October 22, 2020 § Leave a comment
As a nervous flyer, I never thought I’d write this, but I really miss getting on airplanes. Traveling is something I’ve never taken for granted, but I’m not sure I realized just how much I crave it until it wasn’t an option. I miss stepping off a plane, filled with the adrenaline of adventures ahead. I miss unfamiliar restaurants and museums. I miss natural wonders so far from my everyday environs it’s hard to believe they’re on the same planet. I miss squishing into a single hotel room, each of us climbing into shared beds after a day of sensory overload and, one by one, closing our eyes. I can’t wait until we can travel again.
In the meantime, we look to books to fuel our longing to see the world, to keep alive this thirst for the unfamiliar and the undiscovered. No picture book this year delivers on this promise quite like Girl on a Motorcycle (Ages 5-9), by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Julie Morstad, based on the actual adventures of Anne-France Dautheville, the first woman to ride a motorcycle around the world alone. From her hometown of Paris to Canada, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, and other exotic destinations, we travel alongside this inquisitive, fiercely independent girl as she heeds the call of the open road.
Morstad is no stranger to illustrating picture book biographies—It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way made last year’s Gift Guide—and part of her remarkable talent stems from adapting her illustrative style to the subject at hand, while still creating a look and feel entirely her own. In Girl on a Motorcycle, Morstad infuses a ’70s palette of glowy browns and moody mauves onto the dusty backdrops of the Middle East, the dense evergreens of the Canadian countryside, and the ethereal sunrises. Additionally, Morstad gives the protagonist herself a kind of badass glamour every bit as alluring as the scenery itself. How can we not fall for someone who packs lipstick next to a “sharp knife”? It’s as if Vogue jumped on the back of a motorcycle, slept in a tent at night, and made friends with locals along the way.« Read the rest of this entry »
August 27, 2020 § 1 Comment
My aunt used to hold an annual Christmas Eve party at her apartment on the eighth floor of a building just two blocks from ours in New York City. It was a small group, rarely more than twelve, and we were the only relatives ever invited. We only saw these friends of my aunt once a year, but before the elevator reached the bottom floor at the end of the evening, I was already looking forward to next year’s gathering. My aunt had been the editor in chief of a major magazine, and her friends were artistic, eccentric, and alluringly mysterious.
There was one woman in particular whom I adored. Always the last to arrive, she would come through the door shrouded in a floor-length black fur coat. Her perfect coif of white hair was sharply angled at her chin, and she moved in a cloud of exotic perfume. Her raspy smokers’ voice was fond of the word “darling,” and she always addressed me as if I was an adult. Perched on the sofa sipping my ginger ale, I inched as close to her as I could, throwing back my head with laughter as she did.
She lived downtown where the artists were, and I knew little about how she spent her days, other than that she and her husband had never had children. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and ask her any number of questions! As children, we’re content with the stories we tell ourselves, the ones we make up in her head, and I fashioned endless stories for this larger-than-life woman in black, who seemed to float effortlessly around my aunt’s apartment, captivated by everything and nothing at the same time.
Sophie Dahl’s marvelous picture book, Madame Badobedah (Ages 4-8), told in three chapters over 53 pages and amply accentuated with retro illustrations by Lauren O’Hara, stars a young protagonist spellbound by an eccentric stranger who shows up for an unlimited stay at her parents’ hotel by the sea. This stranger barely opens her mouth before Mabel has developed theories about the feathers draped around her neck, her stacks of weathered trunks, and her prized pet tortoise. But warm to her from the start Mabel does not. Resentful of the woman’s haughty demeanor, Mabel quickly convinces herself that, rather than a solitary woman healing from heartbreak, she’s a jewel thief on the run. What follows is a riotous narrative, ultimately giving way to a warm intergenerational friendship perched somewhere in the middle of fiction and reality.
