Long Live the National Parks

April 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

Last summer, we vacationed in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was our family’s first foray into one of the major National Parks, and we had gotten the idea six months earlier while watching National Parks Adventure, the astoundingly beautiful and nail-biting IMAX movie (can we talk about those mountain bikers?!), directed by Greg MacGillivray and narrated by Robert Redford. All four of us left the Smithsonian theater feeling like we were missing out. Our regular hikes around our local wetlands preserve—beloved as they are—suddenly didn’t feel like…enough. Turns out we were right. In Acadia, after days of hiking around sparkling lakes and in and out of deliciously fragrant pine forests, of scrambling over vast expanses of rocks flanked by crashing waves, my son exclaimed, “This is what we should do on every vacation! Which National Park should we visit next?”

Next week is our spring break, and we’ll be stay-cationing. But, while our feet will be traversing our neighborhood parks, our imaginations will be taking flight on the adventures in the mountain of spring releases that have recently landed on our doorstep. Of all the new spring titles, probably the one I’ve most anticipated is Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon (Ages 9-13), a staggering and richly informative window into the ecology, geology, and history of the Grand Canyon. « Read the rest of this entry »

Activism Born on the Page (A Book Club Post)

March 9, 2017 Comments Off on Activism Born on the Page (A Book Club Post)

“We read to practice at life.” So proclaims award-winning children’s author, Linda Sue Park, in her must-watch Ted Talk, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?” Speaking from a childhood spent in and around libraries, Park argues that stories offer children a unique “superpower”: the chance to “practice facing life’s unfairness with hope, with righteous anger, and with determination.” Great works of literature do more than shape us: they become part of who we are.

Hope, anger and determination were present in spades over the past two months, as my son and his third-grade classmates gathered for “literature circle,” a book club of sorts which I’m lucky enough to lead at their school each Wednesday. Selecting A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park’s short but tremendously powerful 2010 middle-grade novel set in and around Africa’s South Sudan, was hardly unique. Part refugee story, part war story, and part exposé on contemporary life in one of the poorest corners of the world, A Long Walk to Water (ages 10-16) has long been hailed as a story which begs to be discussed in the classroom, not only for the meaningful context which teachers (or parents!) can provide to Park’s intentionally sparse writing, but also for way this particular story inspires children to want to learn—and do—more. « Read the rest of this entry »

Celebrating Yellow Time

October 6, 2016 Comments Off on Celebrating Yellow Time

"Yellow Time" by Lauren StringerThere is a row of ginkgo trees that the kids and I used to pass every morning on our drive to school. For six years, beginning in early October, we would watch as the trees’ leaves transformed into a beguiling bright yellow—one of the purest, most saturated articulations of yellow that I have ever come across in the natural world. And still, we quivered in anticipation, because we knew that the best part was still to come.

Every ginkgo yields to the mysterious fate of losing all its leaves at the exact same moment. If you can catch the release—and we were lucky enough to do so on a few occasions—it is like a delicate rainfall of sunshine. If you miss it, you still have a few hours to catch the luminous carpet of gold that billows on the sidewalk beneath the bare boughs. It is infectious. It is magical. It softens the blow of winter’s coming and returns us to the present of fall, the most impressively beautiful of the seasons. « Read the rest of this entry »

Facing the Past to Better the Future (A Book Club Post)

June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred D. TaylorLike many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.

But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.

“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.

How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves? « Read the rest of this entry »

The Bravest Kind of Kindness

June 11, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel“Kindness” has become a buzz word across parenting literature of late. Are we teaching our children to be kind? How do we go about raising kind children? How can we prevent “bullying” on the playground or “mean girls” at play dates?

And yet, for all the lip service we keep giving to the importance of kindness, a recent study found that as many as 80% of youth reported that their parents seemed “more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others.”

I find reports like this deeply unsettling, although they’re not entirely unsurprising. After all, kindness can be really hard stuff. It’s one thing to remember a relative’s birthday; to hold the door open for a stranger; to put an arm around a friend who is crying. Undeniably, these are all kind gestures. But it is quite a different thing to put someone’s deepest needs before our own; to step outside our comfort zone; to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes and, in the process, open up our hearts to the potential for understanding, connection, and forgiveness. Stretching the limits of kindness—this is when the real magic happens.

