Gift Guide 2018: The Best for Last?

December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

Shhhhh. The final post for my 2018 Gift Guide is here, but I don’t want my husband to know. (And not just because he would like me to start doing things around the house again—sheesh.) You see, I’ve written to Santa and asked him to put this book into my husband’s stocking. (And not just because the kids would fight over it.) If there was ever a guaranteed Christmas Morning Crowd Pleaser, this book is it. I simply cannot wait to read this (oh right, let my husband read this) to our group as the tissue paper flies. Mwahahaha!

Adam Rex is hands down one of the cleverest and funniest contemporary picture book creators. (Our family’s favorites are too numerous to list here, but The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors and Chloe and the Lion would be at the top.) But taking on Darth Vader? Now that seems a bit risky. Or gimmicky. Or, at least, not worth time on a blog about fine literature.

WRONG.

Turns out it was a risk worth taking. Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (Ages 5-100) wasn’t even on my radar until a week ago, when the great Betsy Bird included it on her list of 2018 Funny Picture Books, describing it as Darth Vader meets The Monster at the End of This Book (remember that throw-back Little Golden Book with everyone’s favorite Sesame Street monster on the cover?). Well. I took the bait and got my hands on it.

Are You Scared, Darth Vader? is not just one of the funniest books of the year. I would venture to say it is the funniest. You can almost hear Adam Rex cracking himself up as he writes it. Darth Vader emerges every bit the Scrooge we love to hate.

An off-page narrator heckles Darth Vader, determined to find something which scares him. (“I DO NOT GET SCARED. NO ONE HAS THE POWER TO FRIGHTEN LORD VADER.”) Oh yeah? How about a vampire? Or a ghost? How about a wolfman? (“I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLF, AND I AM NOT AFRAID OF A MAN. SO NO, I AM NOT AFRAID OF A WOLFMAN.” “It could bite you.” “IT COULD NOT. I AM WEARING ARMOR.”)

Well then, a witch. A witch could curse you. (So sorry, but I’m about to give up the best spread.) Wait for it…

The Dark Lord may have a deadpan comeback for all the usual suspects our narrator puts in front of him, but he fails to anticipate the oldest trick in the book. Who can topple such surliness, such moroseness, such darkness? An entourage of exuberant kids, of course.

Especially the kid (or husband) reading the book. After all, reading is its own form of the Force.

Published by Disney and Lucasfilm Press. 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!

That concludes my 2018 Gift Guide! I’ll see you one more time next week (when I tell you about the chapter book we’re reading aloud this holiday break) and then I’ll take a few weeks off before seeing you again in the New Year. In the meantime, I always stay active on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids), Twitter (@thebookmommy), and as of today (!) Instagram (@thebookmommy). Happy gift giving, and I hope you’ve found what you needed in my posts! (If not, do let me know.)

Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.

As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)

What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:

…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.

Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.

As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)

I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.

All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.

But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.

Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.

…and Jenny’s head fell off.

I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.

I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.

The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.

The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.

While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?

Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)

A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.

This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.

We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.

With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:

Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.

Really.

So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.

You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.

And, of course, the most blood.

The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.

 

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Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from 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!

Hiding and Seeking

November 5, 2015 § 7 Comments

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy CecilIt is possible to chart my daughter’s growing up against the backdrop of our games of hide and seek. Not but two years ago, whenever we played hide and seek, I would look up after slowly counting to ten and discover Emily standing but a stone’s throw away, beside a giant bush (beside, not behind, the bush). At which point, I’d do the thing that all parents do at one time or another: I’d turn my back to the bush and speak loudly into the air, I wonder where Emily is hiding. Where, oh where, could she be? To which she’d inevitably blurt out, I’m right HERE, Mommy!

Fast forward to last spring, when my daughter and I were playing hide and seek outside her school after dismissal one afternoon. You have to pick a really good hiding spot, she instructed me, before covering her eyes and commencing her counting. I ran across the lawn, turned down a little garden path, and squatted behind a bench. Moments later, I heard her exclaim, Ready or not here I come! And I waited. I waited some more. I waited so long that my quads started shaking and I thought I might die of boredom, and so I snuck a peek back in her direction. And there she was: climbing a tree at the other end of the lawn, singing gleefully with her friends, our game completely abandoned.

