Keeping Cool Under the Sea
July 26, 2013 Comments Off on Keeping Cool Under the Sea
I know, I know, I’ve left you high and dry without reading material for nearly a month (vacation will do that); plus, I neglected to give you a birthday pick for July’s parties. So, in order to make it up to you, I am not only going to recommend a fabulous, brand-spanking-new book that you can give to everyone celebrating a birthday this summer, but I’m going to end with an EXTRA-LONG LIST OF THEMATICALLY SIMILAR BOOKS for you to read to your own kids (heck, you could even bundle some for an extra-special gift, like I did for a friend earlier this month). Are you ready?
Much like reading about snow in the winter, one of my favorite things about summertime reading is the excuse to read books about the sea (it’s no coincidence that I featured an octopus story for last summer’s birthday pick as well). Whether you’re spending time on the beach or simply looking for a mental escape from the heat, summer is the perfect time to introduce children to underwater worlds: landscapes so different from ours that they have their own inhabitants and laws, their own colors and sounds, their own unique set of experiences and problems. And yet, much of the best sea-themed fiction immerses kids in these foreign worlds while at the same time drawing parallels between their own emotional lives and the lives of the fishy dwellers within.
Trust me, you will want to dive straight into the pages of Divya Srinivasan’s Octopus Alone (Ages 3-6), where a bright orange octopus is set against an enticing palette of turquoise, seafoam green, and bright pink. I first fell in love with Srinivasan’s unique stylized graphics in Little Owl’s Night (reviewed here). Now, in the much longer Octopus Alone, we are treated to a more involved plot alongside her vivid art. I can’t say that Srinivasan’s narrative voice is as strong or coherent as her illustrations; and yet, the story’s theme—venturing outside one’s comfort level and finding the reward of new friendships—resonated loudly with both my kids. Any child who has felt overwhelmed walking into a preschool classroom or has stood on the periphery watching older kids at the playground will see a little of herself in the bashful octopus, who is so uncomfortable around the outgoing seahorses that she initially retreats from the coral reef into the deeper, darker, lonelier waters. Any child who often stands silently amidst others (but doesn’t shut up at home) will see a little of herself in the octopus, who imitates the dancing moves of the seahorses in private before allowing herself to see how much fun it might be to dance with others.
Like any great sea-themed book, there are countless opportunities for underwater discovery in Octopus Alone. Our family’s favorite would have to be the indisputably charming endpapers, which label (in cursive!) each of the sea creatures that make an appearance in the book (my son is prone to the “puffer fish,” while my daughter’s finger goes straight to the “butterfly fish”). My kids giggle every time Octopus releases her ink to “hide her blushing” or to escape the hungry eel, a nice reminder of aquatic adaptation. The book even makes some (albeit subtle) references to the complex ecosystem of coral reefs, like cleaner shrimp eating algae off the back of a nurse shark or baby dominoes playing hide and seek in the “swaying anemones.” (Older kids can build on these with Jason Chin’s equally stunning and richly informative non-fiction picture book, Coral Reefs…sorry, couldn’t wait until the end to plug that one.)
Our oceans and lakes, our sandy tide pools and rocky bluffs, can be a source of endless fascination for our kids. We have the power to channel this fascination into imagination, education, and hopefully even conservation. So go ahead: dip their toes in the water and start reading.
Other Favorite Under-the-Sea Stories (from youngest to oldest ages):
Over in the Ocean: In a Coral Reef, by Marianne Berkes & Jeanette Canyon (Ages 1-3; board book)
I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean! by Kevin Sherry (Ages 1-4)
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6; ONE OF MY ALL TIME FAVS)
The Pout Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen & Daniel X. Hanna (Ages 3-6; best read in the style of the blues!)
Swimmy, by Leo Lionni (Ages 3-6)
Big Al, by Andrew Clements & Yoshi (Ages 4-7)
If You Want to See a Whale, by Julie Fogliano & Erin Stead (Ages 4-7; also brand new)
Kermit the Hermit, by Bill Peet (Ages 4-8)
Jangles: A Fish Story, by David Shannon (Ages 4-8)
Some Favorite Sea-Themed Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Voyage of Turtle Rex, by Kurt Cyrus (Ages 4-8)
Coral Reefs, by Jason Chin (Ages 5-10)
Island: A Story of the Galapagos, by Jason Chin (Ages 6-12)
Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, by Claire A. Nivola (Ages 5-10)
Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, by Jennifer Berne (Ages 5-10)
Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas, by Molly Bang (Ages 6-12)
The Human Body (Summer School Continues!)