In his gorgeously illustrated and deeply feeling new picture book, The Song of Delphine (Ages 4-8), Kenneth Kraegel tells an unforgettable story of a child’s courageous act of kindness in the face of adversity. It’s an act that not only dramatically changes the course of the two lives in the book, but has the power to transform the reader as well.

You might remember author-illustrator Kenneth Kraegel from his riotous read-aloud romp alongside Arthurian knights and dragons. Here, in The Song of Delphine, Kraegel’s signature watercolor and ink paintings, with their evocative lines and folkloristic feel, are paired with a more sensitive and sophisticated subject. It’s a Cinderella story of sorts, a story of servitude and poverty set against royalty and luxury. Only there’s no fairy godmother to be found, no prince to impress. Our heroine must make her destiny out of her very own humanity. (Oh, and did I mention the story is set in Africa?)

In “the far reaches of the wild savannah,” in the palace of the great Queen Theodora, lives a motherless, fatherless, friendless servant girl named Delphine. Delphine is tasked with keeping the palace clean from morning until night—in short, doing “whatever she was told to do.”

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

One day, a princess arrives to live at the castle. It’s the queen’s niece, a young girl who has allegedly lost her own mother and been rejected by her stepmother. Despite Delphine’s hopes that the two will become friends, it is quickly obvious that the princess intends only to “bully” the other, accusing Delphine of things she did not do, insulting her, and adding to her already endless workload.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

If you haven’t experienced the strong sense of black-and-white justice that runs through a young child, you need only to share this story with him or her. What is omitted in the text is revealed in the pictures, and my children were lightning fast to pick up on it. “But the princess is the one who knocked over the bucket, Mommy!” “The princess is the one tracking dirt across the floor! Delphine isn’t doing any of these things!”

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

Indeed, it is not easy to watch or listen to the abuse Delphine receives. It makes us as uneasy as it does our children. And Kraegel does not sentimentalize it. He paints it clearly and starkly.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

But Delphine has a unique coping gift. She has a beautiful singing voice, which she uses to transcend the everyday toils of sweeping, mopping, and fetching water. It’s a simple act, it’s simply drawn, and yet, let’s admire for a moment the passion and grit in our young heroine.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

As the story develops and Delphine’s suffering increases, her evening singing attracts the attention of the savannah’s wild giraffes, who carry her out the bedroom window, across the tree-dotted plains, and reward her with nuzzles, smiles, and desperately needed companionship. These giraffes, with their regally lifted necks, soft mouths, and beautiful brown spotting, are the heart of this story for my daughter. She simply cannot get enough of them. Frankly, neither can I.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

But here’s where things get really interesting. One night, the giraffes mistakenly return Delphine, not to her own bedroom, but to that of the haughty princess. The latter, assuming Delphine has come to rob or attack her, yells loudly for help, attracting the attention of the queen’s guards, who capture Delphine and lock her in the dungeon. And yet, before she is carried off, something magical happens. Delphine catches sight of a framed portrait in the princess’ room, which she correctly guesses to be that of the princess’ mother.

‘“I never knew my mother,’” Delphine said softly. “You must miss yours terribly.”
The princess stared hard at Delphine.
“When I am feeling lonesome, there is a song that I like to sing,” said Delphine.
“It goes like this…” And, almost whispering at first, Delphine sang. Steadily, her voice grew stronger and stronger, filling the room with sound and feeling.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

Imagine this: a young girl is able to put herself in her tormentor’s shoes and imagine the sadness and pain that must lie beneath the cruel actions. Delphine doesn’t shout, “Stop it, you mean Bully!” or “You’re going to be sorry when I grow up and get out of here!” Instead, she says, I’m sorry for what you are going through, and I want to help. She says, I’m going to make this moment about you, not me. She asks for nothing in return.

