April 4, 2014 § 1 Comment
I’m sure you don’t know any kids like this, but if you did know, say, a boy who might choose the superlatives of a Calvin and Hobbes comic over the subtle description of a Great Classic; or prefer chasing his sister around with a kitchen-whisk-turned-laser over sitting civilly for tea parties; or who furiously scribbles submarines-into-blasters-into-blazing-balls-of-fire instead of serenely shading rainbows…well, let’s just say that I can promise this child—assuming you might know someone like him—the perfect present.
The brand new Weasels (Ages 4-7), by young British author-illustrator Elys Dolan, is dripping with satire—the likes of which we’ve seen glimmers of in past favorites like Battle Bunny and (most recently) Arnie the Doughnut: Invasion of the UFONUTS. Here, though, Dolan is calling out the subject matter for what it is: sheer Megalomania. (“What is that?” my six year old asked. “That is believing that you are the center of the universe and that everyone should do as you say,” I replied, refraining from adding, “That is the Deluded State of Being of All Six Year Olds.”) « Read the rest of this entry »
March 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
Raise the roof! My favorite fast-talking pastry is back in the house! Now, before you look at me like I have three heads (or 135 sprinkles), I’m referring to Laurie Keller’s new early chapter book series, based on the naive, loquacious, loves-the-limelight chocolate doughnut from her 2003 picture book, Arnie the Doughnut (Ages 4-8). I still remember the hysterics that my staff and I fell into every time we flipped through that first book 11 years ago, about a doughnut who narrowly avoids the fate of being eaten and winds up an unlikely pet (a “doughnut-dog!”) to the lonely but kindly Mr. Bing.
I’ve often wondered why author-illustrator Keller doesn’t get more props from the media and, as a result, remains relatively unknown by parents. Her kooky story lines are peppered with chuckle-inducing sidebars and animated through energetic, googly-eyed sketches. But I have a particular fondness for her ability to keep us parents just as entertained as our children (think puns, references to pop culture, etc.). If you’re not reading Laurie Keller, the world is less fun. It’s as simple as that. (Other non-doughnut-related favorites by Keller are listed at the end of this post.) « Read the rest of this entry »
January 29, 2014 § 3 Comments
My six year old doesn’t understand why Groundhog Day isn’t a school holiday. I tried to explain that, with February 2 being a Sunday this year, it’s sort of a moot point. “But it’s not always on a weekend, Mommy.” So then I tried to explain that the government only picks a few of the most important people in our history (ahem, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr.) to honor with a school holiday—and that contrary to what he might think with ALL THESE SNOW DAYS, kids are supposed to be IN SCHOOL, learning stuff that their parents don’t have the patience to teach them. “Well, Punxsutawney Phil IS very important because he can PREDICT THE WEATHER.” This is a fair, if debatable, point.
The children’s books on the subject of this Very Important Holiday tend to be either factually straightforward (Gail Gibbons’ Groundhog Day! is usually the teacher’s favorite) or purely fictional (read: silly and unhelpful). But this year, I stumbled upon a find that combines fact, fiction, and An All-Around Good Time: a book titled Groundhog Weather School: Fun Facts About Weather and Groundhogs (Ages 5-9), by Joan Holub, with illustrations by Kristin Sorra. This is precisely the type of book I knew JP would enjoy reading by himself (and, as parents of newly independent readers know, we’re always on the hunt for “that book”). « Read the rest of this entry »
November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments
Six year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:
Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”
JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”
Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”
JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”
Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”
JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”
We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 18, 2013 § 2 Comments
The routines of back to school are upon us. I am slowly adjusting to weekday mornings without the kids (meaning that I’m nearly home from drop off before I realize that I’m still humming along to the Music Together CD in the car; before I realize, Wait. I don’t have to listen to this. Wait! I can listen to anything I want!).
