Achieving Agency (with Help from Our Inner Crocodile)

March 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

When was the last time we steered, bribed, or (come on, we’ve all been there) threatened our children in a direction we thought was in their best interest? When was the last time we worried our child was missing out, or not trying new things, or not duly considering the consequences of his actions? When was the last time we intervened to save our children from themselves?

When was the last time we had all this “help” thrown back in our faces with a crocodile-sized chomp?

I am halfway through one of the most compelling parenting books I’ve ever read. In The Self-Driven Child, clinical neuropsychologist, William Stixrud, along with motivational coach, Ned Johnson, make a convincing case for what our children need most from us. Drawing from personal experience and brain science, they argue that the main driver behind children’s well-being isn’t grades, or where they go to school, or what things they have. Rather, it’s how much control children perceive as having over their lives. Do they feel they can direct their lives in a meaningful way? Do they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?

“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being,” the book puts forth.

Perhaps more than we realize, we parents get in the way of our children developing their agency. We don’t mean to, of course. It’s just incredibly hard to sit back and watch our kids potentially sabotage friendships, tests, or the chance for future success. Maybe we want them to do what we did because it worked out so well, or maybe we’re hoping to save them from making the same mistakes we did. In any case, Stixrud and Johnson write:

So often, parents want to play Edward Scissorhands and start pruning their child like a tree, but the reality is that your tree has just begun to grow, and you don’t even know what kind of tree it is.

Sometimes, I would add, we “prune” our children without ever saying a word.

A few weeks ago, I attended my seven-year-old daughter’s “student-led conference” at her Montessori school, where she presented some of her recent work. To kick off the night, she shared a written “self-assessment,” in which she had noted her temperament, values, and interests. On one page was a list of “strong likes” and “strong dislikes.” Under the likes column, she had listed her brother, her father, and me (phew)—along with chocolate cake, polar bears, Helen Keller, and a few other things I couldn’t make out. Under dislikes, she had put “peppers.”

“Like spicy peppers?” I asked.

“No, like the peppers I eat for lunch.”

Ok, wait. My daughter packs her own lunch every morning. More often than not, she puts in red peppers. “You don’t like the red peppers you pack for lunch everyday?”

“I hate them,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“Then why do you pack them?” I had to ask.

“You put them on the counter, so I know you want me to. It seems important to you.”

Clearly, in their book, Stixrud and Johnson are talking about bigger things than bringing peppers for lunch. Or are they? What would have happened if my daughter had complained about packing peppers for lunch one morning? Would I have interpreted it as whining and glared at her in exasperation? Would I have passive-aggressively suggested she pack carrots instead, knowing how little she cares for those? Would I have barked, “They’re already out. Just pack them so you can hurry up and eat your breakfast.” Did she have any choice but to wait until we were on her turf to deliver this information?

I immediately thought about the heroine in Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Ages 5-9), the delightfully funny but astutely provocative early chapter book by award-winners Laura Amy Schlitz (three words: The Night Fairy) and Brian Floca. Published last year and enjoyed countless times in our house since then, Princess Cora and the Crocodile suddenly seems like the perfect, if hyperbolic, meditation on what it means to give our kids agency—before they have to go and unleash their inner crocodile.

You might say our protagonist, Princess Cora, has an agency problem. Meaning she has none. Her well-meaning royal parents have micromanaged every aspect of her life, beginning moments after her birth, as soon as they remember she will someday be queen. “They stopped thinking she was perfect and started worrying about what might be wrong with her. By the time she was seven years old, there wasn’t a single minute when Princess Cora wasn’t being trained.” Training, pruning: in this case, it’s the same thing.

As it turns out, Cora has grown increasingly resentful about her life in the royal castle. The nanny insists she takes, not one, but three baths a day. (“The nanny thought that being clean was the most important thing in the world.”) The King, determined that Cora grow up to be physically strong, stands over her with a stop watch, while she jumps rope in circles across the floor of the dungeon-now-gym. (“Princess Cora knew that skipping rope was good for her, but that didn’t make her like it any better.”) And the Queen only allows her to read books about running a successful kingdom. (“The books were so dull that Princess Cora yawned until her eyes were full of tears.”)

Why doesn’t Cora say something? Well, she tries. Sometimes, while reading books, she “asked silly questions, just to liven things up.” But then she’s criticized for being “inappropriate.” Sometimes, while asked to jump rope, she starts to protest. But then her father puts on a sad face and asks her, “Princess Cora, are you being a good girl?” To which it is assumed there should be only one answer.

