Monday, January 31, 2011

Noses are Houses for Boogers

The title of this post was uttered by my three-year-old after reading Mary Ann Hoberman's A House Is a House for Me.  This rollicking plotless rhyme is a litany of things which are containers for other things, both literally (e.g. "a hive is a house for a bee" and, more interestingly, "barrels are houses for pickles") and figuratively ("A book is a house for a story/A rose is a house for a smell/My head is a house for a secret/A secret I never will tell").  I love Hoberman's use of language, such as when she uses farfetch as as a verb ("perhaps I have started farfetching...")  But the best thing about this book are the ideas it inspires.  As the text itself says, "once you get started in thinking this way/It seems that whatever you see/Is either a house or it lives in a house.."  Kids love to start thinking of "houses" and their inhabitants.  My only complaint is that, for me, the illustrations are actually too detailed, almost distracting.  

Another book that has proved a source of inspiration for my kids is Chrysanthemum by the prolific and consistently excellent Kevin Henkes.  In Chrysanthemum, the eponymous title character loves her unique name until she starts school and is teased for it.  Upon reading this book for the first time several years ago, my older daughter and I discussed different flower names: Violet, Rose, Iris, Petunia, etc.  Why, my daughter wanted to know, was nobody named Tulip?  Well, now when she and her sister play pretend games, one of them is Tulip and the other is Daisy.  If I am co-opted into the game, I am Magnolia! 

Finally, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst provided not only the name of this blog, but for a while prompted my daughter to skip 16 - on purpose - when she was counting to 20.  She was imitating Alexander, who, when his teacher criticizes him for doing the same, says, "Who needs 16?"

What books have inspired you and your kids?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Growing up, my family was lucky enough to be able to spend part of each summer at our country house in the Catskills.  Although we always brought new books with us, we had a few books that remained at the country house during the year.  These were not "back-up" books for when we exhausted what we'd brought.  To the contrary - one of the joys of going to the country house was reading and rereading the "country house books" annually.  As I got older, they included Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, the story of a Jewish girl's coming of age in the 1930s and Belles on Their Toes  (the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, which, strangely, I don't think we had at the country house), both by Frank B. Gilbreth and his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.  In them, the sibling authors tell the story of their family which consisted of 12 children and their parents, the efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.  (I guess if you're going to have a dozen kids, you might as well be an efficiency expert!)  These are still some of my favorite books.

Now that I have brought my own kids to the country house, I have rediscovered the picture books that my mom has kept there these past 30+ years.  When a friend's recent Facebook post requesting children's book recommendations garnered several votes for The Saggy Baggy Elephant (A Little Golden Book), I thought, oh, a country house book!  While this sweet story has a moral (looks don't matter, your family will love you no matter what), the most fun part of reading it is doing Sookie the elephant's happy dance with him: one, two three, kick! one two three, kick! 

Maybe my mom had a thing for elephants, because another favorite country house book is The Circus Baby by Maud Fuller Petersham.  A mother elephant admires the way the clown family eats with utensils and wants to raise her baby to be similarly civilized.  Chaos ensues as the baby elephant attempts to eat with a spoon and mother elephant learns to accept the limitations (if that's what they are) of elephanthood and not push her baby to be what he is not.  The illustrations are charming and the book is not pedantic in the least.

Finally, If I Had a Lion by Liesel Moak Skorpen, tells of a little girl's plan for a lion to become her best friend and companion.  They would take care of each other when they were sick, play with each other and generally keep each other company.  Again, the illustrations are delightful and despite the fact that the little girl must be lonely, the book is not sad.

Of course, I am writing these reviews from memory because the books are not here - they are at the country house.  It would be a violation of an unwritten family rule to purchase them - or even read them - during the rest of the year.  So here's to next summer, when I will read all of these again (and again, and again, and again.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Without Saying a Word

I am not a visual person.  In college I made a friend accompany me to the art gallery to help me figure out what I was seeing for an assignment for Art History 101.  Post-college, I looked at the wordless Ikea directions with horror and confusion (not only was I confused about what to do, I was confused as to how anybody could think wordless instructions were useful) and immediately found some friends willing to help.  So it was much to my surprise that I discovered that several of my favorite picture books are wordless.

Perhaps my absolute favorite wordless books (if I had to choose) are Jan Ormerod's "bookend" pair (pun intended) Sunshine and Moonlight.  They both follow the same family (mom, dad, daughter) through the rituals of getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.  Despite the fact that they focus on what can be very hectic times of day, both books convey a kind of peacefulness.  I found them serendipitously at Books of Wonder, a fantastic independent children's bookstore here in New York.

All of Suzy Lee's books are amazing.  Wave tells the story of a little girl at the beach;
Mirror uses double-page spreads to turn the book into a mirror and Shadow shows how a little girl's imagination converts the shadows of ordinary items in her attic into monsters and animals in the jungle.  Shadow also uses double-page spreads.  It is a tall thin book but has to be turned horizontally to be "read."  I love how the protagonist in each book plays so happily all by herself without a toy in sight.