At the same time that I’m shedding a little responsibility, my children are being asked to assume more. They have traded the creative liberty of summer dressing (JP pairing bright green shirts with bright green shorts) for the navy and khaki of school uniforms. Our leisurely mornings of PJs and drawn-out breakfasts have been traded for early wake up calls and a litany of come on, let’s move along, did you pack your lunch bag, please take off that cape, why on earth are you getting out the play dough, for crying out loud hurry up (yes, I have read the articles about how we’re ruining our children by saying “hurry up” all the time, and I’ve made a mental note to work on that in my next life). « Read the rest of this entry »
August 8, 2013 Comments Off on August’s Birthday Pick
Sometimes we need a Crowd Pleaser. How many times have we rushed to the store (on the morning of the birthday party, no less) and stared at the shelves, thinking “What do I even know about this child, this person in my daughter’s class whose name I’d never heard until last week?” Our children are often no help: “Ummm, I don’t know, he likes Star Wars, I think…” And then there’s the latest trend in birthday parties—the book exchange—which, naturally, I find charming and all, except that now we have the additional challenge of finding a book that will appeal to any one of the number of children at the party. Enter the Crowd Pleaser: a book that’s guaranteed to make boy, girl, preschooler, first grader laugh; a book they can listen to or read themselves or read to their siblings; and, of course, a book that’s Brand New and Off the Beaten Path and all that good stuff.
Now enter Monkeys. Because if there’s any animal that’s universally loved by children (and their parents) it’s the monkey. We all call our children monkeys; we all think of them as little monkeys (incidentally, we also think that this comparison is an entirely novel notion). Anyway, monkeys are good. Monkeys are safe.
Now enter Mac Barnett, one of the most original and—conveniently, in our quest for a Crowd Pleaser—one of the funniest picture book creators around. Last year, along with the talented Adam Rex, he wrote Chloe and the Lion (Ages 4-8), a hilarious (and surprisingly educational) look at the process of writing and illustrating a picture book, whereby Barnett and Rex essentially “argue” the book into creation. This year, he teams up with Kevin Cornell to lend his deconstructionist approach to Count the Monkeys (Ages 3-7), another book that appears to take form right before our eyes. The book begins with a simple premise: “Hey, kids! Time to count the monkeys! It’s fun. It’s easy. All you have to do is turn the page…” Except that the monkeys are nowhere to be found, scared away by a king cobra, who in turn is scared away by two mongooses (“or is that 2 mongeese?”), who in turn are scared away by three crocodiles…and you get the picture.
The genius of Count the Monkeys, apart from Cornell’s irresistibly mischievous drawings of gluttonous grizzly bears and “polka-dotted rhinoceroses with bagpipes and bad breath,” is the invitation for children to interact with every page. If you’ve ever read Herve Tullet’s groundbreaking Press Here to your children (and if you haven’t, please proceed immediately to your nearest independent bookstore), you are already familiar with this now trendy trick of modern picture book artists. These are books that invite children, not only into the reading process, but into the creation process as well. They make children feel like they themselves are driving the direction of the story. On every page in Count the Monkeys, the narrator (still obsessed with getting back those elusive monkeys) asks us to perform various tasks to get rid of the imposter: tell the lumberjacks to “scram” (“Say it even louder!”); don’t look the wolves in the eyes (“In fact, cover your eyes while you turn the page”); move your hand in a zigzag to “confuse” the crocodiles; etc. I triple dare any child (heck, I dare any parent) to refrain from doing any of the things Barnett demands; it’s simply too much fun to take a backseat on this one. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a Crowd Pleaser.
August 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
Once again, I find myself singing the praises of Mo Willems, whose Time to Pee! (Ages 1-4) proved just what my daughter needed to get her potty training on. For those of you who have navigated these murky waters before, you will agree that there are VERY FEW decent potty-related books for kids. There are useless books about princesses sitting on potties. There are patronizing books that suggest you’re only a big kid if you use the potty. But there are far too few that are clever and helpful, fun and functional. But that’s OK. Because all you really need is one great book—and, lucky for us, there’s Time to Pee!