This is, after all, a fairy tale of sorts, so we aren’t surprised when Delphine gets her happy ending. Princess Beatrice (named only now that she has become worthy of a name) realizes her mistake, releases Delphine from prison, and brings her before the queen to showcase her beautiful singing voice. Delphine is promoted to the palace’s singer; and—most significantly—she and Beatrice begin a lifelong friendship, beginning with the princess’ sincere apology, “Thank you for being so kind, even when I have been so cruel.” Together, the two enjoy nightly escapades atop giraffes.

"The Song of Delphine" by Kenneth Kraegel

I like to think that Delphine’s happy ending of forgiveness and friendship would come to pass in real life, too. My children’s Montessori school recently held a Parent’s Night, where they challenged us to avoid labels like “bullies” and “mean girls.” “Words like these are a dead-end street,” one teacher said, “and they do nothing to acknowledge or address the motive behind the action.” If we are going to raise kind children, we must teach them to look beyond labels, to not label in the first place. We must teach them empathy.

The message embedded in The Song of Delphine is not an easy one to internalize. Who knows how many readings or reminders or years or examples before my children truly understand what it means to be kind in the face of cruelty.

But perhaps it starts with story time.

Here’s another study (this one cited in a fascinating recent article in The New Yorker about the power of reading fiction both to heal oneself and to develop empathy towards others).

This 2011 study, published in the Annual Review of Psychology and based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

In other words, our children’s reading material has the power to become the moral compass by which they approach their lives.

After the third time I read The Song of Delphine to my almost five year old, she had this to say: “Mommy, sometimes I get a little water in my eye when I listen to this story. It goes away really fast, but it feels kind of funny for a few minutes.”

Perhaps empathy starts here.

Other Favorites With Inspirational Examples of Empathy & Kindness:

The Sandwich Swap, by Queen Rania of Jordan, Kelly DiPucchio & Tricia Tusa (Ages 5-10)
Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson & E.B. Lewis (Ages 5-10)
Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson & Tara Calahan King (Ages 5-10)
Desmond and the Very Mean Word, by Desmond Tutu & A.G. Ford (Ages 5-10)
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena & Christian Robinson (Ages 4-10; reviewed here)
Those Shoes, by Maribeth Boelts & Noah Z. Jones (Ages 6-12)
The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi (Ages 6-12)
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes & Louis Slobodkin (chapter book, Ages 7-14)
The Family Under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carlson (chapter book, Ages 7-14)

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

The “Help” They Can Do Without

April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline ValentineSometimes I think there has never been a more distractible child than my Emily. Ask her to go upstairs for a hair bow, and she’ll come down ten minutes later with a baby doll. Ask her to take a bite of her food, and she’ll break into song before the fork gets halfway to her month. There are days when I think she was put on this earth to teach me patience (and, Holy Saints in Heaven, I am failing).

The temptation to sweep in and finish the job is often too great for me. If I just shove her feet into these shoes, we can leave the house! If I just usher these last few bites into her mouth, this dinner can actually end! Although, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s more than mere efficiency that I seek. It’s more than a desire to control the chaos around me. Doing something for my daughter is as much about the sheer pleasure of my feeling needed. (Remember this?)

As parents, we know we’re supposed to nurture a drive for independence in our children, to prepare them for the day when they won’t need us anymore. At the same time, parenting has become this Super Important Identity that we’ve assumed—at times it feels like it has obliterated all other identities!—and it’s natural to feel validated, encouraged, and protected each time our little ones seem to need our help. Even though our head reminds us that we’re supposed to get out of their way, our heart just can’t keep from meddling.

Introducing my daughter’s new favorite book: Little Red Henry (Ages 3-6), by author Linda Urban and illustrator Madeline Valentine. I challenge you to find a preschooler who won’t instantly relate to this tale of a little boy, the youngest of three, whose well-intentioned but incessantly doting family never lets him do anything himself. (The title is a nod to the moralistic fable, The Little Red Hen, about the bread-making hen whom no one will help—only here, it’s the opposite.) « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 6): For the Future World Leader

December 22, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 6): For the Future World Leader

"Grandfather Gandhi" by Bethany Hegedus & Arun Gandhi & Evan TurkI have been waiting all year to tell you about this book. Then, last week, terrorists stormed a school in Pakistan and savagely butchered innocent children. My heart broke as I watched the news coverage; and suddenly, I didn’t want to wait a second longer to discuss this special book. Let’s all hold hands and agree to share this book with our children early and often. Please.