June 11, 2020 § 1 Comment
This Father’s Day, my own father will have been gone for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years. One of the most devastating things about losing a parent when you’re eighteen is that you never get to know that parent through an adult lens. I knew my father intimately, from his scratchy mustache to his eye-rolling wisecracks to his endless patience as I described every painstaking detail of my day. But I knew him as a child knows a parent. How I wish I could have known him as an adult.
In times of great upheaval and unrest, I feel my father’s absence most keenly. Every seismic shift in our world puts that much more space between him and me. How would he be participating in this national conversation about race? Would he be marching with a Black Lives Matter sign? What candidate would he have supported in the last Democratic primary? How would social distancing have impacted his life in retirement—or would he still be practicing law? What kinds of things would he enjoy doing with his grandchildren?
I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, though I ask them quietly to myself all the time.
What I do know is that there are certain things which always bring him back to me. And one of them is travel. My father’s love of travel was legendary. When I was very young and he would travel internationally for work, he’d always bring me souvenirs—usually dolls—from places like Brazil, Mexico, and Germany. I loved gazing at the tiny porcelain faces or printed fabric clothes and imagining where they had been. Our house was full of black-and-white photographs from before my time: my father on a camel in the Sahara, my father on a motorcycle in Greece. When I decided to spend a gap year in Vietnam after high school, he jumped at the chance to accompany me across the ocean. When, weeks later, it came time for him to return to the States, his parting words were, “It looks like you’ve got the travel bug now, too.” I beamed with pride.
It seems fated that I would fall deeply in love with Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s new picture book, Papa Brings Me the World (Ages 3-7), in which a young girl describes her affection for a father who travels the world and brings pieces of it back to her. I’ve long been a fan of Kostecki-Shaw’s (my daughter still pulls out Luna & Me), but this book positively transported me. Maybe because it’s inspired by the author-illustrator’s own father; maybe it’s because the theme of found objects lends itself beautifully to mixed-media collage; or maybe it’s because the voice of the little girl reminds me of my young self, brimming with tenderness and curiosity and admiration and longing for my father’s stories of adventure.
March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments
My daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 6, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: When We Can’t Go Home
When I was twelve, I was obsessed with Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming, a novel set in the 1980s about four siblings abandoned by their mother in a mall parking lot. The book follows the children’s physical journey—sleeping in woods, stealing food, battling the elements—to track down their great-aunt and convince her to take them in. Of course, the book is as much about the children’s emotional journey, processing their mother’s betrayal and questioning words like “family” and “home.” To my pre-adolescent self, Voigt’s story seemed like a child’s worst nightmare. But, if watching it play out was terrifying to me, witnessing the children’s resourcefulness and resilience along the way was also deeply consoling. I couldn’t look away.
I was reminded of Dicey and her siblings—of their heartbreak and their fortitude—many times while reading Kate DiCamillo’s Louisiana’s Way Home (Ages 10-13), a middle-grade novel even a reluctant reader won’t be able to put down. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 14, 2017 § 5 Comments
What if there was a children’s book which came with a budding world view? What if, in giving a book this holiday season, you helped a child feel a little more connected to the planet she or he calls home?
Last spring, we took a family trip to Italy, our first time overseas with our children. Some (ahem, elder) relatives of mine were not shy about questioning the wisdom of taking our six and nine year old on such a trip. More than once, I was asked, rhetorically: “Don’t you think you should hold off on spending all that money until your children are older and will actually remember the things they see?” (Occasionally, this was prefaced by, “I know I should hold my tongue, but…”) « Read the rest of this entry »
July 20, 2017 § 1 Comment
We left our hearts in Italy six weeks ago. It was our first family trip outside the country and a magical foray into ancient architecture, big-hearted people, and culinary delights (my son has since questioned why Americans don’t grate fresh truffles on everything). And, of course, the art. Oh, the art! Art on canvases, art on ceilings, art around doorways. Art rising up out of the ground.