Finally, there was last month, when Emily walked over to where I was seated on the sidelines of the playground and pleaded with me to play with her. I’ll hide first, she proclaimed. And so I covered my eyes and counted to twenty. Ready or not here I come! I started at one end of the playground and methodically worked my way towards the other, bending down to peer under picnic tables and around garden plots. Nothing. I peeked inside the tunnel slide. Nada. I swear to you, it felt like hours had passed, and still I could find no sign of her. I began to run, zig-zagging across stretches of blacktop and grass, my heart pounding, flashes of child kidnappers tearing through my mind (oh God, did I ever warn her about men who approach with promises of puppies?), shouting to my friends and her friends, Where’s Emily? Where is Emily? Have you seen Emily?

It was my son who finally located her: she’s behind that tree. And sure enough, I could see her navy school uniform sticking out from behind a maple at the farthest end of the remotest part of the park. I raced over to her, expecting her to be as frantic as me.

She looked up and beamed. That was a really good hiding spot, don’t you think, Mommy?

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: she had grown up so much. My daughter had transformed into this brave, confident, fiercely independent little girl standing before me. I couldn’t stop the tears from leaking out, as I pulled her close and muttered into her hair, You got me good, little bird. You got me good.

Hide and seek—with its endless opportunities for experimenting with independence and togetherness—just so happens to be the theme of Barbara Joosse and Randy Cecil’s Evermore Dragon (Ages 3-6), a follow-up to their original picture book, Lovabye Dragon, which I fell in love with three years ago. It is rare for me to declare a sequel every bit as good as the original; it is even rarer for me to deem a sequel better than the original. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this companion book is every bit as enchanting as the first—and possibly even a smidgen better.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

With the same sing-songy narration as Lovabye Dragon—not quite prose and not quite poetry, sometimes playful and sometimes solemn, a princess story without being a princess story—Evermore Dragon presents “a very little girl” and “a very biggle dragon,” two best friends who originally discovered each other when Girl’s lonely tears led the equally lonely Dragon straight to her castle doors. In Evermore Dragon, the friendship is now in full swing. At the wake of derry-day/ the friends decided what to play. Yup, you guessed it: hide and seek.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

It’s a bit of a lost cause for a dragon to conceal wings, tail, long spiky neck, and great big bulging eyes amidst your typical park scenery. But our Girl has a touch of parental compassion about her and pretends not to notice “his Drag-enormo self” sticking out from behind the rock upon which she stands.

And she stood upon a rock
such a very little rock
and she sighed a little sigh
such a very little sigh. Oh, my.

“Dragon’s so good at hiding,
I’m not sure I can find him.
What to do?”

When Dragon suddenly pops up behind her, Girl wraps her arms around his neck and assures him, Oh, Dragon, you’re so clever./  You’re the smartest dragon ever.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

Now it’s Girl’s turn to hide, and she has Big Plans. She races through the forest and across the bog and over a tall bridge and climbs inside the hollow of a tree. And then she waits.

And then everything goes to pot.

Our hearts go out to the Dragon (been there, done that), who earnestly overturns every stone, peers beneath every ridge, searching and searching for his friend. Until at last, the panic welding up inside him, he bellows into the darkening sky, ARE YOU LOST?

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

Our hearts go out to Girl (And she was), who finally climbs out from her tree and wanders frantically through the pitch black forest, amidst “cricking and cracking,” “flipping and flapping,” “moaning and groaning.” (Are there monsters in the night?)

Oh, she tried not to cry!
But she cried silver tears
worry worry tears
and her heart thumped a sound
a trem-below sound
that only Dragon friends,
very very special friends, can hear.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

It is a testament, not only to Joose’s meticulous word choice and lyrical delivery, but also to the range of emotion that Cecil captures in the bodies of girl and beast, that my Emily clutches my arm and buries her head in my armpit every time we get to this part.