Where questions of agency are concerned, it seems girls have it all the harder, feeling pressure to bend not only to parental demands, but also to society’s expectations. Girls, after all, are supposed to be “good.” To be polite and well-mannered. To never be loud or bossy or messy or angry. To never hurt feelings.

So, Cora does one of the few things allowed of heroines in fairy tales. She writes to her fairy godmother. In this case, the protocol for contacting one’s fairy godmother—my daughter loves this part—is to write a letter, tear it up, and leave it on the window ledge, where each of the scraps turns into a white butterfly and flies away.

Cora writes specifically of her wish for a dog (“a dog wouldn’t tell her what to do”), but she finds something much larger at the foot of her bed the next morning. A crocodile. And not just any crocodile. A crocodile who triumphantly exclaims, “I’ve come to rescue you from your awful parents and your mean nanny.” A crocodile who seems every bit the opposite of the neat, quiet, polite princess. (Or is he?) Did I mention this crocodile bites? That he leaves a wake of destruction in his path? That he says things which are very, very rude? That he demands cream puffs all day and night?

The princess and the crocodile hatch a plan: Cora will run away and experience life outside the castle walls, while the crocodile will stand in for her, donning a dress and a mop for hair. (Cora assures him her parents aren’t very observant.)

What follows is a most entertaining juxtaposition: the sweet revelations of Cora’s tromp through nature, interspersed with the uproarious physical comedy of the crocodile wreaking havoc back home. While we might guess where this is going, the delight comes from the delicious details in Schlitz’s narrative and the whimsy of Floca’s drawings.

Cora climbs trees, stuffs herself full of freshly-picked strawberries, and walks barefoot through cow patties (at first thought, “Ew ew ew;” at second thought, “I’m having an adventure!”). Her petticoats rip and her cheeks pink up.

Back at the castle, the crocodile starts by turning the bathroom into a water slide and tossing Nanny into the bath. Later, bored of his reading lesson (the Queen initially assumes she is talking to Cora), he balances the ink pot on his nose until black splotches cover the table; swings from the chandelier; taunts the Queen with “bad rhymes;” and nips at her ankles. Finally, he chases the King around in circles and ties him up with the skipping rope.

“I don’t want to be a good little girl,” the crocodile declares. “I want to be a bad crocodile. And what’s more, I am one!” And that, of course, is when we realize that the crocodile is none other than a metaphor for the anger and rebellion—the maleness, if you will—which good girl Cora has tried so many years to repress.

As we expect, Cora eventually realizes that she misses her parents, and she decides to return to the castle. Only this time, it’s on her terms. As it turns out, the King and Queen and Nanny have also had a change of heart. (After getting locked in the library, the Queen realizes just how boring her books are and throws them out the window.) The grown-ups begin to do something they have never done before: they begin to listen to Cora. This time, she talks clearly, convincingly, and assertively. (“This time Cora didn’t hang her head or turn red or burst into tears.”) Cora speaks of her interest in reading about “sharks and tigers and fairies”; in climbing trees and learning how to juggle; in taking baths but only after getting very, very dirty. To their surprise, her parents discover that Cora’s overall goals for herself aren’t dramatically different from the ones they have for her; it’s only that she has different ideas about how to achieve them.

The Self-Driven Child raises the unsettling question, “If we’re unable to accept our kids as they are, how can we expect them to accept themselves?” The authors challenge us to listen, really listen to our children. They suggest, what if instead of steering our children down a path we deem best, we begin seeing our job as one of “consultant”—helping our children see the pros and cons of a decision but then, ultimately, leaving that decision up to them? After all, if we accept our children as they are, perhaps they won’t feel the need to unleash their inner crocodile just to get our attention. Perhaps they can embrace all aspects of their personality, not just the ones society tells them are most “appropriate.”

After a brief hiatus, Emily has started packing peppers again in her lunch. Maybe her hatred is softening, or maybe it’s just on her terms now.

(And no, I’m not going to tell you what becomes of the crocodile.)

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.

Review copy provided by 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!

Weathering the Oopses

February 1, 2018 § 8 Comments

Compared to last week, this week’s book may a lighter pick, but it will do no less to make better parents out of us. In fact, it’s possible I needed this reality check more than my kids.

There are days when it feels like my children leave a trail of oopses in their wake. Days when my daughter—at seven, I tell you!—can’t seem to get a single forkful to her mouth without losing some of it down her shirt and onto the floor. When my son leaves his aircraft carrier outside his sister’s door and she steps on it with bare, now-bloodied feet. When just-poured glasses are knocked over by careless elbows; when Christmas ornaments become dislodged and shatter to pieces on the floor as running feet whiz by; when HOW ABOUT NO ONE MOVE BECAUSE THE HOUSE WAS JUST CLEANED AND I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!