I’ve learned, from previous trips to New York City and even from local excursions to museums, that any time spent sharing books with my children about sights they’re going to see, before they see them, is time well spent. If my kids are able to recall some granule of knowledge about the construction of a building, if they are able to spot a piece of art in a museum that they’ve previously seen in a picture, they are vastly more engaged. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 13, 2016 § 2 Comments
Before my kids were in school full time, we used to spend the occasional rainy day at the airport (or, as my son would call it, the “airplane port”). We would drop the car in long-term parking, ride the shuttle bus to the terminal (itself an experience), and enjoy a picnic lunch while pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the runway. After a few hours, we’d toss our trash, head back to our car, and return home.
Before becoming a parent, I had always done my best to avoid air travel unless absolutely necessary. If you had told me that parenting would drive me willingly into the throes of a cavernous space with crowds of people and humming machines—plus two toddling kiddos in tow—I would have thought, thanks, but I’ll stick with raincoats and a quick jaunt around the block. But I discovered: take away the stress of travel and the cumbersome bags, and the airport is like a built-in babysitter. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 27, 2016 § 2 Comments
Hands down, my favorite day last summer was spent with my then eight year old at Ford’s Theatre, otherwise known as The Place Where Lincoln Was Shot. If there’s anything more fun than watching our children learn, it’s learning alongside our children—and that is precisely what happened as JP and I made our way through the narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the hours preceding and immediately following his assassination, and his legacy as it lives on today.
Plugged into our audio tour—the “kid version,” where two middle-school students conversed into our ears about the different exhibits—JP and I were totally riveted: making wide eyes at one another over something that was said, or taking off our headphones for a moment to discuss something further. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, like it was the first day of a new literature elective in college and I was scanning the syllabus for all the new books I would have an excuse to buy. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
The Greatest Thing has happened. The Richard Scarry book that I most loved as a child is BACK IN PRINT! That’s right, I no longer have to lie awake at night, debating whether to drop $100 on eBay so that my kids can share in my childhood nostalgia. There I was, casually browsing the aisles of my neighborhood bookstore, when I caught sight of a double decker London bus, packed with a menagerie of dressed-up animals. I let out an audible squeal, snatched up every copy on the shelf, and ran directly to the counter to buy them all. (Yes, I have a problem, but there are worse addictions to have…right?)
You might think you already have enough Richard Scarry in your life. Sure, I get it. You might have read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go so many times (like I did, when my son was two and waking up at 5:15am every single day), that you have had to “misplace” it on occasion. Or, you might feel like you have already lost years of your life talking about a certain worm who lives in a Busy, Busy Town and walks upright wearing a single shoe.
But you might also remember that, sometimes, the only reason you can answer your child’s 700 daily questions stems from your proficient readings of What Do People Do All Day? (After all, when you became a parent, you didn’t know you would need a working knowledge of how streets are paved and houses are built and paper is made and a mailed letter gets from one place to another.) You might also take a moment to reflect how, when your children were younger and people commented on their impressive vocabulary, you might owe more than you think to the hours you spent—at their request, of course—pointing at items on supermarket shelves in the Best Word Book Ever.
In the spirit of outing my children’s addiction within my addiction, I am here to confess to you that we own TWENTY NINE different Richard Scarry books (calm down, I’ve only listed my favorites at the end of this post). For the past eight years, Richard Scarry has topped our “most often read” lists more than any other books. I trip over them more than any Lego or baby doll. Yes, I have sometimes buried my face in my hands and lamented to my children that I just don’t have it in me to read another 72-page book that’s heavy on words and light on plot. But, most of the time, I oblige. Because it makes them so darn happy.
And because I remember how much I adored these books as a child.
Which brings me to the recent republication (in honor of its 50th anniversary) of Busy, Busy World (Ages 4-8), one more Richard Scarry title that you ABSOLUTELY WILL NEED TO ADD TO YOUR COLLECTION. As I’ve said, my love affair with this anthology of 33 internationally-themed two-page stories—think of it as Busy, Busy Town goes global—began as a child myself.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that my love of travel originated with this book, which makes pit stops in cities like London, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, and in countries like India, Israel, Mexico, and Egypt.