“Girl!” thundered Dragon.
“I hear you!” thundered Dragon.

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

The worry, the anticipation, the relief finally at this cry for help being heard: it feels utterly palpable to us parents and children. Only once Dragon swoops down from the sky and “wraps his wings around her/ so everly around her,” can we breathe again.

“I am here,” rumbled Dragon.
“You’re a dear,” whispered Girl.

Dragon held her and he sang,
“Evermore, evermore, I am here.”

"Evermore Dragon" by Barbara Joosse & Randy Cecil

There’s a time for hiding. There’s a time for seeking. There might even be a time for growing out of hiding and seeking. I know that all too soon the day will come when Emily doesn’t want to play with me anymore. But I’d like to ask whomever she chooses as her playmates in this game of Life: will you hear the cry she makes when she has strayed a little too far off course? Will you care enough to help her find her way back? Will you take her in your arms and hold her close?

Because we’re never too old to want to be found.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Talking Out the Scary

October 22, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily JenkinsMy daughter loves to tell us that she isn’t afraid of anything (Me thinks thou doth protest too much!). While JP is cowering under a pile of stuffed animals during a thunderstorm, Emily will announce, “I’m not a bit scared of thunder.” Last Halloween, when JP screamed bloody murder as a suspended bloody hand lunged towards him in a haunted house, Emily was quick to point out, “That’s not even real.”

But ask her to go upstairs to get something in the evening, when the lights haven’t been turned on yet, and she will rattle off every excuse in the book as to why she can’t. “I’m super busy helping my baby use the potty right now.” Not surprisingly, JP can’t resist taunting her: “Are you scared of the dark, Emily?” “I’m not scared, JP. I just don’t like it. Also, sometimes you jump out at me.”

In case you missed my list of favorite Halloweeny-but-not-Halloween-specific books, which was featured last week on local blog DIY Del Ray, you can find it here. But before we wrap up one of the best holidays for reading aloud, I want to tell you about one other new picture book. It features ghosts and witches, but it also introduces a broader conversation about what children find scary—and how talking can sometimes be the best cure for what lurks in the dark.

Written by Emily Jenkins (who has yet to write a book I haven’t loved) and charmingly illustrated by Hyewon Yum, The Fun Book of Scary Stuff (Ages 5-8) is told almost entirely through dialogue, via speech bubbles (this is becoming quite the theme lately) between a little boy and his two (talking) dogs. Our protagonist has made a list of “everything that frightens” him, and as he runs down the list in front of his pets, the dogs expose different flaws in his logic. Witches might “put spells on you,” the larger of the two dogs concedes, but “what are they cooking in that cauldron?” (Food trumps fear if you’re a bull terrier.)

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Trolls are on the list, because, according to the boy, “they’re just gross. All bubbly and warty.”

When did you see trolls? [asks the dog.]

What?

When did you see trolls?

Um. Never.

You keep being scared of stuff that probably doesn’t exist.

So?

I’m just saying.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

The banter between child and canines is equal parts hilarious and endearing. Because it turns out that even macho dogs have their limits. Halfway through, the story moves from monsters and trolls to real-life occurrences, like sharks, or the cousin who once put ice cubes down the boy’s pants (“two times!”). Or the “bossy” crossing guard by the school. “I’m scared of her, too,” confesses the pug, “She smalls like gasoline.”

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Bit by bit, the dogs begin to betray some of their own vulnerability, culminating in the book’s highly entertaining conclusion, where the boy drags the dogs into a closet with him and closes the door, attempting to illustrate his greatest fear: the dark (“Nameless Evil could be lurking!”). The dogs start freaking out and howling and freaking out about who is howling and the whole thing is downright hysterical to my children who, of course, are listening to the story in a brightly lit room tucked around me on our comfy sofa.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

And yet, who saves the day by calmly reminding everyone that you can turn on the light? That’s right: it’s our young human hero who answers the distress calls of his four-legged friends. In the process, he realizes that he might be braver than he thinks. Sometimes.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Somewhere between humor and heart, the book subtly delivers an empowering message to its reader: It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to be afraid of things both imagined and real. It’s OK for us to poke fun at our neuroses, and it’s equally OK to curl up in a ball and howl.

