When Bigger Really is Better

September 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

"The Runaway Tomato" by Kim Cooley Reeder & Lincoln AgnewOn a Saturday morning towards the end of summer, on our way to go swimming, we swung by our local bookstore, so that I could run in and grab a gift for a birthday party later that day. My kids waited in the car with my husband, and when I returned a few minutes later, they asked with excited curiosity, “What book did you get?” I told them that I had picked a brand new one, by Kim Cooley Reeder, titled The Runaway Tomato (Ages 2-6). “RUNAWAY TOMATO?!” they shrieked, throwing their heads back in laughter. And thus commenced twenty minutes of their regaling us with their own ideas of where a runaway tomato might come from and what it might do.

Perhaps it’s because our attempt at growing tomatoes this year was such an Epic Failure, that my children think the idea of harvesting gigantic tomatoes is pure absurdity. Or perhaps there is just something innately hilarious about stories starring fruits and vegetables gone rogue (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has always been a favorite of JP). Either way, we had to return to the bookstore a week later to get a copy for ourselves. « Read the rest of this entry »

Welcoming Fall with Some Peace and Quiet

September 13, 2014 § 6 Comments

"Otis and the Scarecrow" by Loren LongI may be only seven years into this parenting gig, but one thing about which I’m certain is that I will never adjust to the noise. I’m talking about the incessant chatter; the shrieks of siblings chasing each other around the house; the whining about being hungry 15 minutes after a meal. At no time was this more evident than this past summer, when I was around my kids nearly every waking hour. Don’t get me wrong: I loved our lazy mornings, reading books in our PJs until 11am; I loved feeling a little hand in each of mine as the three of us rounded dirt paths; I loved huddling tight against my son in the last car of a roller coaster whipping around curves. Yes, we had wonderful hours together—hours when the questions and the observations and even the screaming seemed perfectly lovely. But, at some point, there would be this:

Me in the car, driving us home from a packed morning of puppet show, playground, and picnic. The kids are rosy-cheeked, ice-cream-stained, and happy. It’s one of those moments where you think, yup, I’m totally rocking this summer thing. Best. Mom. Ever. And you’re looking forward to a nice relaxing drive, listening to the radio and watching the trees fly by.

JP (from the backseat, as we merge onto the highway): “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (flushed with pride at my sweet, smart son): “That’s right, honey!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Yes, I heard you. And you are absolutely right!”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me: “Mmmmmhmmmmm.”

JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”

Me (suddenly seized by the notion that I am trapped in a moving metal box that is simultaneously pressing against the sides of my skull and sucking the oxygen out of my lungs): “What do you want from me? Why on God’s green earth are you saying the same thing over and over? What can I say to make you STOP TALKING FOR JUST ONE SINGLE SECOND OF THIS CAR RIDE SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF THINK??!!” « Read the rest of this entry »

What Was Santa Like as a Kid? (Two Favorite New Christmas Books)

December 4, 2013 § 4 Comments

"An Otis Christmas" by Loren LongWith every holiday season, there is a kind of magic in rediscovering old friends, old traditions, old stories. I have only to see the ecstasy on my children’s faces as we unpack our box of Christmas books each December to remember why I go through the trouble of packing them away in January, as opposed to stuffing them into our already stuffed bookshelves. As a parent, it’s magical for me as well: last night my eldest left us at the dinner table, voluntarily bathed himself, got into his PJs, brushed his teeth, and called downstairs, “I’m ready 20 minutes early so I can get some extra Christmas stories!” No wonder they call it the most wonderful time of the year.

Just because we only read them for one month a year doesn’t mean I can resist the temptation to add to our collection every single year (there are worse addictions, I’ve assured my husband). Last year was Alison Jay’s exquisite Christmastime, where clues of Christmas carols are embedded into a seek-and-find masterpiece. Previous years’ favorites are mentioned here and here. This year’s acquisitions include two new picture books, utterly different in style, but forever entwined in my mind, since my kids and I had the pleasure of meeting both author/illustrators at Hooray for Books (our fabulous independent bookstore) a few weeks ago. « Read the rest of this entry »