Of course, I exaggerate. My children are calm, careful, tidy little people who are aware of how much space they take up. Just not all/most/much of the time.

Cartoonist Andrea Tsurumi’s new picture book, Accident! (Ages 5-8), explodes with hyperbole on every page, gently poking fun at the way we—children and parents alike—invoke unnecessary drama around the most common occurrences in life: oopses. By the time we are finish the story, Tsurumi has us wondering, what if we take the emphasis off the mistake itself and ask instead, how do we make it better? It is not an exaggeration to say that this book has become something of a rallying cry for our family in recent weeks.

In order to write a book illustrating how life doesn’t have to fall to pieces every time we unintentionally break, bump, or spill something, it is necessary to fill pages with breaks, bumps, and spills. Tsurumi accomplishes this with a chain-of-events storyline which begins small—cleverly, on the title page itself—and crescendos into complete chaos. A young, high-energy, anthropomorphized armadillo (named Lola) cartwheels across the floor and inadvertently knocks over a pitcher of orange liquid, which spills to cover nearly every inch of an upholstered white chair. Her reaction is one of sheer horror: “Oh No! I’ve ruined everything!”

Presumably fearing the wrath of her parent, the armadillo quickly decides she will run away to her public library (“they have books and bathrooms”) and “stay there until I’m a grownup.” As Lola races headfirst down the block, all she knows is that she’s running from her problem. What she doesn’t yet realize—but what our wise narrator informs us—is that she’s running “right into everyone else’s.”

Sure enough, everywhere Lola turns, there are cries of “Oh no!” A bear sits on a swing and breaks it. An anteater runs her grocery cart into a lamb, who flies up and lands in a freshly-baked cake being delivered by a blowfish. A giraffe slips while carrying a tray of hot cookies. A hairdresser momentarily looks away and ends up scissoring off the entirety of her (equine) client’s mane. Cars crash. Garden hoses get pointed in the wrong direction. Baseballs smash through windows. Both the absurd and the commonplace intersect in visual abundance.

I’ll admit I suffered from a case of visual overload when I first read this book. It took my daughter taking me back through the different pages, pointing out and chuckling over sub-plots too numerous to count, that sold me on the endless opportunities for creative engagement and repeated perusal. (Once again, I am reminded of what visual learners this generation is.)

The cries of dismay and outrage on all sides—victim and offender—become more extreme with every page: “We’re so unlucky!” “Ruined!” “Disaster!” “Big bad trouble!” “Mayhem!” “Fiasco!” “Calamity!” “Catastrophe!” (Talk about a fun lesson on synonyms.) Perhaps the expletive to ring the truest with our little ones—and, if you’re anything like me, may elicit a tiny twinge of guilt: “I AM THE WORST!”

As Lola races through the chaos erupting around her, she pauses three times to invite others facing similar retribution or retaliation to join her in escaping to the library. Soon, she and four others are storming the library doors.

Here, author-illustrator Tsurumi does something wittily unexpected. Conventional literature has taught us to see libraries as sanctuaries: indeed, that’s precisely why Lola has chosen to go to one. And yet—perhaps reminding us readers just how pervasive, how common, accidents are—Tsurumi extends the very chaos of the outside world into the library itself. Shelves tumble like dominoes, and books and office supplies soar into the air. (My favorite detail: the owl, meant to be stamping books, is instead stamping someone’s head.)

Lola again flees the scene, more frantic than ever. Until she comes face to face with a small reddish-orange bird—coincidentally (or not?) the same hue as the liquid spilled in the story’s opener. Repeated readings will reveal that the bird has been there all along, witnessing Lola’s oops and then trailing alongside her, like a quiet guardian. The bird lands on the armadillo’s tail and seems to call a kind of forced time out. In response to Lola’s insistence of “Disaster! Fiasco! Mayhem! Calamity! Cat-as-tro-phe!” the bird replies, simply, “Accident.”

Under the curious gaze of what has now become a crowd of onlookers, the bird gently nudges, “And now we make it better.” At once, brooms and mops are procured, helping hands are offered, and sincere apologies are delivered. Our children are given a road map for what to do following their inevitable oopses: what comes next? and how do you say it?

When Lola returns home, cleaning supplies in hand, she finds her mother has just provoked a minor catastrophe of her own: she is surrounded by scattered papers, an overturned coffee mug, and spilled doughnuts. This time, Lola is able to offer some perspective. “An accident,” she reassures her mother. And, as Lola removes a doughnut from her mother’s ear, the latter responds, “Exactly.”

