When Big Sis Starts School

September 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori NicholsSeconds before I heard the door to his room slam shut, I heard my son bellowing these words to his little sister: “Emily, sometimes you are the best of all people, and sometimes you are THE WORST!”

Have truer words ever been uttered about one’s sibling?

Perhaps at no other time than summer is the sibling relationship so poked, prodded, and pushed. There have been long stretches this summer when the only kids at my children’s disposal have been each other. Having so much unstructured time together requires more than a little adjustment. As a parent, witnessing my children re-connect, re-establish boundaries, and re-attune their imaginations with one another, is equal parts mesmerizing and maddening.

Still, take away the bossing and the tattling and the unprovoked hitting (WHY DO THEY DO THIS?), and I am still smiling about the dinosaur dance party I walked in on…or the day my daughter appeared for lunch dragging her big brother on all fours by a dog collar…or the time I eavesdropped on them whispering conspiratorially under the bed. Nor will I forget the tears that welled up in my eyes when, after what seemed like hours of yelling and bickering, I came down from a shower to find the two of them sprawled on the living room floor, telling made-up stories to each another.

I would argue that, in recent years, no picture book artist has captured the young sibling relationship more astutely and adorably than Lori Nichols. Tracking the relationship between two sisters, Nichols first gave us Maple, where Maple (named for the tree her parents planted when pregnant) learns that her parents are expecting a second child. Then came Maple and Willow Together, where the storming and norming of sibling play reaches full fantastic force. Now, in this fall’s latest installment, Maple and Willow Apart (Ages 2-6), Maple’s departure for kindergarten throws both girls for a loop. This new angst is hardly surprising, given that the two sibs have just spent the entire summer playing together (in and around trees and while speaking in their secret nonsensical language—two favorite themes that run through all the books).

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Ah, but which is the greater plight for a sibling: the one doing the leaving, or the one getting left behind?

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
While it has been two years since Emily watched her brother walk up the steps into school without her, this is the first fall that Emily will stay for a full day like JP. Boy oh boy, has she longed for this day. The question of what the school children do between the hours of 1pm and 3pm has been nothing short of an obsession for her these past two years. “I think they get to play special games!” “I think the teacher sneaks them special snacks!” One night, as I tucked her into bed, she whispered in my ear, “Mommy, I think in the afternoon is when the kids learn to read.”

Like Emily, Willow discovers that she, too, can fall back on her imagination during the quiet hours at home while Maple is at school. When Maple comes home—chatting incessantly (and not a little bossily) about everything she has learned, everything she did on the playground, everything her teacher said—Willow lets her big sister in on a little secret of her own.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols
“I had fun, too,” said Willow. “I played with Pip.”

“Pip?” Maple asks. “Who’s Pip?”

“Pip is my new friend,” said Willow. “He has a bumpy head and he is afraid of squirrels.”

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols IMG_2831
Pip is, of course, an acorn. But he is not just an acorn. Through the vivid escapades that Willow paints for her sister—they ride snails! they nap in bird nests!—Pip becomes elevated to something greater than simply Willow’s imaginary friend; he becomes a signifier for both girls of the Change that’s taking place in front of their eyes. Suddenly, Maple isn’t so sure that she wants to go to school and miss out on the adventures to be had in her own backyard. For a brief second, she isn’t sure she wants to grow up.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

The solution that’s offered up (and I won’t ruin the surprise) is nothing short of delightful. It’s also realistic—as are all three of Nichols’ books. But the best and most unexpected part is that this solution comes from Willow, the younger sibling. It turns out that big sisters still need their little sisters. It turns out that little sisters know just how to make their big sisters feel better.

Beginning next week, even though my children will enter and exit school together, they will likely ignore each other for most of the day, perhaps granting a brief wave or smile as they pass in the hall. They’ll still have evenings and weekends together. But it’s not the same. They’ll grow and stretch and circle back and grow some more…and then, with luck, next summer will come and they’ll find their way back to each other again. There will most definitely be squabbling. But I like to think that I’ll choose instead to notice the other stuff. The laughter. The whispering. The heads pressed together. The scampering in unison. The casual, unforced gestures of affection.