Truth be told, I had been dreading potty training my youngest. I had it too easy with my firstborn. If I told you about how he emphatically decided upon turning two that he wanted to poop on the potty and never looked back, you would hate me. Except that you can’t hate me, because I literally had nothing to do with it (JP has always been a child to take matters into his own hands, skeptical that his parents don’t really know what they are doing and not entirely incorrect much of the time). So when my daughter turned two and showed ZERO interest in anything having to do with the potty, I simply told myself that she wasn’t ready. But then, yikes, almost an entire year passed, and here we are just a few short weeks from her joining her brother in Montessori, where she’ll be expected to do things like wear underwear and wipe her own butt; suddenly, “I no interested in the potty!” seemed like a recipe for disaster. So we took the plunge, gave away all remaining diapers (this tip from the parenting book, Diaper-Free Before 3, a fantastic recommendation from our Montessori director), and casually placed Time to Pee! on the top of a reading pile in the bathroom.
Now, I’m obviously not going to tell you that a children’s book (even one by the brilliant Mo Willems) was the single factor in Emily’s fairly quick and painless transition to the potty (much of the heavy lifting was in fact done by Big Brother). But what I can tell you is that the language in Time to Pee! repeatedly crops up when Em is talking about using the potty. At face value, the book reads like a straightforward (never patronizing) instruction manual, illustrated with Mo’s signature black-outlined doodles: you get “that funny feeling” while playing; you tell a grown-up that you have to go; you march yourself down the hall and into the bathroom, where you pull down your undies, do the deed, and get back to playing. Done. No problem. All the important logistics are covered, like waiting until you are done before grabbing for toilet paper (thank you, Mo) and washing hands afterwards. But then, because it’s Mo Willems, and because he is so darn perceptive about how kids’ minds work and what they are thinking (and obsessing and worrying) about, the book is loaded with humorous touches. “Please don’t ignore it!” (next to a boy with crossed eyes and legs). “Now is your chance to show how BIG you are!” And my favorite: “Everything will still be right where it was” (as the child returns to her tea party).
But the real unsung heroes here are the mice. Yes, that’s right, the hundreds of enthusiastic mice delivering each message, rolling out the red carpet and hoisting up the flags, serenading the potty goer and giving the thumbs up with a coy, “Go for it dude.” Three days into potty training, I tried to follow Emily into the bathroom after she announced that she had to pee. “No, Mommy! You don’t come in! I’m having a party with the mice.” And just like that, I found myself once again singing the praises of Mo Willems.
Other Favorite Potty Stories for Kids:
Even Firefighters Go to the Potty: A Potty Training Lift-the-Flap Story, by Wendy A. Wax, Naomi Wax, & Stephen Gilpin (long after JP was potty trained he still requested this book 10 times a day for two years)
Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi (yes it’s weird, yes it’s kinda gross, but it’s actually quite effective (and my kids love the camel’s “two hump poop”))
A Potty for Me, by Karen Katz
Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle, by Axel Scheffler (my daughter loves this sweet, simple series about two friends—and, lo and behold, they have a potty story about an accident during a playdate)
April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
A customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise).
But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose).
March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments
I was wrong. Occasionally, this happens. (My husband would probably debate the word “occasionally,” but this isn’t his blog and, besides, I am usually right when it comes to books.) Shortly after Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Z is for Moose (Ages 4-8) was published last year, I hastily thumbed through it at a bookstore and thought, “Another alphabet book…rudimentary drawings…simplistic-seeming text…a Bullwinkle-style moose…I’ll pass.”
Then, in January, right after the Caldecott winners were announced, the Internet was suddenly abuzz about this book: top children’s book critics were outraged that Zelinsky’s book got passed up for an award, and some went so far as to argue that it was the most revolutionary book published in 2012. “Huh?” I thought.