I remember a particular dinner at our house. It took place years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Dinner preparation had run long, bedtime loomed, my husband was traveling, and all I wanted was to sit and enjoy the steaming plate of pasta I held in my hands. But, as I carried my plate and glass into the dining room, where my children already sat bent over their food, my socked foot slipped on the hardwood floor and my glass tumbled to the ground. The glass (because I have learned) was super-duper thick and didn’t break, but the water spilled everywhere. I think I must have looked like I was going to cry, because my son jumped up from the table and said without hesitating, “You sit down, Mommy. I will wipe it up.” Oh, how many times I have remembered this incident too late, after I have already barked at one of my children to “Be careful!” “Pay attention!” “Look where you’re going!”

When the pitcher overturns, when the ornament falls, when they mess up the world around them, our children don’t need fingers pointed at them. They don’t need eyes rolled, voices raised, or insults thrown. What they need is the opportunity to “make it better.” And sometimes they even need us to roll up our sleeves and get down in the trenches with them. After all, what goes around comes around, and goodness knows we all make mistakes.

 

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month.

Book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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!

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot!

May 25, 2017 § 3 Comments

It never fails to astonish me how long my kids can withstand a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Earlier this spring, we waited in line for three hours to get tickets to an art exhibit, and they entertained themselves for at least an hour playing this hand game. Long after myself—and every adult around us—was ready to banish the words “rock,” ‘paper,” and “scissors” from the English language, my kids kept going. Alas, this is not a quiet game.

Perhaps when I could have been pondering nobler pursuits, I have instead been asking myself: What is it about this highly repetitive game (“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot! Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”) that lends itself to such welcome repetition? The answer, I’ve decided, is larger than simply immediate gratification or the apparent thrill of saying “shoot” over and over. RPS is the perfect game of chance. Rock trumps scissors trumps paper trumps rock. (That’s all the Trumps you’ll get out of me.) It’s an equilateral triangle—a closed system, if you will–where each opponent has an equal shot at winning and losing. (Apparently, this is not strictly true, as some professional players—yup, they exist—are able to “recognize and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents’ play.”)

Apparently, I am not the only one spending quality time contemplating a greater meaning behind this mundane game. Two of the cleverest, funniest, and most subversive children’s book creators—Drew Daywalt (author of the wildly popular The Day the Crayons Quit) and Adam Rex (illustrator of Chloe and the Lion and How This Book Was Made, to name a few musts)—have teamed up to imagine what the backstory to this age-old game might look (and sound) like. Let’s just say it didn’t take me more than half a second to decide we needed to own The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors (Ages 5-10). (It’s also a beautiful reminder that elementary children are not too old for picture books.)

Long before they make one another’s acquaintance, the anthropomorphized Rock, Paper, and Scissors have a taste for battle. Each spends his or her days seeking out opponents. Rock, for example, who lives “in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard,” baits a clothespin on the laundry line: “Drop that underwear and battle me, you ridiculous wooden clip-man!” To which the clothespin replies, “I will pinch you and make you cry, Rock Warrior!”

A battle ensues—and yet, despite Clothespin’s big talk, Rock is quickly victorious.

As we quickly understand, no matter whose buttons Rock pushes (“You, sir, look like a fuzzy little butt,” he says to an apricot, to which the latter responds, “What?! I challenge you to a duel!”), Rock always dominates. And yet—as anyone who has antagonized a younger sibling will understand—rather than feeling satisfied with this predictable turn of events, Rock finds himself disheartened by what he realizes are not “worthy challenges.” “Smooshing you has brought me no joy,” he mutters atop a squashed apricot.

A similar search for a worthy foe is simultaneously taking place in both the “Empire of Mom’s Home Office” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer,” where Paper and Scissors respectively take on computer printers (“Noooo! Not a paper jam! Paper is victorious!”) and adhesive tape.

Probably because I’m always asking my children to lower their voices, they think my reading a book which demands shouting and taunting and battle noises is absolutely hysterical (puts me in mind of this). But I must admit: with writing like this, I kinda do, too. If you can’t beat ‘em, sometimes you have to join ‘em. (Plus, the scene where Scissors forges into “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer” and refuses to bow down before a bag of cocky dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets—she spears them to bits instead—is sheer brilliance.)

Like mine, your children will relish the anticipation of the inevitable: Rock, Paper, and Scissors at last meet (in the “great cavern of Two-Car Garage”) and discover worthy opponents in one another. The battles are “epic and legendary” and the trash talk even better. Says Scissors, “I hope you’re wearing your battle pants, rock warrior.” Replies Rock: “If by ‘battle plants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes…yes, I am wearing my battle pants, weird scissory one!”