"Maple and Willow Apart" by Lori Nichols

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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 »

Two New Blizzard-Worthy Picture Books

January 29, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Blizzard" by John RoccoIt’s around this time every year that I start noticing how under-exercised my children are. It’s not enough to spend two hours at the park on the occasional balmy weekend afternoon. It’s not even enough to combine that park excursion with regularly scheduled gymnastics and swimming. The pent-up energy, overfilling my children’s little limbs, begins to spill out all over the house. My son follows me through every room, talking at my back in a decibel destined to do physical harm, describing spaceships he intends to build out of LEGOs (please, go do it!) and “whirrrrr”ing and “powwww”ing to indicate how fast and destructive these ships will be. My daughter, normally content to serve her animals tea or push her dolls around in a stroller, is suddenly more interested in staging gymnastics competitions for said animals and dolls—which mostly involves hurling them across the room. It turns out our house is much too small and we need to move immediately.

And then, oh my blessed stars, it snows. Here in Virginia, this week’s Blizzard of 2015 turned out to be the Blizzard That Wasn’t; and yet, we did get a welcome half an inch of snow. Half an inch of snow is actually all it takes for my children to spend hours outside in the backyard: shoveling, piling up ice, making pictures with their footprints, and directing their incessant chatter towards a new audience of fallen sticks.

Still, I can only imagine how much more exercise many of your children have gotten in the past few days, hiking up snow drifts and pulling sleds through waist high snow. As it turns out, I’m not the only one romanticizing your plight. One has only to page through the billowy white tufts in John Rocco’s Blizzard (Ages 4-8) and Deirdre Gill’s Outside (Ages 3-6) to wish Juno had visited those of us in the South with a little more gusto. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Book That Saved December

December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments

"Winterfrost" by Michelle HoutsReading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.

What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.

I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out. « Read the rest of this entry »

At Last, Something for the Youngest Sibling

November 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Dory Fantasmagory" by Abby HanlonOne book that all the Book People will be talking about this holiday season is Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory (Ages 5-9), an illustrated early-chapter book featuring one of the spunkiest, most imaginative, most genuinely real six-year-old girls to grace the pages of children’s literature. (After all, it was written by a former first-grade teacher.) If you really want to impress people with how in the know you are, you should buy the book this month, instead of waiting until next month, and then you should give it to everyone you know—regardless of whether it’s their birthday or not. Just a thought.

It’s possible that I’ve lost perspective on this 153-page gem, because I have, by request, read it upwards of ten times to my four year old in the past month (and don’t think that her seven-year-old brother doesn’t listen in at every chance he gets). I’m beginning to feel like Dory (nicknamed Rascal) and Emily are actually the same person (wait, are they?). Both talk to themselves incessantly, invent wild fantasies in their play, wear strange things around the house, and will stop at nothing to get the attention of their older siblings. I don’t think that Emily has a bearded fairy godmother named Mr. Nugget, or that she believes there are at least seven (mostly) hospitable monsters living in our house…but then again, I can’t be sure. « Read the rest of this entry »

Morning at The Met (Courtesy of E.L. Konigsburg)

October 30, 2014 § 5 Comments

"From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. KonigsburgEarlier this fall, JP and I embarked on our annual trip to New York City, where I grew up and where my Mom still lives. Normally on these visits, we are content to plot and rehash the day’s adventures by pouring over the vibrant illustrations in Kathy Jakobsen’s My New York, which my Mom brings down from a closet upon our arrival.

This time, I decided that some advance reading was in order. So, in the weeks leading up to our departure, I read to JP one of the novels I most remember from my childhood: E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud), which won the Newberry Medal in 1968. Through the eyes of two runaway siblings from Greenwich, Connecticut, who secretly live (and sleep) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art for an entire week, we are introduced to this incredible museum with drama and intrigue. The last time I took JP to the Met—albeit he was only five—was a disheartening disaster; he was bored within minutes of my ramblings about Impressionist painters. This time was different. This time, we had purpose: we were following in the steps of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Magic of Fall

October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

"Fall Leaves" by Loretta Holland & Elly MacKayThe other evening, after cleaning up from dinner, I walked into the living room to find JP sticking his nose out the mail slot of our front door. “Mommy, I can smell winter coming! I forgot how delicious it smells! I thought I wanted summer to stay, but now I want winter to come!”

Perhaps because of my children’s innate excitement around seasonal transformations, or perhaps because of wanting to sway my own ambivalence about the onset of winter towards something more positive—either way, I have always had a special place in my heart for stories about fall (remember Fletcher and the Falling Leaves?). This year, I have discovered my most favorite presentation to date. It’s not a story. There are no frantic animals preparing for hibernation (see Bear Has a Story to Tell), or children frolicking in pumpkin patches (although you should still read Otis and the Scarecrow). Rather, there is a simple phrase on each page, accompanied by a stunning picture, and the meaning lies in the intersection between the two.