June 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
Summer is naturally a time for children to sharpen their senses and take notice of their bodies. Running barefoot through the freshly cut grass; relishing the pure silence underwater at the pool; feeling the sweat beads on the back of their necks; hearing the crack of thunder that sends them tearing for the house; stretching out on the earth’s back to gaze at a sky full of stars: this is what summer looks, sounds, and feels like to our children. So why not turn these grass-stained knees into a chance to study the human body? And what if we take these bodily lessons further; what if we create an awareness in our children that their bodies aren’t just little planets unto themselves but are connected to the mysteries of the greater universe?
I have long been puzzled by the lack of children’s books that bridge the scientific and natural worlds, so I was thrilled to discover a little gem published last year, written by Elin Kelsey. You Are Stardust (Ages 4-8) is that rare blend of scientific fact and poetic wonder. Beginning with the premise that “every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born,” the book goes on to draw parallels between humans, animals, the earth, and the universe, from the salt water that flows through our tears like it flows through the ocean to the electricity that powers our thoughts like it powers the lightning in the sky. Every fact and connection is intended to shock and awe (and is backed up by scientific evidence). Did you know that the water we drink today is the same water that the dinosaurs drank? Or that “each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant?” (Both of these questions got an audible response from my son: “Is that seriously true?”)
One of my favorite things about sharing books with children is that you can never predict exactly what will rock their world. I would never have supposed that the fact which made the greatest impression upon JP was one having to do with continual renewal—specifically, that “you’ll replace your skin 100 times by the time you turn ten.” When he first heard this, JP threw back his head and roared, “I’m not a snake! Kids don’t shed their skin; that’s ridiculous!” “Not all in one piece like a snake, but in little bits at a time,” I told him, and we went on to discuss things like scrapes, sunburn, and dry skin. For the past week, he has now taken to brushing his hand across his arm 10 times a day, while declaring to his sister that “you can’t see it, but my skin is shedding RIGHT NOW!”
Prior to discovering You Are Stardust, my favorite “metaphysical” book for kids, although on a much simpler, toddler-targeted level, has been Molly Bang’s All of Me: A Book of Thanks (Ages 2-4). With loving, economical text, Bang pays tribute first to a child’s body (“thank you, hands, for gripping and throwing and patting and holding”); then to his senses (“my mouth tastes all my food before it slides down here, into my tummy”); then to his feelings (“today I felt curious, and excited, and angry, and brave…”); and, finally, to the way in which he is part of “this whole wide world…and this whole universe is inside…all of me!”).
What All of Me starts, You Are Stardust expands on for the older child, grounding wondrous observations about the body-universe connection with scientific data (the book’s afterward also cites a website for those who want to learn more about the science behind the book). Perhaps not just coincidentally, both Bang and Kelsey’s books are illustrated with collage, a fitting medium for a lesson on how we are greater than the sum of our parts. The collages in You Are Stardust, done by Soyeon Kim, are actually dioramas, combining rocks, dried flowers, painted leaves, string, tissue paper, and watercolor cut-outs to create a tactile, three-dimensional effect. The illustrations feel youthful and free-form, and I think my son immediately connected with them as something he could approximate with materials gathered from our backyard. I would love for my children (as the author similarly wishes in her afterward) to cart this book outside all summer long, to read it by flashlight in their tee-pee or while propped up on their elbows in the grass. I would like for them to look at the trees and the birds and the snails and the clouds—and to feel their own heartbeat answering back.
Other Favorites for a More In-Depth Study of the Human Body (and with a more traditionally fact-based presentation):
The Skeleton Inside You; Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup and Yawn; A Drop of Blood; Hear Your Heart; My Five Senses, all part of the wonderful Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science Series (Ages 4-8)
See Inside Your Body, by Usborne Publishing (Ages 5-10)
First Human Body Encyclopedia, by DK Pubishing (Ages 6-12)
Bones: Skeletons and How They Work, by Steve Jenkins (Ages 6-12)
Picture This! Human Body, by Margaret Hynes (Ages 8-14)
Farewell to Summer
September 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
I have admittedly failed in the creation of baby books for my children. JP’s baby book never got past the “birth story” page, and Emily’s never began at all. But photos—well, on that front I have delivered. And there’s something else I do to celebrate milestones in my kids’ lives: I’ll purchase a picture book that resonates with a particular memory or moment, and then I’ll inscribe it to JP or Emily with an appropriate sentiment.