The surprise comes when each in turn is finally beaten. Where we might expect sorrow from the defeated, instead there is elation. “You have made me so happy by beating me!” cries Scissors to Rock. The latter (not having challenged Paper yet, to whom he will fall) responds, “I wish I felt your joy, Scissors, for I have yet to meet a warrior who can beat me.”

There’s pride to be taken in a hard-fought loss to a worthy opponent. And perhaps this message is not all that foreign to our children. After all, they beg and plead for “one more minute” of playtime—sweaty and grassy, they chase each other back and forth across the backyard—but when we bring down the parental “That’s enough,” when we guide them through the front door and into the bathroom and over to the dinner table and into the bath and into bed, they know they’ve lost. They’re free at last to give up the good fight and surrender—with a sleepy smile on their face.

And prepare for Round Two tomorrow.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperColllins. 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!

Comic Relief

February 2, 2017 § 1 Comment

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick GreenRobert Frost wrote, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Given the headlines of the past two weeks, it’s getting increasingly difficult to laugh at ourselves. Thankfully, we can turn to literature and art to restore our sanity.

When it comes to choosing reading (or television) material, my husband is fond of reminding me that he “only wants a laugh.” Such proclivity doesn’t exist in me. True to form, I began January by losing myself in Adam Haslett’s devastating (if devastatingly beautiful) novel, Imagine Me Gone, where at one point a manic-depressive father sits across from his recently teenaged son and laments silently, “If I ever had the care of his soul, I don’t anymore.” I couldn’t look at my own (rapidly-aging) children for the rest of the day without crying—much less handle reading the news—so I traded in that book for Tina Fey’s performance of Bossypants, which I listened to for the next two weeks in the car. Doubling over the steering wheel in convulsive laughter feels like more appropriate self-care for the times.

Interjecting giggles into our family life came more easily with John Patrick Green’s Hippopotamister (Thank you, Betsy Bird, for rounding up your favorite 2016 graphic novels). An entrée into the graphic novel format for newly independent readers (Ages 5-10), Hippopotamister juxtaposes simple panels with full-page illustrations—each one executed with pitch-perfect timing, laugh-out-loud silliness, and heartfelt emotion. (There are even “how to” drawing instructions for the main characters at the end, should anyone wish to try his hands at comics creation.) We read it thirty two times last month.

The book stars two animals who live at a city zoo which has fallen on hard times. The ticket counter is covered in cobwebs; the office is a mountain of abandoned paperwork; the habitats are dilapidated; and the residents sport mangy manes, lackluster teeth, and dampened spirits.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Take-charge Red Panda is the first to jump ship: “I’ve decided to leave the zoo and live amongst the humans,” he announces, claw in air. As he returns with salivating tales of the “outside world,” he quickly wins over his loyal pal, Hippo, although Red Panda suggests he change his name to Hippopotamister, so he will be taken more seriously by the humans. (Try finding a name that’s more fun to read aloud.) The two set off to find fame and fortune—or, at least, to land a job.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Author-illustrator Green is a whiz at letting his pictures reveal gags which his text does not. Observant readers discover that, for each job the duo attempts—construction worker, hair stylist, chef, banker, dentist, fire fighter, paleontologist, and so on—the prideful Red Panda fails spectacularly, while the modest Hippopotamister succeeds brilliantly.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Which is funnier—the epic fails or the unlikely successes—is hard to say when your kids are giggling their pants off.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

One salon client loves his hippo-styled coiffure; another is horrified by her sudden resemblance to a red-and-black striped panda.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

At an upscale trattoria, the Hippopasta Primavera (complete with “sprinkling of parmesan over sautéed onions”) looks mouth-watering, while the Antipasto A La Red Panda is an absurd assortment of insects, pebbles, lint, Red Vine licorice, and car keys. In my kids’ favorite scene (OK, mine), the restaurant is promptly shut down by the Board of Health for “serving rocks” and the two friends are sent packing.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Even more absurd, the two friends appear oblivious to the stark contrast in their on-the-job performance. That is, neither friend overtly acknowledges what is obvious to us: Hippopotamister could make a career in any of these professions, while Red Panda doesn’t seem suited for any of them (with one hilarious exception, but I won’t ruin that for you). Following each trial or audition, the two simply pick up and move on without looking back. Is the former hopelessly clueless while the latter stubbornly self-absorbed?

Or is there something else at work?