So ,when I happened to come across the book a second time (this time at our local library), I picked it up, brought it home, and read it to my kids. I’ll say it again: I was wrong. In my haste to judge a book by its cover, I completely blew past its cleverness, its hilarity, and its brilliant way of turning conventional alphabet books on their head.
November 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
No one gets straight to the heart of kids like Mo Willems. It seems almost criminal that I’ve been at this blog for several months now and have yet to sing the praises of one of the most original author-illustrators of all time. While he’s best known for the Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus series (which, despite its popularity, is not my or my children’s favorite), Mo is at his best with one-off masterpieces, like Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct and Leonardo the Terrible Monster (see my complete list at the end). And now we get to add his newest creation, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (Ages 4-8), in which three scheming dinosaurs lure Goldilocks into the wrong fairy tale in an effort to make “chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons” out of her.
During the 46 times that I’ve been asked by my son to read this book in the past month, I’ve started to put my finger on what it is that unites Mo’s seemingly disparate stories. Mo gives children A LOT of credit (probably more than us parents do). He doesn’t employ traditional literary devices (in fact, in Goldilocks he actually turns them on their head), and he offers few explanations; instead, he writes with the expectation that kids will pick up on the subtlety, the irony, the little side jokes, and the sophisticated vocabulary through their repeated readings. Over the years, I’ve had more than one person ask me whether Mo’s multi-layered storytelling is accessible enough to children or simply intended to amuse the parent who’s reading it. In response, let me give you an account of how my five year old experienced Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs:
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.
August 14, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’m a bit late with my pick for August birthday parties, but this gift will work equally well heading into the school year, because it’s a book about friendship! In Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always (Ages 4-8), Tao Nyeu is following a great literary legacy of Dynamic Duos (Frog and Toad, George and Martha, to name two favorites from my own childhood). Like her predecessors, Nyeu has packed her stories (there are four, organized as “mini-chapters” in the one picture book) with that winning combination of humor and heart. Squid and Octopus bear a particular resemblance to my son JP and his best buddy Willem: like all great friends, they argue about who is right, they make up by deciding they’re both right, they make each other laugh with silliness no parent can hope to understand, and they give each other lung-compressing squeezes that are supposed to resemble hugs.
What makes Nyeu’s book sing are her fantastical illustrations: pattern-studded silk screens made from water-based ink and colored pencils set against a simple white background. For a book about two cephalopods, living in an underwater universe complete with flower gardens, soup stands, and swing sets, one would expect backgrounds in dizzying shades of blue; but by setting her drawings on white, Nyeu focuses children’s attention on the irresistible quirkiness of the characters themselves. (I won’t say that I’m not totally attracted to the Jonathan Adler-esque color scheme of turquoise and orange as well.) As I was getting ready to write this post, I asked JP what his favorite thing about the book was. Instead of one, I got five enthusiastic points:
June 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
When you’re reading aloud to babies and toddlers, never discount the Performance Factor. I’ve always considered myself a fairly compelling read-aloud-er when it comes to young audiences (I’ve presided over my fair share of story times at my old store in Chicago), but I’ll admit to being humbled the first time I attended story time with my infant daughter at Hooray for Books!, our fabulous independent bookstore here in Alexandria, VA. These bookstore gals can really hold their own against a crowd of antsy toddlers—and they do so by throwing their own inhibitions to the wind, while invoking no shortage of funny voices, animated gestures, and ad lib phrases.
Before I became a regular at these events, I had never given much thought to Lucy Cousins’ Hooray For Fish! (Ages 6 mos-2 yrs), a board book about a Little Fish who meets and greets all kinds of crazy-looking fish before swimming back to his Mommy Fish. Sure, I’ve always appreciated Cousins’ child-accessible art style: her colorful, loosely-decorated fish, coarsely outlined in black, look as if they came from the hand of a child. But, if I’m honest, the subject of fish doesn’t rank terribly high on my excitement meter (give me a farm animal any day); and I can’t say my son ever cared much for Hooray for Fish! when I read it to him on a plane trip down to Florida when he was one.