As a child, the colorful settings captivated me: the spires of castles in Denmark, the dikes in Holland, the palm trees in Rio de Janeiro. How I wanted to ride that double decker bus across the London bridge, or sail in a gondola down the canals of Venice. I was even fascinated by the different international flags on the book’s back cover.
I remember, at the beginning of each story, flipping to the map inside the book’s cover to pinpoint exactly where that particular story took place. (Incidentally, my children immediately started doing this same thing the first time we read the book, with no prompting from me.)
Of course, as any fan of Richard Scarry’s stories knows, the eclectic, goofy, sometimes downright absurd cast of anthropomorphic animals are wherein lies the real irresistible charm. STARTING WITH THEIR NAMES. (For the record, I’m not oblivious to the overt 1960s cultural stereotyping implicit in names like “Schmudge, the German Chimney Sweep” or “Ukulele Louie, the Hawaiian Fisherman,” or “Dr. Krunchchew, the Russian Dentist”…I’m simply pointing out that these names are tremendously entertaining to read aloud.)
These animal-people are forever getting themselves into pickles (I’m referring to both meanings of the word). Despite their best intentions, these characters are virtually unstoppable in their ability to get into trouble. They crash into pie trucks, they drive off raised drawbridges, and they hide in pots of soup.
Richard Scarry was forever embedding his stories with morals and lessons (manners are first and foremost)—and here is no exception. Know someone who doesn’t like to clean up? Perhaps you should introduce them to Schtoompah, the Austrian tuba player, who “was not very tidy. Instead of putting things away neatly, he would just throw things in a closet.” In preparation for a concert, Schtoompah spends two days looking through his closet for his tuba. Once on stage, his first blow unearths a plethora of forgotten household items and appliances, sending them raining down into the audience. (My kids die over this one.)
Slapstick humor aside, some of the best laughs come from misunderstandings that the characters fail to see but which are obvious to the reader. It took a a minute for my kids to get the pun in one of my personal favorites, “Professor Dig and His Egyptian Mummy.” Fresh off excavating an ancient mummy, Professor Dig stops at a restaurant and asks the proprietor to “watch my mummy for a few minutes while I sit and drink a cold glass of lemonade.” The restaurant owner mistakes the mummy for the professor’s mommy—and proceeds to spend the next hour trying to get her to talk and ballroom dance with him. (I die over this one.)
OK, moment of truth: When I’m reading this book to my kids, can I honestly separate my own visceral reaction—the wash of memories it brings back to me—from my ability to weigh this book objectively against more contemporary offerings? Perhaps not. Are the stories at times bizarre, chauvinist, and culturally stereotyped? Yup. Does the writing occasionally fall flat or feel tedious or actually make no sense at all? Afraid so.
Does any of that matter in terms of the sheer enjoyment this book provides? Not for a second.
In the six weeks that we’ve had Busy, Busy World, my kids have relished flipping through it, picking out which stories they want me to read, and arguing over which ones are their favorites. It has been a joyful trip down memory lane and around the world for all of us; and I only hope that my kids will hang on to this new copy so that their own little ones can enjoy it someday.
Other Favorites by Richard Scarry:
Best Word Book Ever (Ages 1-3)
Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (Ages 2-5)
Busy, Busy Town (Ages 2-6)
A Day at the Airport (Ages 2-5; this book has inspired many a rainy afternoon hanging out at the airport)
A Day at the Police Station (Ages 2-5)
A Day at the Fire Station (Ages 2-5)
Please and Thank You Book (Ages 2-5)
What Do People Do All Day? (Ages 3-6)
The Animals’ Merry Christmas (Ages 4-10)
The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries (Ages 4-8; yes, Richard Scarry did something for older kids!)