Fall Leaves (Ages 4-8), by Loretta Holland, with illustrations by Elly MacKay, is one of those picture books that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its simplest, it reads as a kind of lyrical, free verse poem, with one line per page. But each phrase is also a kind of headline, with a smaller-print paragraph below, containing detailed and carefully chosen information about a unique aspect of fall, like the migration of birds, the hibernation of perennials, or the heavy downpours (am I the only one who is consistently blind-sided by these rainy days, assuming every morning is going to bring a bright cloudless sky against which to pick apples and pumpkins?). « 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 »

GOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!

July 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

Soccer Star by Mina JavaherbinWe are not a sports-watching family (my husband jokes that he lost TV sports in marriage). But then came the World Cup. All four of us are possessed over the World Cup, and I can’t entirely explain it. I mean, it can’t just be the hotness of the players, the incredible headers that out of nowhere tip a speeding ball into the net; the non-stop, pinball-like passing. We scream at the TV (“Mommy, you are using your outside voice!” I’ve been reprimanded more than once); we jump up and down and hug each other over goals; we run into the backyard and kick the ball at halftime; and we despair when the US team fights the fight of its life and comes up short.

The World Cup will end, but I hope our family’s new love of soccer will not. Both kids are more excited than ever for their own soccer season this fall (although JP reports that he does not think he would like to be as good as the World Cup players, because “it looks very dangerous out there”). In the meantime, we will be reading some of the fantastic soccer-themed books that have popped up this year. Our favorite of these is Soccer Star (Ages 4-8), by Mina Javaherbin (illustrations by Renalto Alarcao), a picture book which not only exudes the excitement of soccer, but places it in a valuable cultural context. « 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 »

Sibling Play

April 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

One Busy Day by Lola M. Schaefer & Jessica MeserveI’ll never forget the first time it happened. JP was four, Emily was a little over one, and I realized that 45 minutes had passed and there were still only happy voices in the other room. I called a friend: “The kids are playing together! ON THEIR OWN! For like a really long time! I’m just sitting here reading a book!” (Well, technically I was talking on the phone, but the point is that I could have been reading a book.) And that’s when it hit me: this is why some people have more than one kid (or more than one dog, cat, or fish).

Watching siblings play together is one of the most endearing and gratifying experiences for a parent. (Well, until it all goes south—which it inevitably does—usually right at the moment when you have finished the dishes, wiped down the lunch table, dust-bustered the floor, and finally sat down on the sofa to page through a magazine.) But when the stars do align, as they increasingly do with age, it is in these moments that I get the clearest glimpses of my children’s budding personalities, of the people they will someday become. I see tenderness and compromise in my now six and a half year old boy, amidst the bossiness and tendency to escalate play into some form of physical combat. And in my now three and a half year old daughter, I feel her excitement, her sheer pride, in the way she confidently prattles on after her brother agrees, “OK, you can be the mommy bird, and I’ll be the baby bird.” Because, really, is it not the best feeling in the world when that older brother whom you revere in every way decides to drop everything for you?

Imagination is the great equalizer in sibling play. In the world of pretend play, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Enter Lola M. Schaefer and Jessica Meserve’s latest picture book, One Busy Day: A Story for Big Brothers and Sisters (Ages 2-6), in some ways a sequel to their first book, One Special Day, about the moment in which a little boy becomes a big brother. « Read the rest of this entry »

Siblings Being Siblings

June 26, 2012 Comments Off on Siblings Being Siblings

It wasn’t until I had more than one child of my own that I began experiencing what I’d so often heard other parents remark upon: that children raised in the same family, under seemingly identical conditions, can have completely different personalities. These differences in personality—and the interesting dynamic they create in the relationship between the siblings themselves—is beautifully captured in The Puddle Pail (Ages 3-6). This book was published in the late 90s by the supremely talented and often-overlooked author-artist Elisa Kleven (who also wrote my favorite picture book of all time: The Lion and the Little Red Bird).

Far too few children’s books showcase the natural, everyday interactions between siblings—or, more poignantly, the surprising discoveries that can emerge even amidst the competitive banter and indignant bossiness. The Puddle Pail stars two young crocodile brothers who set off for the beach, armed with empty pails. Sol, the older brother, might as well be my almost five-year-old son, JP. Both are realists and see the world in precise, everything-in-its-place terms. When it comes to filling his pail, Sol (a.k.a. JP) can’t pass up a shell or a feather or a rock without dropping it into his pail for one of his “collections” (currently in our house the window ledges are piled high with JP’s rocks, which seem less like a discriminating collection of stones and more like a dumping ground for any grey rock he steps over on the street).

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