Here’s where my kids and I venture to suggest that there’s more to Green’s story than surface silliness: Hippopotamister isn’t about to embrace a job that would leave his best pal out in the cold. “Don’t worry, Red Panda! I know you can find us an even better job!” is Hippopotamister’s refrain of solidarity after each failure, followed by the latter’s insistence, “This [next job] is going to be the best job ever!” The two are a team, determined to succeed together or not at all.

This teamwork culminates in the delightful feel-good ending, where Hippopotamister returns to the zoo and puts each of his new skills to work restoring it to its former glory (See, kids, no job is ever a waste of time!). With joyful pride, Hippopotamister balances the books, styles the lion’s mane, makes gourmet meals to perk up the monkeys, and builds sturdy enclosures.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Even better, for all his newfound abilities, Hippopotamister recognizes a shortcoming which only Red Panda can fill: that of entertainer. Red Panda has a quirkiness which adults find maddening, but which kids (as evidenced by the way they hang all over him at the daycare stint) find irresistible. A diligent zookeeper with a magnetic head of Customer Relations? Now that’s a winning duo.

"Hippopotamister" by John Patrick Green

Red Panda and Hippopotamister’s antics are a welcome comedic break from the stresses of the real world. But they also remind us that if we keep on laughing through every failure and piece of bad news, we might keep our sanity intact long enough to succeed. What success looks like may not be clear, but so long as we’re willing to don different hats and surround ourselves with loyal friends, we’re bound to find out.

Other Laugh-Out-Loud Favorites from the Past:
Penguin Problems, by Lane Smith
Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, by Bob Shea & Lane Smith
Goodnight, Already! by Jory John & Benji Davies
A Visitor for Bear, by Bonny Becker & Kady MacDonald Denton
Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins
Dory Fantasmagory series, by Abby Hanlon
Arnie the Doughnut series, by Laurie Keller
Mr. Pants series, by Scott McCormick & R.H. Lazzell
Battle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, by R.A. Spratt & Dan Santat

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

Book published by First Second, an imprint of Roaring Book 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!

Laughing Our Way Back to School

September 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt(Before we get started—HELLLLOOOOO AGAIN!—I thought I’d link to three guest posts that I wrote as part of a Summer Reading Series for the local blog, DIY Del Ray, in case you don’t follow me on social media (which you should). There’s one on picture books about the garden; one on recent new installments in our favorite early-chapter series; and one on my favorite middle-grade chapter books so far this year. These are all fantastic books and perfect for any time of year.)

And now, let’s get down to today’s business.

As I write this, my kids have been back in school for a few short hours. The house is blissfully, rapturously, guiltily quiet. The good news is that I can finally do laundry in the basement without my children scootering—and I mean, quite literally scootering—around me. The bad news is that I can’t get cuddles or kisses or giggles whenever I want.

As my kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to see summer end. I will miss my buddies. I will miss our lazy mornings (only the mail carrier knows how long we stayed in our pajamas). Most of all, I will miss our adventures—the way every new shade of green, every sun-kissed rock, every goldfinch and swallowtail and cicada becomes something to marvel at and remark on.

And I will, of course, miss the many hours we curled up to read together (as well as the times when we were too busy catching a ferry or celebrating a swim meet or chasing fireflies to read at all). Lest you think my silence this summer meant that we didn’t discover piles of new books, I can promise you redemption this fall. We have a lot to catch up on.

Beginning with what we read at the very end of our summer break.

We returned home from three weeks of glorious beachy romping to supply lists and new school orientations and conversations about how lazy little beach bums were once again going to have to start making beds and packing lunches. It suddenly seemed like dusting off our brain cells was going to be no small endeavor.

If you can’t change it, you might as well laugh at it—or so my grandmother preaches. And so, in that vein, in order to lighten up our transition from summer to autumn, to hold on to a bit of the recklessness as we heed the routine, I broke out The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, an episodic chapter book by Australian comedy writer R.A. Spratt, with sporadic illustrations by the equally kooky Dan Santat (Ages 8-12; younger if reading aloud).

It’s hard not to love a book that begins with the following disclaimer:

Unless you are a pig, do not copy Nanny Piggins’s diet IN ANY WAY…You really should not try a lot of the things Nanny Piggins does either. For example, throwing heavy things off roofs.

This is where I should probably add my own disclaimer: If you are one of those parents (no judging) who enjoys nothing less than the moral didacticism of Little House on the Prairie, who can’t fathom spending their time reading NOTHING OF SUBSTANCE (well, apart from excellent writing and wonderfully dry wit), and who under no circumstances wants to introduce impressionable minds to subversive ideas of eating chocolate for every meal or dancing on tables or forging sick notes for school…then, by all means, please skip this post and you and I will reconnect next week.