Finally, did I mention how much we love the Busytown: Eye Found It cooperative board game? See, just a little obsessed…
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
May 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from binge reading a series that has already been published in its entirety. But it can be equally exciting to read through a series in real time, anticipating the next installment for months, then rediscovering characters like old friends. One of our family’s greatest literary pleasures over the past 18 months has been the Three-Ring Rascals series (Ages 7-11, younger if reading aloud), by sister duo Kate Klise (author) and M. Sarah Klise (illustrator). Perhaps you heard our squeals a few weeks ago, when my kids and I walked into our local bookstore and discovered that the fourth installment, Pop Goes the Circus!, was out (with still more on the way!).
What has made this early-chapter book series such a joy in our house is that it has been enjoyed equally and together by my four and seven year old. In fact, it hits every criteria on my Must-Find-Chapter-Book-That-Appeals-to-Both-Hooligans agenda. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 30, 2014 § 5 Comments
Earlier this fall, JP and I embarked on our annual trip to New York City, where I grew up and where my Mom still lives. Normally on these visits, we are content to plot and rehash the day’s adventures by pouring over the vibrant illustrations in Kathy Jakobsen’s My New York, which my Mom brings down from a closet upon our arrival.
This time, I decided that some advance reading was in order. So, in the weeks leading up to our departure, I read to JP one of the novels I most remember from my childhood: E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud), which won the Newberry Medal in 1968. Through the eyes of two runaway siblings from Greenwich, Connecticut, who secretly live (and sleep) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art for an entire week, we are introduced to this incredible museum with drama and intrigue. The last time I took JP to the Met—albeit he was only five—was a disheartening disaster; he was bored within minutes of my ramblings about Impressionist painters. This time was different. This time, we had purpose: we were following in the steps of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment
While my son and I were on the subject of excavating fossils, it seemed it might be logical to jump from paleontology to archaeology. It didn’t hurt that, over winter break, JP’s teacher had emailed me about tracking down some good books about Ancient Egypt (see list at the end). And so, one snowy night, JP and I sat down on the couch to read the Treasure Trove that is The 5,000-Year-Puzzle-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt (Ages 6-12), by Claudia Logan, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.
An hour later, we were still reading it, my daughter and husband had joined us, and I almost couldn’t tear myself away to meet my girlfriends for a scheduled drink. Almost. I can’t think of a better introduction, not only to Ancient Egypt, but also to the painstaking role that archaeologists play in unearthing clues about ancient life. While the American boy and his father in the book are fictitious, they join an actual historic dig, led by a Harvard team of scientists, which occurred in 1924 at the Egyptian site of Giza 7000X, where a secret and unusually well-preserved tomb was discovered. Through a combination of actual historic records and the young boy’s first-person narrative, we learn about the team’s efforts to excavate this ancient site over the course of a year—including their continual revisions to hypotheses over whose tomb it was and why it was constructed in such a way. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
Last year around this time (equally last minute), I did a post about “books worth their weight” (great-looking reference books), as well as one about picture books by Steve Jenkins, a.k.a. Children’s Master of All Things Animal. This year, we can kill two birds with one stone when we buy Steve Jenkins’ new, overstuffed, and absolutely phenomenal The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest—and Most Surprising—Animals on Earth (Ages 6-12).
Over 300 fascinating animals are presented in sections like Family (chapters include “The Mating Dance” and “Bringing Up Baby”); Defenses (e.g. “Copycats” and “Bodily Fluids”); and The Story of Life (yes, Jenkins tackles evolution and, boy, does he succeed). I’m normally not a big fan of fact-centered non-fiction, preferring a more narrative approach that strengthens children’s attention spans and reading comprehension. But I make a BIG exception for Jenkins, whose presentation is as visually enticing (brilliant paper collages amidst an extraordinary use of white space) as it is factually addictive. I could look at this book for hours. I have looked at this book for hours (yes, I am hoarding it from my kids). « Read the rest of this entry »