April’s Birthday Pick

April 14, 2013 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

June 5, 2012 Comments Off on You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Before homework and competitive athletics, long before college essays and declaring majors, there’s preschool. And, in preschool, there’s one thing all parents hope for: that our little ones will learn how to make a friend…or two. So I can’t help but get a little choked up every time I read a story about the blossoming of a young friendship, like the one that saves the day in Otis and the Tornado (Ages 3-7), by the incredibly talented Loren Long. Otis and the Tornado is actually the second story Long has written about an old tractor named Otis, rundown in age but not in spirit (the equally charming first book is titled simply Otis). No one can match Loren Long’s ability to engender sympathy in his readers for inanimate objects; and he does this by endowing them with a range of soft, subtle, but highly emotive facial expressions (see also his spectacular adaptation of The Little Engine That Could). Whether he looks joyful, bashful, worried, or brave, we can’t help but love this tractor and his “putt puff puttedy chuff”s (say that three times fast). Otis is also a hit on the farm, beloved by geese and sheep alike; together they enjoy hours of rounds of Follow the Leader, with everyone taking a turn to lead (it’s a regular preschool class!). But every class has the potential for a bully, and this farm is no exception: “Everyone was so friendly, except…the bull. The bull was nobody’s friend. When he was not in his pen, he was kept in a pasture all by himself.” The bull, it seems, has brought this isolation upon himself: every time the animals approach his pen, he snorts and snarls and huffs; one time he even charged into the gate towards Otis. Luckily, this is a story about Second Chances, and the bull gets his clean slate when a tornado approaches the farm. As the sky darkens, the farmers race down into the cellar, leaving Otis to unlatch each of the animal’s pens and lead them down to the lowest point of Mud Creek (yes, your child will now know exactly what to do in the face of an approaching funnel cloud). “But just as they squeezed close and tight, Otis heard an awful bellowing cry…the sound of a large creature in trouble.” It’s the bull, of course, and Otis must race against the clock to go back and free him before the tornado touches down. It doesn’t matter how many times JP has heard this story: when we reach this part, his body tenses in suspense, his milk cup freezes mid-sip. Time is running out, and when the latch on the bull’s pen proves stuck, Otis “threw himself into reverse, revved his engine, and charged backwards into the gate. CRASH! The gate shattered into pieces.” (Cheers erupt and JP relaxes.) Otis leads the bull to the safety of the other animals, and they all huddle in the Ultimate Snuggle. When the tornado passes, the animals emerge to a badly damaged farm, but the narrative ends on the sweetest and most hopeful of notes: when all the clean-up is done, they have a new friend in the bull, a new buddy to join in Follow the Leader. And the bull? Well, “instead of a snarl and a glare, he wore a happy grin and a friendly gaze.” Because, really, isn’t having a friend the best? (Congratulations to this year’s preschool and pre-K graduates!)

Otis the tractor rescuing the bull

Huddled in safety from the storm (the Ultimate Snuggle)

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

Life on the Farm

May 30, 2012 Comments Off on Life on the Farm

Some days, it seems like all I hear is “Why?” “What?” “How?” It started two years ago, when JP turned two and a half; and it quickly became apparent that I was going to need to brush up on my mastery of Practical Life (not to mention engineering, plumbing, physics, astronomy, and physiology). The onset of this prolonged phase of questioning (the kind that follows you into the shower and becomes a nagging buzz in the car) coincided with our family’s relocation out East, which meant that I had just quit my full-time job, was seven months pregnant with my second in the middle of summer, and was temporarily living alongside a major highway in a corporate apartment infested with ants. I panicked: how was I going to keep my Energizer Bunny occupied and myself from going crazy at the same time? My salvation came from Frying Pan Farm, a small not-for-profit working farm just a few minutes away in Herndon, VA. It turns out that many of JP’s questions could be answered on morning excursions to Frying Pan Farm; things like: “Where does milk come from?” “How does my cereal get made?” “How do tractors work?” “Why is a cow’s poop so big?” (OK, so he never asked that last one prior to visiting a farm, but it soon became a favorite.) It also turns out that all these questions (and many more) are answered in Flip Flap Farm (Ages 2.5-6), part of a fantastic non-fiction series by Usborne Publishers, which breaks down topics through clear, concise text, charming illustrations, and a multitude of flaps (sometimes three-deep!) that little fingers can lift up to learn the complete story.

I first happened upon Flip Flap Farm in the General Store at Frying Pan Farm (sidenote: some of my best book finds come from off-the-beaten-path gift shops, because when a store has a niche focus, books which might otherwise get shelved in an obscure section of a bookstore end up front and center there). Organized by season, Flip Flap Farm starts with springtime: we see baby lambs and calves alongside their mommies (a flap opens to reveal a sheep who has “moved away from the others to have her baby”); a vet examining the newborn animals; and a tractor scattering new seeds. In summer, the sheep are sheared: a flap reveals the “cool, shorn sheep” and another takes us along for the ride as the fleeces are washed, spun, and turned into clothes and bedding. My favorite spread is Milking, where flaps showcase the digestion of grass inside a cow (did you know that cows swallow grass, cough it back up, and then go on to chew it “for ages” before swallowing it again?); as well as a number of brilliantly-executed flaps that show how milk gets from a cow’s udders to your grocery store’s shelves. Not surprisingly, JP’s favorite spread is Farm Machines, where (by turning a wheel) he gets to watch a combine harvester move through the fields, cutting wheat and turning straw into bales (that’s where your cereal comes from, baby!). There’s lots more, including a look at what the farmers do in the dead of winter, but come on, what are you waiting for? Get in the car! I hear they’re milking at 4pm today.

Other Favorite Picture Books on Farm Life:
Big Red Barn (Ages 1-3), by Margaret Wise Brown
Farm (Ages 4-8), by Elisha Cooper
Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm (Ages 3-6), by Alice & Martin Provensen (and, incidentally, my husband’s favorite book as a kid!)

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