In our family, this past summer goes down as the summer that Emily finally found her beach feet, so I could not resist buying Kiyomi Konagaya’s new Beach Feet (Ages 2-4) when I came across it at a bookstore in Cape Cod. For Emily, it has been hard to be the little sister of a boy who would prefer to spend his every waking moment of vacation on the beach. A few months earlier, vacationing in Florida, Emily would hold her hands up and scream “uppy-uppy” as soon as we put her down on the sand. And just a few weeks prior to our vacation on the Cape, while we were at my grandmother’s lake house, she would tolerate the feel of sand on her bare feet for only a few minutes at a time, still too tentative to embrace the beach as her playground.
Hot-Off-the-Press for August’s Birthday Parties
August 14, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’m a bit late with my pick for August birthday parties, but this gift will work equally well heading into the school year, because it’s a book about friendship! In Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always (Ages 4-8), Tao Nyeu is following a great literary legacy of Dynamic Duos (Frog and Toad, George and Martha, to name two favorites from my own childhood). Like her predecessors, Nyeu has packed her stories (there are four, organized as “mini-chapters” in the one picture book) with that winning combination of humor and heart. Squid and Octopus bear a particular resemblance to my son JP and his best buddy Willem: like all great friends, they argue about who is right, they make up by deciding they’re both right, they make each other laugh with silliness no parent can hope to understand, and they give each other lung-compressing squeezes that are supposed to resemble hugs.
What makes Nyeu’s book sing are her fantastical illustrations: pattern-studded silk screens made from water-based ink and colored pencils set against a simple white background. For a book about two cephalopods, living in an underwater universe complete with flower gardens, soup stands, and swing sets, one would expect backgrounds in dizzying shades of blue; but by setting her drawings on white, Nyeu focuses children’s attention on the irresistible quirkiness of the characters themselves. (I won’t say that I’m not totally attracted to the Jonathan Adler-esque color scheme of turquoise and orange as well.) As I was getting ready to write this post, I asked JP what his favorite thing about the book was. Instead of one, I got five enthusiastic points:
With Babies, It’s All in the Delivery
June 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
When you’re reading aloud to babies and toddlers, never discount the Performance Factor. I’ve always considered myself a fairly compelling read-aloud-er when it comes to young audiences (I’ve presided over my fair share of story times at my old store in Chicago), but I’ll admit to being humbled the first time I attended story time with my infant daughter at Hooray for Books!, our fabulous independent bookstore here in Alexandria, VA. These bookstore gals can really hold their own against a crowd of antsy toddlers—and they do so by throwing their own inhibitions to the wind, while invoking no shortage of funny voices, animated gestures, and ad lib phrases.
Before I became a regular at these events, I had never given much thought to Lucy Cousins’ Hooray For Fish! (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs), a board book about a Little Fish who meets and greets all kinds of crazy-looking fish before swimming back to his Mommy Fish. Sure, I’ve always appreciated Cousins’ child-accessible art style: her colorful, loosely-decorated fish, coarsely outlined in black, look as if they came from the hand of a child. But, if I’m honest, the subject of fish doesn’t rank terribly high on my excitement meter (give me a farm animal any day); and I can’t say my son ever cared much for Hooray for Fish! when I read it to him on a plane trip down to Florida when he was one.
Rain, Rain, Here for a Day (Or Two…)
May 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
As a mom of young children, I will admit to feeling a little dread, even a touch of panic, when I wake up and it’s raining. Trapped inside with my kids? Anything but that! Naturally, my kids think it is a treat, since they have activities reserved for rainy days (“Pillows off the couch! Pillows off the couch!”). Over time, I’ve discovered that if I can live in the moment and give in to the calm and quiet of a rainy day (and, yes, the subsequent moments of cooped-up mania), then there is much to be gained for me as well.
And if not, well, there are always rainy day books to read inside our blanket forts! A good rain book should make you feel wet and cozy at the same time. Uri Shulevitz does this to perfection in his 1969 gem Rain Rain Rivers (Ages 2-6), where pen and ink drawings mix with watercolors in an almost haunting monochromatic exhibit of rain, first falling outside a little girl’s bedroom window, then (as she imagines it) trailing through the city streets, out into the countryside, and into the open, swelling oceans.