But if your kids laughed their heads off at Pippi Longstocking, and if you want something to read this fall that is almost as good as extending summer break, then please allow me to introduce you to Nanny Piggins: nanny to the three well-mannered Green children, former flying circus headliner, and—in case you’ve been skimming—an actual pig (“the type bacon came from”). Think Mary Poppins, if Mary Poppins had shown up in the dead of night, liked to dress flamboyantly, and had absolutely no intention of holding her charges (or herself) responsible for chores, schoolwork, or finances. And if Mary Poppins had been a pig. A walking, talking, and—if we’re being honest—extremely clever pig.

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

Nanny Piggins may not do most of the ordinary things that nannies or parents do (because where’s the fun in that?), but she does undeniably love Derrick, Samantha, and Michael from the start. She dotes on them and listens to them and respects them infinitely more than their demonized father—the widowed attorney Mr. Green—who is far too busy helping his clients evade tax laws to bother with his children (or find them a human nanny, despite his horror at sharing a dinner table with a pig).

Which, as far as the children are concerned, is just peachy. They’ve never had more fun in their lives: sampling Nanny Piggins’ three-course chocolate meals (she also makes a mean pie); drawing with crayons on their clothes (after blowing the clothing allowance on chocolate, Nanny Piggins helps the children fashion tartan school uniforms out of their existing clothes); or trying to row to China on an anything-but-ordinary beach day (they get picked up by a fishing boat in time for dinner).

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

Of course, even with Nanny Piggins at the helm, life is not always a day at the beach. Several chapters hinge on suspense, as our porcine wonder—with the help of her young accomplices—attempts to escape near catastrophe. Whether the peril arrives in the form of Nanny Piggins’ former ringmaster (come to re-enslave her in the circus), or Mr. Green’s evil sister (come to charm Nanny Piggins out of a job), or Boris, the esteemed Russian dancing bear and an old friend of Nanny Piggins (come to hide out in the Green residence), there is no challenge too great for the theatrical subterfuge of our heroine.

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

Ironically, as fun as they are to read about, these hyperbolic adventures are not what ultimately endear us readers to Nanny Piggins—or even what necessarily get the most laughs. Rather, it’s the sheer naivete—the unfettered delight of discovery coupled with the blatant cluelessness—of a pig trying to take her place in the world of humans. Whether it’s trying to make heads or tails of abstract portraiture at the art gallery (“some were done with yellows and greens and other colors you would never see on a real person’s face no matter how sick they were”) or the national educational mandate, Nanny Piggins is increasingly perplexed by human ways.

Nanny Piggins could not hide the full extent of her ignorance any further. She had another question to ask.
“So, what exactly is ‘school’? Exactly.”
“What’s school?!” exclaimed Derrick. “Did you never have to go?”
He could not believe that anybody as clearly knowledgeable about so many important things, such as how to make fake blood and what was the best type of stick for making a slingshot, could have had no formal education.

Nanny Piggins earns the adoration of her child subjects because she confronts the world—wide-eyed and befuddled—much the way our own children do. Even us parents would do well to remember that, seen through our children’s eyes, the world is as mystifying as it is magical, as humorous as it is humane.

And there are so many boundaries to test along the way.

Oh, did I mention the best news? There are two sequels: Nanny Piggins and the Wicked Plan and Nanny Piggins and the Runaway Lion, both of which are lying in wait for my little fools. I told my kids that, after their grueling First Day Back in the Grind, we’d come straight home to laugh ourselves silly. In fact, it’s nearly pick-up time. I’d better run.

"The Adventures of Nanny Piggins" by R.A. Spratt

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

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!

The Easter Chick Has Nothing On These Goslings

March 17, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. HigginsEaster quickly approaches, and the race to fill Easter baskets is on. Chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs line the grocery checkout aisles. Toy stores have Easter displays with irresistibly soft plush chicks, some of which even peep when you drop them. Bunnies and chicks, chicks and bunnies: this is what the commercial side of Easter preaches.

If we are talking books—which every Easter basket needs—the perfect bunny-themed choice is, without question, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, which I wrote about here (and which—sound the trumpets—happens to be available in a petite basket-fitting edition that comes with its own golden CHARM).