In the Town All Year 'Round by Rotraut Susanne Berner is a more traditional wordless book, in the vein of Richard Scarry.  I don't remember how I came across it originally but Playing by the Book's recent post about a similar book, It's Snowing in Animal Town by Hannamarie Ruohonen reminded me of it.  It follows the citizens of a single town throughout the year.  The book is divided into seasons and each has an introduction to some of the characters and clues about what to look for.  It is very detailed and rewards rereading with new discoveries each time. 

After reading Playing by the Book's posts about "reading" wordless books to and with your children and I was struck by a thought: to my non-reader and not-quite-a-reader, ALL books are wordless when an adult is not there.  Of course, my kids often "read" a book they have heard before using the words they have memorized or almost memorized, but they sometimes tell the story in their own words as well.  Hearing how they paraphrase the text makes for great eavesdropping!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Appropos of Snow

As far as I know, there are no books about the precipitation currently falling in New York, with good reason.  It is not picturesque, like snow.  You cannot play in it.  You can barely walk in it.  There may not even be a word for it.  Freezing rain does not adequately describe the icy, slushy mess on the ground this morning.  But there are plenty of books about snow.  Our line-up:

My kids and I can agree on the pleasures of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.  It's a classic (and a Caldecott winner) for a reason.  Enough said. 

Another wonderful Caldecott winner is
Snowflake Bentley by Jackie Briggs Martin.  This biography of Wilson Bentley, who made the study and photography of snow his life's work, is fascinating, with beautiful woodcut illustrations and informative sidebars set against a background of blue with snowflakes falling.  My five-year-old was entranced; my three-year-old was a bit bored.  My only complaint - Bentley's experiments in photographing snowflakes are described but not explained.  The information that letting only a little bit of light reach the negative and leaving the shutter open for 90 seconds was his successful method doesn't mean a whole lot to non-photographer me - or my five-year-old.  I'm definitely going to look into books by the same author and the work of illustrator Mary Azarian.  This book also prompted me to add Snow Crystals, which contains reproductions of some of Bentley's photos, to my Amazon wish list via the handy but somewhat creepy Amazon features which show you other books you might be interested in based on what you have already browsed.

White Snow Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin is another Caldecott winner, albeit of older vintage (it was published in 1947).  It alternates a lovely poem about snow with the simple story of how various townspeople cope with and enjoy the storm.  The illustrations have that bright red-yellow-white-black color palette that just say "vintage" to me.  (There was a production reason for the limited color palette, right?)  I love the descriptions: the church steeple wears a "pointed cap" of snow; the fence posts wear "dunce caps" of it and the windows of houses peek out "from under great white eyebrows."  Again, my five-year-old appreciated it; my three-year-old liked the story part but didn't have much patience for the poem.  I'm going to seek out more work by this pair, too.

Another favorite of mine is the simply titled Snow by Manya Stojic.  This delightful book shows how different members of the animal kingdom sense and respond to snow.  As the geese prepare to fly south and the bear gets ready to sleep the winter away, Snow introduces the concepts of migration and hibernation, without using those explicit words.  After the snow falls it is a "sparkling blanket" covering the forest.  With its large print text and close-up illustrations, this book is ideal for younger children. 

My children's vote for favorite snow book, however, goes to Caralyn and Mark Buehner's Snowmen at Night.  A cute rhyming book, it follows the exploits of snowmen after their creators go to bed. 

Finally, after seeing it reviewed on another blog (unfortunately I don't remember which one), I've put a library hold on a book of poems about snow by Jane Yolen Snow, Snow: Winter Poems for Children and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. 

What snow gems am I missing?  And is there another topic that has produced as many Caldecott winners?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

If I Had to Pick Just One...

Please check out my guest post over at Annie and Aunt about what picture book I'd choose if I had to pick just one favorite (heaven forbid!).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

To Get All Meta on You: Books about Books, Libraries and Reading

Because of my aforementioned library addiction, I hold books that mention libraries and books, and those that feature readers, especially dear.  One of my favorites is the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor.  This series follows the lives of five sisters growing up on the Jewish Lower East Side (where I grew up!) at the turn of the last century.  All but the first book are out of print, but many used copies can be found online.  There are five books in the series.

One week Sarah, the responsible, studious middle child, loses her book.  She is terrified to tell the librarian and devastated to hear of the cost to replace it.  Don't worry - it all works out in the end.  Not only that, but both the librarian and Ella, the oldest daughter, find love in or through the library.  Ella's beau (a much better word than boyfriend, don't you think?) actually introduces himself by sending her a note in a book she had hidden in the stacks.  What could be more romantic?

But the best book-within-a-book reference in this series comes in the third book (confusingly called More All-of-a-Kind Family, while the second is All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown), when Henny finds Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery the then-just-published sequel to Anne of Green Gables at the library one day. This reference sent me running to Wikipedia,
Somehow I'd always thought that the Anne books had been written in the 1920s at least, which would have post-dated Henny's discovery.  But no, the first was published in 1908, with Anne of Avonlea coming out just a year later.  So that means some of my favorite fictional characters were enjoying another one of my favorite fictional characters - how cool is that!

Although this blog is geared more toward younger audiences (at least for now, while my own children are young), I can't write a post about books about books, reading and libraries without mentioning one for older readers, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

My fruitless search for an image of the edition I have (how attached we can get to the edition and cover art of a book! - only the link to All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown shows the cover art I remember from that series) did lead me to another nice discovery: that Anna Quindlen, one of my favorite essayists and novelists who has written her own book-length essay on the joys of reading, has written a foreword to this book  Being me, I promptly put a library hold on this edition.

There are many lovely moments in the book describing Francie, the protagonist, taking joy in books and words and in the library itself, but the description of how Francie learns to read is simply perfect: 

"Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!

For quite a while, Francie had been spelling out letters, sounding them and then putting the sounds together to mean a word.  But one day, she look at a page and the word mouse had instantaneous meaning.  She looked at the word and the picture of a gray mouse scampered through her mind.  She looked farther and when she saw "horse," she heard him pawing the ground and saw the sun glint on his glossy coat.  The word "running" hit her suddenly and she breathed hard as though running herself....

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading.  She would never be lonely again..."

And there you go.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Library Addict

I am a library addict. 

I have upwards of 40 books, mostly children's books, checked out right now and approximately the same number on hold, despite the fact that the number of books you can reserve is limited to 15.  A ridiculously small number in my opinion.  But that's per card.  And so, I reserve books on my card, my husband's card, and my daughter's card.  And as soon as I get her one, my other daughter's card. 

One day my husband made a sign that said "NYPL [our street] Branch" and hung it over the spot where we keep our tottering stack of library books and left if for me to find without saying a word.  (He's much better at keeping secrets than I am and waited patiently until I found it.  He also makes a mean vegetable soup.)  He's right - we could almost open our own branch!  As a kid, I actually wanted to lend out my own books in an official way.  I even started making up checkout cards for my books, although I lacked the persistence necessary to follow through.  My older daughter recently asked to do the same, with similar results.

My husband asked how often we read each of these library books.  Some only once, some many, many times.  Which is exactly the point.  A single reading is all you need sometimes to know the book is not for you.  And the ones we return to over and over - well, those are the ones I invest in when birthdays and holidays come around.  For example, we currently have Gyo Fujikawa's A to Z Picture Book, reviewed in the prior post. from the library, but it's definitely made it to my "to buy" list.  My older daughter just spent some time poring over it by herself and then asked me to do exactly that.

I live in a 950 square foot apartment and I have to be very judicious about which books I will permanently bring into it.  And of course, purchasing books on the same scale at which I borrow them from the library would bankrupt us.  The only books I buy anymore are children's books and cookbooks (which they also have at the library - yay!).  Regular adult reading NEVER makes the cut.

I have my original New York Public Library (NYPL) library card, which dates back to 3rd grade.  That strikes me as oddly late given my own mother's library addiction (we currently have "competing" holds on a book of Julia Child's correspondence with her friend Avis DeVoto, As Always, Julia).  My name is signed on the back in the careful cursive which I had just learned.  The card is white, with the NYPL logo on it in maroon (current cards are either the reverse or blue).  It is held together with tape.  The bar code is rubbing off.  I hope they never make me get a new one. 

Next up: books about books and libraries and reading.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…

A very good place to start.
When you read you begin with ABC... 

And so, I wanted to share with you my current favorite ABC Book, Gyo Fujikawas's A to Z Picture Book. 

This ABC book has gorgeous, old-fashioned illustrations and lots of quirky images for each letter.   For A we see, among many, many other things, two children have an "argument," getting "angry" and then coming to an "agreement."  Turn the page and there is a double-page spread of a young girl in a marshy area "all alone."  Fujikawa alternates black-and-white illustrations with full-color ones.  (Could there have been a production reason for this?  Anybody out there know?)  For C we see a multitude of black-and-white illustrations, then turn the page to see another double-page color spread of a "city" (I'm guessing it's New York from the bridges and water towers).  I love that she picked a word that started with a soft C sound, rather than just sticking to the usual hard C words (cat, car and so on).  Thanks to the blog, Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves for introducing me to this author-illustrator.

The Sleepy Little Alphabet: A Bedtime Story from Alphabet Town by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Melissa Sweet is also very popular in this house.  None of the lower-case letters want to go to bed, although their upper-case moms and dads try their best to get them to do so.  Told in rhyme, there is also hidden in each picture at least one object that starts with the featured letter.  And on the nightstand of one of the letters is this very book, a find my kids delighted in!

Finally, an alphabet book for parents:  The ABCs of Rock by Melissa Duke Mooney illustrated by Print Mafia.  Each letter is associated with a rock band or star.  The illustrations, by Print Mafia, a duo who has designed actual rock posters, have a similar style throughout despite the variety of styles of the musicians.  Bust the book is still full of fun visuals.  I'm thinking this would provide a good variation on an alphabet game on long car rides, if anyone still plays those in this age of portable DVD players.

What are some of your favorite ABC books?