But when the lights go out, before we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the worst, we might try to look deep within us to see if we can remember how to turn on the light.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, but don’t give up reading spooky-themed stories when November 1 arrives. Reading and talking about the dark throughout the year makes it a little sillier, a little more transparent, and a little easier to navigate.

Other Favorite Picture Books About the Dark:
Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night, by Jon Davis (Ages 4-8)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)
The Dark, by Lemony Snicker and Jon Klassen (Ages 5-10)

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

April’s Birthday Pick

April 14, 2013 § 1 Comment

Otis and the PuppySpring is a time of rebirth: a time of budding trees, sprouting seeds, and birthday parties. As for the last, you’re in luck, because there is a brand new Otis story on the shelves! Whether or not you’re familiar with Loren Long’s stunningly illustrated and action-packed picture books about Otis (see previous posts here), a happy-go-lucky tractor who always comes through for his friends, the new Otis and the Puppy (Ages 3-6) is a slam-dunk. Get your local bookstore to wrap up a copy for every one of your spring birthday parties; and don’t worry about whether the recipient has read the original Otis or Otis and the Tornado because, like its predecessors, Otis and the Puppy stands alone. This new book has it all: heart, empathy, heroism, and a doe-eyed, playful-eared puppy. When the puppy arrives on the farm, he develops an immediate fondness for the tractor; he eagerly joins in Otis’ games of Hide and Seek and sleeps each night against the purring tractor. Otis quickly learns that the puppy and him have something in common: they’re both afraid of the dark. So when the puppy strays too far from the farm one afternoon and is not recovered by bedtime, Otis’ “heart ached deep inside his engine. He knew how scared of the dark his new friend was and…he knew his friend needed him.” But can Otis muster up the courage to leave the safety of the barn to search for his friend in the dark?

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately—about how often we call on our children to be brave (the daily list is long: walking up the steps into school; removing training wheels; staying in bed during a thunderstorm). If there’s something children can relate to, it’s the fear behind being brave (didn’t someone once define courage as the act of being afraid and doing it anyway?). The first time I read Otis and the Puppy aloud to my children, their awe was palpable: “Otis is so brave, Mommy,” whispered my son, as a quivering Otis enters the pitched black forest with only his headlights to guide him. “Mind over matter,” my mother used to preach to us when we were afraid; and Otis indeed uses his imagination to calm his nerves, counting “one-putt, two-puff, three puttedy,” as if in the middle of an ordinary game of Hide and Seek. On a recent spring break trip to Florida, my son came up against his very great fear of swimming. For a week, my husband and I tried to coax him into the water above his waist. “My body is saying no, my body is afraid!” he shrieked. “Do you remember what Otis did when he was afraid in the forest?” I offered. “I don’t want to talk about Otis!” he shot back (I could almost hear him as an adult telling his shrink, “My Mom was always trying to compare my life to picture books.” Oops.) Yet, a few days later, when my husband was at last holding his hands and guiding him on his belly through the water, he looked at me, grinned, and exclaimed, “Mommy, I’m counting in my head, and it’s helping!” We’re still a long way off from putting our head in the water, but with literary heroes to inspire us, I know we’ll get there one day.

My children's favorite moment in the book, when Otis finds the puppy (by his tail poking out of a hollow log), and the latter "squealed and cried and covered Otis's face with kisses."

My children’s favorite moment in the book, when Otis finds the puppy (by his tail poking out of a hollow log), and the latter “squealed and cried and covered Otis’s face with kisses.”