As for covering the chick quota—well, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you to scrap the chicks this year in favor of the gosling. Specifically, the incredibly cute and insufferably stubborn goslings of Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce (Ages 3-8), a modern-day spoof on the age-old nursery rhyme. True, the book is going to be too big to shove into an Easter basket, but there’s no reason why you can’t prop it up beside said basket (Use your imagination, people!). Published last fall, Higgins’ picture book is one of the funniest I have come across in a long time, and it was an instant hit with my five and eight year old. I’m only sorry I’ve waited a few extra months to tell you about it.

The story begins with a mood commonly depicted in children’s picture books: grumpiness. Grumpiness is that universal emotion that is a hundred times funnier when you see it acted out than when you witness it in your own life. (Shout out to Jeremy Tankard’s Grumpy Bird, my all-time favorite depiction of grumpiness—until now.) Before I had kids, I thought grumpiness was losing an hour of sleep to Daylight Savings, or having a boss who made you do something all over again when you thought it was perfectly fine the first time (legitimate annoyances). Once I had kids, I learned that grumpiness can also be exhibited over such flagrant violations as being served applesauce in an orange bowl instead of a green bowl, or having to put your backpack on the floor in the car to make room for your little sister. Yes, my children and I know a little something about grumpiness.

When it comes to grumpiness in picture books, the bear gets a particularly bad rap (its name doesn’t help). You never meet a happy-go-lucky bear in children’s literature. More often than not, you get a curmudgeonly, inhospitable, antisocial sort, like the bears in Jory John’s Goodnight Already! and Bonny Becker’s Bear and Mouse series (but again, so much fun to read aloud).

In Mother Bruce, we are introduced to another bear in this long line of grumps. “He did NOT like sunny days. He did NOT like rain. He did NOT like cute little animals.” This new protagonist-bear has a delightfully modern twist: he’s a foodie. An organic choosing, recipe surfing, free-range connoisseuring foodie. (Who prefers to dine alone, of course.) And his favorite food is eggs, procured fresh from every part of the forest where he lives.

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

On this particular day, Bruce’s Internet surfing has brought up an especially gourmet temptation—“hard-boiled goose eggs drizzled with honey-salmon sauce”—and he sets out to track down the ingredients. Many of the delightful surprises in the story come from the clever ways that author-illustrator Higgins merges an animal behavior (the bear catches his salmon in a stream) with a human behavior (he does so with a grocery cart).

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

With the goose eggs at home in a frying pan, Bruce finds he needs to step out to retrieve some firewood. When he returns, he quickly realizes he has become a “victim of mistaken identity.” In a case of imprinting gone wrong, the eggs have unexpectedly hatched, and the baby goslings have assumed that Bruce—the first living being whom they laid eyes on—must be their mother. (I remember as a child being fascinated by the idea of imprinting, with its possibility for the unexpected.)

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

When your dinner starts smiling back at you through a mass of seriously cute fluff, it is natural to lose your appetite. When you try to return said dinner to its biological mother, only to find that she has flown south for the winter (what kind of a “Return Policy” is that?), it’s not surprising that something amounting to panic begins to set in.

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

For a bonafide grump like Bruce, this is a Living Nightmare, and the remainder of the story is taken up with the desperate antics that Bruce employs in an attempt to cast off his eager new offspring. He talks sternly; when that doesn’t work, he roars. He runs; when that doesn’t work, he climbs up a tree.

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

All the time, the “pesky” little things are right beside him, grinning and peeping their “Mama” refrain.

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

Whether he likes it or not, “Mama” Bruce begins to settle into his role as goose parent. Between art projects gone awry and picky eating, Bruce’s life begins to look awfully familiar to us readers.

IMG_4973

Bruce’s big ‘ol grumpy heart begins, eventually, to soften. At times, he even “tried to make the best of it.” (My kids told me I had to include this one.)

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

Still, when the goslings move from “annoying baby geese” to “stubborn teenage geese” to “boring adult geese,” Bruce seizes his opportunity to teach his prodigy the act of migration. Only it doesn’t go so well.

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

The geese have become more bear than goose in their laziness, their propensity to keep their webbed feet planted squarely on the ground, and their fondness for Mr. Grump himself. Eventually, Bruce packs all of their bags, ushers everyone onto an express bus heading south, and—well, let’s just say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

"Mother Bruce" by Ryan T. Higgins

Beneath its physical comedy, Mother Bruce is a gentle reminder that sometimes the things you don’t go looking for turn out to be the very things you needed all along. Spring is a time of newness, of rebirth for us all. Let’s embrace these possibilities and see where the excitement and chaos takes us.

Let’s start with a handful of chocolate eggs, shall we?

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox every time.

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)

Did you enjoy this post? Don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week (and absolutely no spam).

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!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with silly at What to Read to Your Kids.

%d bloggers like this: