Survival Skills

February 16, 2017 § 6 Comments

"The Wild Robot" by Peter BrownWhen my daughter was five, we were sitting at the dinner table discussing our days. “I almost forgot,” Emily said. “The craziest thing happened to me today!”

“Oh yeah? What was that?” we all asked.

Emily leaned in conspiratorially, as if getting ready to impart significant information. “I didn’t have a single sip of water all day. BUT I STILL SURVIVED! Can you believe it?”

It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing, not wanting to diminish her stone-sober revelation. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about her words since. Clearly, whether at school or from a book or in conversation, Emily had absorbed something about “what every living creature needs to survive.” But she had only internalized half the story. What must it be like to make sense of the world through bits and pieces, to rarely grasp the full picture, to live your life in a perpetual loop of uncertainty and astonishment (as if you could accidentally “off” yourself at any moment)? « 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 »

Back to School With Monsters (of the Misunderstood Variety)

September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

"My Teacher is a Monster" by Peter BrownOne of my favorite books as a kid was James Marhsall’s Miss Nelson is Missing, a picture book about a smiley, mild-tempered teacher, who, fed up with the rude and rambunctious behavior of her students, dons a pointy nose, a wig, and a black dress to become the witchy, ultra-strict substitute named Viola Swamp; within a few weeks, the children have reformed their ways and are begging for Miss Nelson’s return. The story is a playful reminder that we’re not always grateful for what we have until it’s gone.

As a kid, though, my obsession with the book stemmed from the fact that Viola Swamp’s true identity eludes, not only her students, but us readers as well—that is, until the final page, when we get a glimpse of the familiar black dress hanging in Miss Nelson’s bedroom closet. Once we’re in on the secret, we can’t help but want to read the book again and again, picking up on clues that we missed the first time around, stunned that the truth was right in front of our eyes the whole time. If only we (alongside Miss Nelson’s students) hadn’t been so quick to settle for first impressions, we would have seen that Miss Nelson wasn’t just a sweet face, oblivious to the spitballs flying at her. Nor was Viola Swamp the monstrous outsider we assumed her to be.

Now, forty years after James Marshall published his book, Peter Brown again turns the conventional teacher-student relationship on its head in his infectiously-titled new picture book, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.) (Ages 5-9). “Bobby had a big problem at school. Her name was Ms. Kirby.” « Read the rest of this entry »

Friends Make Everything Better (Two Picks for Valentine’s Day)

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Paul Meets BernadetteMy family spent this past weekend holed up in the snowy hills of West Virginia with three other families. Once we adults began to block out the chatter and squeals of nine (mostly) happy children running circles around us, we were able to entertain some blissful grown-up time. And as I watched my children mature and transform across three full days of kid-on-kid time, I found myself feeling immensely grateful for friendships of both the tall and short kind. In this winter that has gone on too long, it is our friends that have put smiles on our faces, ideas in our head, and glasses of wine in our (adult) hands.

With Valentine’s Day shortly upon us, I’ve once again chosen a bit of a non-traditional path for my children’s gifts (and, gasp, I’ve even cheated and given the gifts early!). These two new picture books—both by first time author-illustrators—rise above the saccharine-sweet-mushy-gushy-dime-a-dozen stories out there by celebrating friendship in unique, quirky, and unforgettable ways. In Rosy Lamb’s Paul Meets Bernadette (Ages 4-7), we are reminded of how good friends can change the way we see the world. « 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 »

Permission to Go a Little Wild

September 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

Mr. Tiger Goes WildThe routines of back to school are upon us. I am slowly adjusting to weekday mornings without the kids (meaning that I’m nearly home from drop off before I realize that I’m still humming along to the Music Together CD in the car; before I realize, Wait. I don’t have to listen to this. Wait! I can listen to anything I want!).