Amidst its powerful message of familial relationships and responsibilities, set against the historical backdrop of one of the greatest leaders our world has ever seen, Grandfather Gandhi (Ages 6-12) is also about the very real, very universal feeling of anger. What the book reminds us is that, however inevitable our anger may be, we always, always have a choice in how we express it.

But let me back up. Let me start by saying that Grandfather Gandhi is not a traditional biography of Mahatma Gandhi (in fact, the book assumes the reader has some basic biographical knowledge—a feat easily accomplished by a parent elaborating as he or she shares this book aloud).

Rather, this picture book is a deeply personal account of Gandhi as an old man—as seen through the eyes of his adolescent grandson. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

December 18, 2014 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2014 (No. 5): For the Kid Who Has Everything

When gift-giving occasions come around, my friends and relatives get nervous about giving books to my kids. “I’ll never be able to pick something you don’t already have!” they assume. Yet, I want to shout, PLEASE give books to my kids! Some of my all-time favorites have turned up in gifts: books I hadn’t heard about until my kids tore off the wrappings. The beautiful thing about the rich, vast offerings of contemporary children’s publishers is that there are more treasures than one person could ever discover on her own.

That said, I do understand that, when it comes to the holidays, you may be struggling to find a book which rises to the top, which stands apart from all the other gems that your children (or your grandchildren, or your friends’ children) have devoured during the other 364 days of the year. Something that feels a bit different. Something extra special.

The two books I’m going to tell you about today would ordinarily never exist in the same post. They are thematically unrelated. But they are both highly unusual. They both push the boundaries of what a book can do.

They are both a little bit Magic.

Animalium by Katie Scott & Jenny BroomFor starters, giving Jenny Broom and Katie Scott’s Animalium (Ages 7-15) isn’t just giving a book: it’s giving an entire museum. Because flipping through the pages of this oversized volume (at 11” by 15”, think of it as a children’s coffee table book) is like walking through the halls of a natural history museum. Designed to expose the diversity, beauty, and hierarchy of the Animal Kingdom, each spread contains an exquisite—a downright spellbinding—pen-and-ink drawing in the style of a vintage taxonomical plate. Only these aren’t the dusty, faded plates that we recall from our own childhood trips to the museum. These are digitally, brilliantly, and realistically colored, then set against an ivory, archival-weight background. I dare you to look away. You can’t. You’ll want to turn the pages forever (oh right, this is for the children—yes, they’ll want to as well). « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2014 (No. 2): Three Books for the Linguist (Ages 6-12)

November 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

Children have an inherent drive towards language. As infants, they hang on our every word. Once they begin to speak, they never tire of the sound of their own voice; and, as they develop more self-control, they relish in the discovery of expressing themselves (“Use your words!”) to get what they want. But it’s in the elementary years, when our kids are at last reading and writing on their own, that they become most keenly aware of the power of words, not only to shape and alter meaning, but also to connect them to the world.

Of course, it can’t hurt to nudge an awareness of the nuance of language into the forefront of our children’s minds. (We have to believe our kids are capable of more than “It was fine,” when asked about their day.) It just so happens that 2014 has given us three exceptional books (one picture book and two middle-grade chapter books) that showcase the power of language.

"The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus" by Jen Bryant & Melissa SweetJen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Ages 6-12) introduces children to the notion that, in the vast archives of the English language, there is a “right” word to express a precise meaning. Bryant and Sweet have become masters of picture book biographies in recent years (remember this post?); but their portrait of the man who invented the thesaurus is their most magnificent to date. The story of Dr. Peter Roget’s life is narrated beautifully for a young audience; but it is the way in which Sweet has visualized Roget’s fascination with language that truly captivates the reader. Like the thesaurus itself (which comes from the Greek word meaning “treasure house”), this is a book that’s impossible to absorb in one—or ten, or twenty—sittings. Visual feasts of collage beckon the eye on every page. « Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Alongside Our Children

November 13, 2014 § 11 Comments

"Buried Sunlight" by Molly BangAt a recent Parents Night, JP’s elementary teacher said something that I haven’t stopped thinking about. We were having a conversation about whether we as parents have a responsibility to teach our children, to reinforce what they are learning at school, to push them in subjects in which they might be struggling. No, she said. “The most important thing you can do for your children,” she said, “is to love life—and to let your children witness and share in that love.”

