20th century; he took age-old storytelling conventions and turned them on their head (or, rather, sent them on a wild rumpus through the forest). His beloved Where the Wild Things Are has topped more recommended book lists than any other children’s book in history—as much for its glorious depiction of a boy’s uninhibited reign over his imagination as for its foray into previously shushed subjects like parental abandonment and night terrors. Sendak’s later books took even more risks, got simultaneously darker and more brilliant (and not without their fair share of controversy).

But for me and my family, Sendak’s “sweet spot” lies in his earliest works–no less memorable, even if they didn’t upset the status quo at the time. Before his characters were banished to their rooms without supper or left to wander the streets of New York without clothes, there were the deliciously sweet, make-me-want-to-read-to-my-children-all-day-long moments between a little bear, his parents, and a quirky ensemble of friends. I’m referring, of course, to the Little Bear books (Ages 3-7) by Else Holmelund Minarik, which Sendak illustrated in his 30s.

In simple pen-and-ink sketches, Sendak masterfully conveys in his animals a depth and range of emotion that the text only hints at. In a few pages’ time, Little Bear can go from bashful to boastful to stubborn to surprised to on top of the world to completely confused. If that doesn’t sound familiar, you haven’t spent enough time with my four-year-old!

But that’s just it: Maurice Sendak was masterfully attuned to the volatility and fragility of children’s emotional lives, and it’s this quality that makes his illustrations so enduring. What child can’t relate to the sheepishness on Little Bear’s face when he hugs Mother Bear after she comes home with his birthday cake, only to find he has made “birthday soup” for his friends, believing she had forgotten his special day (Little Bear)? Or his goofy expression as he’s trying to get a laugh out of Grandfather Bear on one of their walks together (Little Bear’s Visit)? Or the look of panic when his friend Emily’s treasured doll falls from a tree and breaks a limb (Little Bear’s Friend)? Or his wide-eyed wonder while listening to Father Bear’s tales of meeting a mermaid at sea (Father Bear Comes Home).

Mention one of these moments to JP and he is quick to page through the corresponding book and point out the picture. Many a morning I’ve made JP’s bed, only to find these dog-eared paperbacks deep down in his covers; he is not unlike Max, embarking on his own imaginative journey with the help of these treasures. Today, when I broke the sad news about Maurice Sendak to him, his words said it all: “Don’t worry, Mommy. Little Bear will always be my favorite.” Sniff.

Other Favorites Illustrated by the Great Maurice Sendak in His Early Days:
A Hole is to Dig (Ages 3-6), by Ruth Krauss
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (Ages 3-6), by Charlotte Zolotow
The Nutshell Library, including Chicken Soup with Rice and Pierre, I Don’t Care (Ages 4-8), by Maurice Sendak (and don’t miss the video adaptation produced by him as well!)
No Fighting! No Biting! (Ages 4-8), by Else Holmelund Minarik

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