At the same time that I’m shedding a little responsibility, my children are being asked to assume more. They have traded the creative liberty of summer dressing (JP pairing bright green shirts with bright green shorts) for the navy and khaki of school uniforms. Our leisurely mornings of PJs and drawn-out breakfasts have been traded for early wake up calls and a litany of come on, let’s move along, did you pack your lunch bag, please take off that cape, why on earth are you getting out the play dough, for crying out loud hurry up (yes, I have read the articles about how we’re ruining our children by saying “hurry up” all the time, and I’ve made a mental note to work on that in my next life). « Read the rest of this entry »

Things That Go Bump in the Night

September 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

There’s no better time than the fall for reading spooky stories! Now, before you start worrying, let me preface by saying that my almost five year old is the ultimate Nervous Nelly; so, if he’s not scared by these stories (and actually demands to read them again and again), rest assured that your kids won’t be either. In fact, if you have a child that’s scared of the dark, even better: books like these can be an invaluable tool for empathizing with kids about their own nervousness (and helping them understand the role their imagination plays).

Without further ado, I give you my favorite new spooky story of the fall: Creepy Carrots! (Ages 4-7), by Aaron Reynolds, with illustrations by Peter Brown. I have loved everything Peter Brown has ever done, beginning with his first book, Flight of the Dodo, which is a quirky story about bird poop (remember: my son has a thing for poop books). What impresses me most about Brown is that none of his books feel derivative: for each story, he perfectly tailors his illustrative style to the topic at hand. In Creepy Carrots!, he sets his witty, cartoon-like drawings against a backdrop reminiscent of film noir, invoking a Hitchcockian play of black and white frames accented by splashes of orange.

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You’ve Got a Friend in Me

June 5, 2012 Comments Off on You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Before homework and competitive athletics, long before college essays and declaring majors, there’s preschool. And, in preschool, there’s one thing all parents hope for: that our little ones will learn how to make a friend…or two. So I can’t help but get a little choked up every time I read a story about the blossoming of a young friendship, like the one that saves the day in Otis and the Tornado (Ages 3-7), by the incredibly talented Loren Long.

Otis and the Tornado is actually the second story Long has written about an old tractor named Otis, rundown in age but not in spirit (the equally charming first book is titled simply Otis). No one can match Loren Long’s ability to engender sympathy in his readers for inanimate objects; and he does this by endowing them with a range of soft, subtle, but highly emotive facial expressions (see also his spectacular adaptation of The Little Engine That Could). Whether he looks joyful, bashful, worried, or brave, we can’t help but love this tractor and his “putt puff puttedy chuff”s (say that three times fast). Otis is also a hit on the farm, beloved by geese and sheep alike; together they enjoy hours of rounds of Follow the Leader, with everyone taking a turn to lead (it’s a regular preschool class!).

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Leaving the World a Little Bit Greener

April 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

Happy Earth Day (or, as my very astute 4-year-old pointed out this morning, “Aren’t we supposed to care about the earth every day?”)! Oh right, yes.

Ironically, with all the increased mobilization around Going Green in the last several decades, the member of our family who actually most fully embodies and preaches a love for the planet is my 94-year-old grandmother, referred to affectionately by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as Noni. As a child, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ farm house, on the shores of Lake Erie, getting lessons on the value of spiders (you never kill a spider, we were told, even if it is sitting on your toothbrush), the conservation of water (why shower when you can swim in the lake?), and that sometimes leaving trees and wildflowers right where they are makes the best kind of landscaping.

Today, one of the highlights of my son’s summers is the week he spends with Noni up at this same spot, where the house has been modernized but the land has not. These days, Noni’s mostly sedentary, but by golly if she doesn’t still go out with her hose to water her garden, and JP loves to trail behind her, occasionally earning a turn with the hose, but mostly getting an earful on “dead heading” flowers, which weeds are “not worth your time,” and how to grow the oldest and biggest Hibiscus plant in the history of time.

Perhaps this is why he (and I) respond so wholeheartedly to Grandpa Green (Ages 4-8), by the supremely talented (and deliciously quirky) Lane Smith. Through the simple and admiring words of a little boy (armed with his own watering can), we learn about his great-grandpa, a masterful hedge trimmer, who transforms ordinary garden hedges into dragons, elephants, wedding cakes–even the cast of “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Little Engine That Could.” As the boy explores his great-grandpa’s garden, we realize that every “milestone” of the latter’s life has been remembered in one of these stunning green creations.

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