When we take our children to a museum, she continued, we should take them to the exhibits that we are dying to see; we should read to them from a plaque because we want to find out more information about that painting. If we take them on a nature walk, we should point out leaves or pontificate on seasons—not because we are trying to teach them—but because we want to share with them the very things that are amazing to us in that moment. In other words, we want to inspire our children to learn by letting them see how much fun we’re having doing it. « Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Hear it for the Birds

May 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Have You Heard the Nesting Bird" by Rita GrayWe’re all about birds this spring. Well, to be fair, I’m all about birds, but I’m filling my kids’ baskets with bird-related books, in hopes that they will catch on, too. I can’t help myself. There’s something about Spring Fever that drives me to obsess about some natural wonder alive and transforming outside my window (see past years’ obsessions with trees and worms). And what better way to drag my children along on this journey than through non-fiction picture books, which pair beautiful illustrations and poetic text with fascinating information?

I didn’t exactly choose birds as this year’s subject matter. They chose me. They chose me by waking me up at 4:30am with their frantic, high-pitched chirping. They chose me by making a nest between our roof and my bedroom ceiling, fast and furious work that sounded as if a much larger animal was ripping down sheets of metal. They chose me by distracting my children over breakfast, encouraging bowls of oatmeal to sit half-eaten, in favor of watching a pair of cardinals dancing in the dogwood outside our dining room window (my children are convinced that “Buddy” and “Lady Buddy” followed us two years ago when we moved up the hill to our current house). Let’s just say that the time seemed ripe to learn a thing or ten about the busy birds around us.

What I discovered was a treasure trove of non-fiction picture books starring birds, many published in recent years. I’ve shared my complete list of favorites at the end (with picks through age 10), but I had so much trouble choosing one to focus on here, that I have to expound on two. The first is Rita Gray’s Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (Ages 3-6), illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is one of those deceptively simple picture books that educates as it delights. « Read the rest of this entry »

Fueling Up With Poetry

April 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Poem-Mobiles by J. Patrick Lewis & Douglas FlorianOn the Monday morning following Easter, JP crawled into my bed with a new book and proudly announced, “Mommy, I am going to read you some poems. I have lots of favorites. Some of them are very funny. Also some of them are very weird. A few of them I don’t even understand!” And hence followed one of the most enjoyable 45 minutes that I’ve had in awhile. All thanks to J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian’s new Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems (Ages 5-10).

“Children dive into poetry with the same natural ease as swimmers into water, climbers into trees, and sleepers into dreams…Poetry’s narrative, rhythm and vibrant imagery is the real language of childhood.” So begins a recent online article in The Guardian about a movement among educators and publishers to bring back children’s poetry from “near extinction.” Why, if poetry is so intuitive, so enticing, for children, is it in danger of dying out? The article points a finger at booksellers, many of whom (and I admit to being guilty of this at one time) struggle with how to display and shelve a hard-to-pin-down category. Not considered picture books, not considered chapter books, they end up in their own “poetry” section way off in No Man’s Land. When was the last time you sought out the poetry shelves at your bookstore? « 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 »

Holiday Gift Guide 2013: Compelling Non-Fiction For the Animal Lover

December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Steve Jenkins' The Animal BookLast 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 »

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!

Potty Break

August 1, 2013 § 2 Comments

Time to Pee by Mo WillemsOnce again, I find myself singing the praises of Mo Willems, whose Time to Pee! (Ages 1-4) proved just what my daughter needed to get her potty training on. For those of you who have navigated these murky waters before, you will agree that there are VERY FEW decent potty-related books for kids. There are useless books about princesses sitting on potties. There are patronizing books that suggest you’re only a big kid if you use the potty. But there are far too few that are clever and helpful, fun and functional. But that’s OK. Because all you really need is one great book—and, lucky for us, there’s Time to Pee!