June 15, 2012 Comments Off on Putting Dad to Bed
This Sunday is Father’s Day, so Dad deserves a break. Maybe he should go to bed early. But what if he starts doing cartwheels and runs around the house yelling, “No, no no, I won’t go to sleep!” What if he tries to negotiate one more story (after he has already had two) and then needs to be tucked in just right and then calls you back to leave the hall light on—until you realize: “A Dad who doesn’t want to go to sleep is exhausting!”
This is exactly what goes down in the delightful new picture book (originally published in France), titled My Dad is Big and Strong, BUT…: A Bedtime Story (Ages 3-6), by Coralie Saudo, illustrated by Kris DiGiacomo. A little boy tell us: “My Dad is big and strong, but every night it’s the same old story. And this is how it begins: ‘I don’t want to go to bed!’” The ordeal that follows, turning a classic parent-child struggle on its head, will have both boys and girls in stitches.
May 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
Let’s face it: being a parent can sometimes feel like a thankless job (does he realize I’m missing precious minutes of “American Idol” while I’m washing his uniform for tomorrow, composing a creative note for his lunchbox, and picking crumbs off the floor so it will stop looking like the inside of a barn—all while he is hollering from upstairs about “one last drink of water”?).
Suffice it to say that we parents will take an Ego Boost where we can get one. And that’s why I love reading books like A Visitor for Bear (Ages 3-6), the first of the delightful Bear and Mouse books by Bonny Becker, with illustrations by Kady MacDonald Denton. Now, I could love this book because of the witty banter between the two strangers-turned-friends, or because Mouse speaks in a decidedly British accent, or because a bear dressed in an apron is just so darn cute. But, on those rare occasions when JP allows me to choose his bedtime book, the reason I run to grab this gem off the shelf, is because it makes him LAUGH OUT LOUD.
May 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
Today’s excursion to pick strawberries at Shlagel Farm in Maryland was the perfect excuse to break out an old favorite: Jamberry (Ages 1-3), by Bruce Degen. Not that we need an excuse to read this rollicking rhyme of a boy and a bear romping through fields and down streams on a quest for every kind of berry. But as the kids and I were filling our buckets with the plumpest, juiciest strawberries I’ve ever tasted, our fingers and shirts and mouths stained red, I couldn’t help but hear in my head: “Three berry/ Four berry/ Hayberry/ Strawberry/ Finger and pawberry/ My berry, your berry/ Strawberry ponies/ Strawberry lambs/ Dancing in meadows/ Of strawberry jam.”
We didn’t encounter any strawberry lambs (although there were goats and some very vocal chickens), and my children are likely to eat all the strawberries before I get a chance to make them into jam, but the spirit of the book was very much alive as we chomped our way through the farm. Our excitement continued to build, as we got deeper into the patch, launching ourselves into uncharted territory wherein (as we imagined it) lay the biggest berries.
May 17, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’ve been fortunate that my kids have loved books from the very beginning. I’ll admit that part of my design was purely selfish: I’d rather read to my children than do almost anything else with them (read: sitting for hours on the floor making train sounds). So they quickly learned that Quality Time With Mom meant listening to stories.
During the years that I worked in retail, I was always surprised when a customer, shopping for a baby gift, would say, “I’m not going to buy a book for someone who can’t even talk! How would they understand it?” Who said anything about understanding?! In the beginning, books are simply stimuli: things to touch, to feel, to explore, to eat. They present an opportunity for little ones to listen uninterrupted to a parent’s voice, a sound babies are born loving. And they make for the best snuggle time EVER.
But don’t be fooled: the past decade of child development research tells us that, even while they’re hanging out of drooling mouths, books are wielding their magic on babies’ brains, laying the groundwork for early language development and, yes, even lifelong intelligence. So how do you get your squirmy-wormy baby to love books?