Monsters With Manners

October 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recently asked my five-year-old son: “What do you think monsters are like?” His answer: “They have big teeth and sharp claws and they eat little kids.” Oh. Well, the good news is that there’s a new(ish) genre afoot in children’s literature: not-too-scary scary stories (my recent posts on Creepy Carrots and Vampirina Ballerina are great examples). There are also some fantastic monster-themed books, featuring a new generation of what I will call Funny Monsters.

What makes kids find the monsters in these books so funny? Precisely because our little ones, occasionally monstrous themselves, can identify with these monsters’ unpredictable bursts of rage and destruction. On some level, they recognize a shared vulnerability, a shared quest to fit in and make sense of a complex world.

Author and illustrator Patrick McDonnell (best known for his Mutts comic strip) has a knack for creating deceptively simple picture books that get right to the heart of what it means to be human. In the beginning of his brand new The Monsters’ Monster (Ages 3-7), we are introduced to three tiny nay-saying monsters, named Grouch, Grump, and little Gloom ‘n’ Doom (how can you not immediately love this book?). The trio relishes their job of being monsters: they have tantrums, their favorite word is “NO,” and they love crashing, smashing, and bashing (sound familiar yet?).

Not content with their mini-sized monstrosity, the three set out to construct a bigger and badder monster, a beast that can smash through walls and wreak havoc on their “monster-fearing village.” They collaborate on what becomes a giant (and rather cute) Frankenstein-of-sorts. But though he looks the part, it quickly becomes clear that their protégé doesn’t see himself as a monster—no one has type cast him in that roll yet. His first words are “Dank You!” He makes friends with the spiders and bats that live in the shadows of the castle. And he walks into town to pick up doughnuts for his very perplexed creators.

At the end of the book, Grouch, Grump, and Gloom ‘n’ Doom find themselves on the beach, watching their first sunrise and munching doughnuts alongside this Big Bad Non-Monster. In that small moment, they find their manners—they utter their first “thank you”s—and they partake in the gratitude and joy that follows. “So, JP, now do you see that monsters are actually not mean and terrible creatures but a lot like us?” “Yeah, Mommy. But not real monsters. Only the ones in books.” Well, that’s something at least.

Other Favorites with Funny (and endearing) Monsters:
Even Monsters Need Haircuts, by Matthew McElligott (Ages 4-8)
Boris and Bella, by Carolyn Crimi & Gris Grimly (Ages 4-8)
Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, by Adam Rex (Ages 7-12)

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.

The splashes of orange are, of course, carrots—namely, the carrots that a paranoid Jasper Rabbit believes are following him. Jasper has a “passion for carrots,” especially the fat, crispy carrots he pulls out of Crackenhopper Field; unfortunately, his also thinks he hears the “tunktunktunk” of them creeping up on him at all hours of the day and night.

What follows is a hilarious tale of Mistaken Identities. There are few things kids find funnier than a character misinterpreting something that they themselves can easily identify. “‘Mom! Mom!’ Jasper screamed. ‘Creepy carrots! In the shed!’ He opened the door slowly. There weren’t any carrots. Not even the regular kind.” (Instead, there are three orange-handled tools.) The Mistaken Identities snowball as the story progresses (orange flowers, orange soda cans, even orange curtains all look like creepy carrots to Jasper), until at last Jasper decides to stop the madness: he will construct the largest fence around Crackenhopper Field (complete with an alligator-filled moat) to ensure no carrot will ever stalk him again.

The mark of a superbly crafted spooky story is when the main character possesses the scrappy-ness to face his fear head on. Jasper empowers our little ones to call bluff on their own overactive imaginations, reassuring them that there’s no such thing as creepy carrots (oh, and if there were, there’s an easy solution for getting rid of them!). So, dim the lights, grab the flashlight, ready your deepest “tunktunktunk” voice, and give your kids some spookiness of the silliest sort.

“Jasper was about to help himself to a victory snack…when he heard it. The soft…sinister…tunktunktunk of carrots creeping.”

 

Other Favorite Spooky Read Alouds (great for reading around Halloween but not ONLY around Halloween!):
Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara (Ages 2-5)
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, by Linda Williams & Megan Llyod (Ages 3-6)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)

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