Truth be told, I had been dreading potty training my youngest. I had it too easy with my firstborn. If I told you about how he emphatically decided upon turning two that he wanted to poop on the potty and never looked back, you would hate me. Except that you can’t hate me, because I literally had nothing to do with it (JP has always been a child to take matters into his own hands, skeptical that his parents don’t really know what they are doing and not entirely incorrect much of the time). So when my daughter turned two and showed ZERO interest in anything having to do with the potty, I simply told myself that she wasn’t ready. But then, yikes, almost an entire year passed, and here we are just a few short weeks from her joining her brother in Montessori, where she’ll be expected to do things like wear underwear and wipe her own butt; suddenly, “I no interested in the potty!” seemed like a recipe for disaster. So we took the plunge, gave away all remaining diapers (this tip from the parenting book, Diaper-Free Before 3, a fantastic recommendation from our Montessori director), and casually placed Time to Pee! on the top of a reading pile in the bathroom.

Now, I’m obviously not going to tell you that a children’s book (even one by the brilliant Mo Willems) was the single factor in Emily’s fairly quick and painless transition to the potty (much of the heavy lifting was in fact done by Big Brother). But what I can tell you is that the language in Time to Pee! repeatedly crops up when Em is talking about using the potty. At face value, the book reads like a straightforward (never patronizing) instruction manual, illustrated with Mo’s signature black-outlined doodles: you get “that funny feeling” while playing; you tell a grown-up that you have to go; you march yourself down the hall and into the bathroom, where you pull down your undies, do the deed, and get back to playing. Done. No problem. All the important logistics are covered, like waiting until you are done before grabbing for toilet paper (thank you, Mo) and washing hands afterwards. But then, because it’s Mo Willems, and because he is so darn perceptive about how kids’ minds work and what they are thinking (and obsessing and worrying) about, the book is loaded with humorous touches. “Please don’t ignore it!” (next to a boy with crossed eyes and legs). “Now is your chance to show how BIG you are!” And my favorite: “Everything will still be right where it was” (as the child returns to her tea party).

But the real unsung heroes here are the mice. Yes, that’s right, the hundreds of enthusiastic mice delivering each message, rolling out the red carpet and hoisting up the flags, serenading the potty goer and giving the thumbs up with a coy, “Go for it dude.” Three days into potty training, I tried to follow Emily into the bathroom after she announced that she had to pee. “No, Mommy! You don’t come in! I’m having a party with the mice.” And just like that, I found myself once again singing the praises of Mo Willems.

The aforementioned party in the bathroom!

The aforementioned mouse party in the bathroom!

Other Favorite Potty Stories for Kids:
Even Firefighters Go to the Potty: A Potty Training Lift-the-Flap Story, by Wendy A. Wax, Naomi Wax, & Stephen Gilpin (long after JP was potty trained he still requested this book 10 times a day for two years)
Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi (yes it’s weird, yes it’s kinda gross, but it’s actually quite effective (and my kids love the camel’s “two hump poop”))
A Potty for Me, by Karen Katz
Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle, by Axel Scheffler (my daughter loves this sweet, simple series about two friends—and, lo and behold, they have a potty story about an accident during a playdate)

Learning From History’s Many Heroes

May 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Brave GirlJust because the school year ends shortly doesn’t mean that our children’s minds have to shrivel up like apples left out too long in the sun. Last week, I gave some ideas for great read-aloud novels to share with your kids. Now, I’m going to encourage you to add some non-fiction into the mix—specifically, historical biographies posing as picture books. In previous posts about Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve hailed the rise of today’s picture book biographies, which (unlike the static, black-and-white books of our school days) read like interesting, action-packed stories accompanied by vibrant paintings and intriguing designs. But I’m not merely talking about the Most Obvious Historical Figures; there are lesser known but equally captivating true stories of ordinary boys and girls, men and women, who shaped the world with extraordinary acts of courage, defiance, or creativity.

