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!). But every class has the potential for a bully, and this farm is no exception: “Everyone was so friendly, except…the bull. The bull was nobody’s friend. When he was not in his pen, he was kept in a pasture all by himself.” The bull, it seems, has brought this isolation upon himself: every time the animals approach his pen, he snorts and snarls and huffs; one time he even charged into the gate towards Otis. Luckily, this is a story about Second Chances, and the bull gets his clean slate when a tornado approaches the farm. As the sky darkens, the farmers race down into the cellar, leaving Otis to unlatch each of the animal’s pens and lead them down to the lowest point of Mud Creek (yes, your child will now know exactly what to do in the face of an approaching funnel cloud). “But just as they squeezed close and tight, Otis heard an awful bellowing cry…the sound of a large creature in trouble.” It’s the bull, of course, and Otis must race against the clock to go back and free him before the tornado touches down. It doesn’t matter how many times JP has heard this story: when we reach this part, his body tenses in suspense, his milk cup freezes mid-sip. Time is running out, and when the latch on the bull’s pen proves stuck, Otis “threw himself into reverse, revved his engine, and charged backwards into the gate. CRASH! The gate shattered into pieces.” (Cheers erupt and JP relaxes.) Otis leads the bull to the safety of the other animals, and they all huddle in the Ultimate Snuggle. When the tornado passes, the animals emerge to a badly damaged farm, but the narrative ends on the sweetest and most hopeful of notes: when all the clean-up is done, they have a new friend in the bull, a new buddy to join in Follow the Leader. And the bull? Well, “instead of a snarl and a glare, he wore a happy grin and a friendly gaze.” Because, really, isn’t having a friend the best? (Congratulations to this year’s preschool and pre-K graduates!)

Otis the tractor rescuing the bull

Huddled in safety from the storm (the Ultimate Snuggle)

Other Favorite Animal Tales Where a Friendship Saves the Day:
Otis, by Loren Long (Ages 2.5-5)
Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys, by H.A. Rey & Margret Ray (Ages 2.5-5)
The Lion and the Little Red Bird, by Elisa Kleven (Ages 2.5-6)
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6)
Pete and Pickles, by Berkeley Breathed (Ages 4-8)
Chowder, by Peter Brown (Ages 4-8)

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.

There is very little that’s not green (and, I mean, EVERY shade of green) in Smith’s vibrant dimensional illustrations, and one can’t help but feel awe-full at the beauty of this color (coincidentally, green has been JP’s favorite color since he could talk—so perhaps I could bind his artwork and sell it next Earth Day).

But where I get all teary as a parent (and a granddaughter) is in the subtle but powerful ending, where the two generations stand pruning side-by-side, and the little boy tells us that it’s OK if his great-grandpa doesn’t remember everything anymore “because the garden remembers for him.”

Other Heartwarming Favorites About Leaving the Earth a Little Bit Greener:
The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart & David Small (Ages 4-8)
The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown (Ages 4-8)
Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney (Ages 4-8)
We Planted a Tree, by Diane Muldrow & Bob Staake (Ages 5-8)
Our Tree Named Steve, by Alan Zweibel & David Catrow (Ages 4-8)

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