Where picture book biographies are concerned, contemporary illustrator Melissa Sweet has been on a roll, creating the art for several of my favorite non-fiction books in recent years. Although these biographies are written by different authors, they are unified by Sweet’s signature style—at once instantly recognizable but also entirely unexpected for the historical genre. In place of photographic-like paintings in somber tones, Sweet uses fun colors, whimsical patterns, and collage elements specific to the person whose story she is bringing to life. In Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Ages 7-12), Sweet peppers her background collages with excerpts from Williams’ poems, opening up kids’ eyes to these words and thoughts as an art form unto itself. In Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Ages 5-8), an account of the first person to capture a wild panda in China and bring it to an American zoo for study, Sweet creates frames for her watercolors out of authentic Chinese decorative papers, lending an other-wordly, almost mystical charm to this already fascinating story.

One of Sweet’s most recent triumphs is even more captivating for its portrayal not of an adult but of a young girl. Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (Ages 6-10) tells the mind-boggling story of a Jewish immigrant girl, forced to endure long hours, harsh treatment, and poor pay, while sewing alongside hundreds of other girls in factories (her family’s only hope of putting food on the table.) Clara Lemlich’s “got grit,” and she “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong”; ultimately, she leads the largest walkout of women workers in American history, inspiring thousands of male and female workers across the country to strike for better working conditions and the right to organize unions.

Brave Girl, like most picture book biographies, demands to be discussed with your child—and it’s in these memorable discussions that the real learning begins. For starters, there are words that need to be defined, words like “walkout,” “union,” “garment,” and “shatterproof” (referring to Clara’s spirit). Then there’s Clara’s day-to-day life, which sent my almost six year old into a complete tailspin. “Wait, are you sure this is a real story?” he kept repeating, as I showed him the bird’s eye illustration of row-upon-row of hundreds of ant-sized heads bent over sewing machines; or read to him about the “two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share”; or got to the part about how an exhausted Clara would spend her nights in the library instead of sleeping because “she wants to read, she wants to learn!” (I don’t think JP had ever considered a scenario where a child would not be allowed to go to school.)

JP and his Montessori classmates are big into sewing right now, so he was especially intrigued once I pointed out that the bright paintings are often set against bolts of solid fabrics, frayed pieces of cloth, and decorative ribbons—some sewn with tight perfect stitches and others with uneven zig-zagging lines. In fact, after we finished the story, JP proceeded to go back through the entire book, running his finger along every line of stitches (“And is that REAL BLOOD?” he exclaimed, where two dots of red light up a piece of blue cloth next to some text that explains the repercussions for sewers who accidentally pricked their fingers).

But the best part of discussing picture book biographies with your kids (apart from feeling like you are pretty much the most inspiring parent ever) is getting at the emotional undercurrents of the story—in the case of Brave Girl, themes of justice, leadership, sacrifice, and bravery. As JP gets older, he and I will have more evolved conversations about these first three things; at the present, he was mainly fixated on the concept of bravery. Children tend to associate bravery with physical risks and triumphs, like learning to swim or taking off training wheels; and by this definition, JP knows he is a pretty tentative kid (totally unaffected by the four year olds riding their two-wheelers in circles around him). So, I welcome the opportunity to talk about courage in a different light. The book ends: “…warriors can wear skirts and blouses, and the bravest hearts may beat in girls only five feet tall.” When I finished reading, JP asked me, “How do you think Clara got so brave?”

“I think everyone has bravery inside of them and it’s just a question of letting it out,” I ventured.

“I guess I’m saving it up,” he replied.

“Actually,” I told him, “I watch you do brave things every day, like how you walked up to those older kids today and started talking to them. And you know what else? I think that every time someone uses up some of their bravery, some new bravery immediately comes in to fill that space—so you never run out.”

There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, “I’d like to look at those stitches again.”

Look closely and you'll see stitches around the painting of Clara giving her famous speech in Yiddish that started the largest walkout of women workers (many of them just girls!) in US history.

Look closely and you’ll see the stitches around the painting of Clara giving her famous speech in Yiddish, a speech which started the largest walkout of women workers (many of them just girls!) in US history.

Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies Illustrated by Melissa Sweet:
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, written & illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 4-8)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, by Alicia Potter, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 5-9)
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, by Jen Bryant (Ages 7-12)
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, illus. Melissa Sweet (Ages 8-14)—OK, not really a biography but a great work of non-fiction nonetheless!

Saving the Trees

April 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

The LoraxEarlier today, in honor of Earth Day, I shared Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Ages 5-10) with the elementary children at my son’s Montessori school. While most people associate Dr. Seuss with the nonsensical but catchy I-Can-Read titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, I would argue that his narrative poems—his longer, more complex, often moralistic stories—were actually his greatest gift to children. Not only do these stories showcase a mastery of rhyme that is virtually unmatched in contemporary children’s literature, but many of them also serve as cautionary tales, introducing children to the dangers of things like running away from your problems (I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew), or prejudice (The Sneetches), or, as in the case of The Lorax, industrialization at the expense of natural resources.

The Lorax, a “brownish,” “mossy,” raspy-voiced creature, who famously utters, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” may have been conjured up by Dr. Seuss in 1971, but his environmental message resonates just as clearly today. And yet, there’s a second hero in this story, one with greater power than The Lorax himself. I’m referring to the unnamed child, who appears at the beginning and the end of the story—the one to whom the Once-ler relates (and repents) his decision to knit every last Truffula Tree into an ambiguous but allegedly multipurpose Thneed, “which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs.” This child, to whom the Once-ler entrusts the very last Truffula seed, along with instructions to nurture it with water and clean air, literally holds the future of the planet in his hands; he is the reader’s hope for a happy ending. « Read the rest of this entry »

Beholding the Trees

April 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Picture a Tree“I’m thankful for the trees,” my five year old blurted out last Thanksgiving, as we were going around the table giving thanks for the usual holiday stuff (togetherness, food, health, etc.). His comment was so unexpected that I’ll admit we all burst out laughing (being a child must feel like a thankless job at times). But for all its randomness, I believe his comment was 100% genuine. JP has always had a special place in his heart for trees (plus his favorite color has been green since he could talk—see last year’s post in honor of Earth Day).

I like to think that a tiny bit of his appreciation for these living, breathing, magnificent things, which line our streets and fill our forests, is owing to me. You see, as much as I want my children to grow up with the deepest love and appreciation for their planet, as much as I believe that the future of this planet lies heavily in the choices their generation will make, I can be lazy. I would like to be the kind of mom who plants a vegetable garden every summer with her children, who participates in volunteer days picking up litter at inner-city parks, who turns banana peels into compost. Instead, my kids get a single tomato plant and some herbs in planters on our deck.

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Seeing the World in Color

March 23, 2013 § 3 Comments

Baby Bear Sees Blue“It’s bud season! It’s bud season!” chanted my children earlier this week, after some long-awaited warm sunshine had beckoned us into the backyard. Thankfully, they were referring not to the beer (although my son’s soccer team does call themselves the Silver Bullets), but rather to the discovery of tiny little green bursts on the ends of our hydrangea bushes and crape myrtles. Since this is the first spring in our new house, our backyard is full of surprises, including yellow daffodils and purple crocuses and little red berries, all of which the children were delighted to point out to me as they raced back and forth across the lawn.

This springtime exuberance is exactly why I love Ashley Wolff’s Baby Bear Sees Blue (Ages 1-4), about a baby bear venturing forth from his den to discover the colors of the world. “Who is warming me, Mama?” asks Baby Bear. “That is the sun,” Mama says, as Baby Bear steps into a pool of brilliant yellow; “Baby Bear sees yellow.” And so begins a series of introductions to different colors, from the blue of the jays to the red of the strawberries to the grey of an approaching storm cloud. For months now, I have been trying (and failing) to teach my two year old her colors; at two and a half, she knows the names of all the colors and loves to exclaim “that’s purple!” or “that’s red!” for things that are, in fact, green or blue. I’m not obsessing about this, having drunk the Montessori Kool-Aid that she’ll learn on her own time (either that or someone will eventually tell me she’s color blind). But I figured it couldn’t hurt to start reading her books about colors, a rich topic in children’s literature (see my complete list of favorites at the end of this post).

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