Monday, April 29, 2013

Library Loot #21

Some of our recent picks from the library.

For the kids:

Picture books:

Close up:

Poetry:  I have suddenly become obssessed with children's poetry anthologies.  I guess all the poetry displays due to National Poetry Month have accomplished their goal, as far as I'm concerned!  (And yes, that is my reflection in the top book!)

Chapter books:

For me:

What have you checked out from the library recently?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Read This Article

I'm a day (or two or three) behind in my reading of the New York Times and so it wasn't until this morning that I happened upon this article in yesterday's paper.  In it, a a father writes about how he is packing up his now-teenagers' picture books.  But it's much more than that.  It's about how packing up picture books is a way of saying good-bye to your children's childhoods, it's an elegy for Eden Ross Lipson, the late New York Times Book Review's children book editor, it's a review of several picture books, only one of which I've ever heard of, it's a discussion of how to match a child to a book.  I'm going to put every book he recommends at the library on hold immediately, and not think about the day when it might be time for me to pack up my children's picture books.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Komako Sakai
Komako Sakai
You know how, on that show Say Yes to the Dress, the really demanding brides want the top from one dress and the skirt from another?  Well, that's how I feel about The Velveteen Rabbit.  I want the original, unabridged text (I always do), but with the luminous illustrations from Komako Sakai's picture book version. I love how she never shows the faces of the adults in her illustrations.  In the original, we never even see the boy!

Original illustration
Komako Sakai

Just compare the scenes where the Velveteen Rabbit sees the real rabbits for the first time.  What a difference!

Apparently there's a third, new version, with illustrations by Charles Santore, but unfortunately it's not available at my library, so I can't comment on it.  Has anyone seen it?

In any version, however, this classic story of "how toys become real," as the subtitle says, is still a great (and quick) read-aloud.

Are there any books you'd like to mix-and-match? Perhaps a classic you'd like to see newly illustrated?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bullying Is Not New and Neither Are Books About It

There has been a lot in the news and in educational circles about bullying lately, and in book circles about books addressing the issue.  But bullying is not new and neither are books about it.

In the classic The Hundred Dresses, Maddie joins in with her friend Peggy and their classmates in teasing Wanda, a poor immigrant girl for wearing the same dress every day.  Wanda leaves school before Maddie can make amends and Maddie's guilt haunts her.  She finally resolves that "She was never going to stand by and say nothing again.  If she ever heard anybody picking on someone because they were funny looking or because they had strange names, she'd speak up.  Even if it meant losing [her best friend's] friendship."  This is an admirable resolution but the book would be stronger if author Eleanor Estes had actually put Maddie's resolve to the test.

In the third Betsy Tacy book, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Betsy, Tacy and Tib do come to the rescue of their new friend Naima, a Syrian immigrant.  They stand up to a group of boys, even as Tib's dress is torn in the process.

In Molly's Pilgrim, an immigrant girl is again the victim of bullying.  Molly's classmates tease her for her old-world Russian-Jewish ways.  When she brings in a clothespin doll dressed in traditional garb for a homework assignment to make a pilgrim doll, the children sneer that the doll doesn't look like a pilgrim at all.  But just as Molly's mother explained she was a pilgrim - someone who came to this country for religious freedom - Molly's teacher gives the same explanation, adding that Thanksgiving is based on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, as described in the Old Testament.

Finally, in Bernard Waber's funny picture book, But Names Will Never Hurt Me, Alison Wonderland (whose ancestors' last name was changed from Voonterlant at Ellis Island) learns to live with her name and withstand the teasing she gets for it.

These books obviously don't address cyberbullying and social media.  But the message is the same.  Not only should you not bully other children, you should actually step up and defend them.

Can you think of any other older books that address bullying?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Girls Under House Arrest

Girls under virtual house arrest, just because they are girls?  That was the case in 17th century Korea for girls from noble families.  Those girls left their homes only once, when they married. Otherwise, they were literally confined to a life of domesticity, without even the pleasures of reading or painting to entertain them.

Such is the fate of Jade Blossom, the heroine of Seesaw Girl by Newbery-award-winning author Linda Sue Park.  Jade tries her best to thwart these rules, but their institutional intransigence proves too much for her.  Jade does manage to sneak outside, in a desperate attempt to see her beloved and now-married aunt (close enough in age to be a cousin or sibling) but with results that ensure she will not do so again.  Instead, she is left to rely on her brother's descriptions of the outside world and what she manages to glimpse as she jumps on a seesaw that propels her high enough to see beyond the walls of her home. This chapter book reminds me of the picture book Ruby's Wish, which I discuss here, but without the happy ending.  Unlike Ruby, who had a male advocate in her grandfather, Jade has no one to help her change or break the rules. Although her father, mother, and brother seem sympathetic and understanding of her curiosity (her punishment for sneaking out is much less harsh than expected), they are either not willing or able to go further.  Jade resigns herself to her fate, saying, as her mother did before her, "It's not enough... But I will learn to make it enough." Nonetheless, we are left with the impression that Jade's irrepressible spirit is not entirely quashed.

This book, like Rickshaw Girl, is a great introduction to another society and to the constraints place upon girls and women.  But do not mistake it for an early reader. Despite its brevity (86 pages) and the fact that it has illustrations (which are lovely and convey Jade's yearning and wistfulness in black-and-white and sepia tones), it tackles serious issues and has moderately difficult vocabulary.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Poem A Night

I have resolved to read each child at least one poem before we plunge into whatever book we are in the middle of each night because otherwise, our poetry collection just languishes on our shelves.  I figure that, like anything, the beginning may be a bit bumpy, but soon it should become a habit.  After a rough start (the first two nights we didn't read any poems!), we've been off and running.  My younger daughter is still not a fan but even if she never becomes one, exposure to the rhythms, rhymes, and language of poetry is a good thing.

Here are some of the poetry books that we've been reading from:

I'm thinking of buying Poetry Speaks to Children as well.

I think of poetry anthologies as a bit like cookbooks.  You're not going to like every recipe or poem in the book, but if there are a few amazing ones, it may be worth owning the whole volume.

When do you read poetry to your kids?  What books of poetry for children are your favorites?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Happy 97th Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

Yes, 97!!

Ramona the Pest

It's Not Disgusting to Me!

My 5-year-old is fascinated by anything gory or gruesome, particularly injuries.  If one of us cuts herself, she wants to see the blood.  She recently asked how the crucifixion actually killed Christ; that is, she wanted to know the medical cause of his death (it's suffocation, by the way). She is particularly proud that these things are "not disgusting to [her]" because, as her science teacher pointed out, we need people who are not made queasy by these things to be doctors and scientists.  In fact, she recently declared she wants to be a surgeon so she can "cut people open and see their insides."

In that spirit, we went looking for a book about the human body that had photographs, not merely diagrams. These were hard to come by.  Those that had photographs often had too much text and text that was too difficult for her. Although we could have bought a book just for the photos, I wanted one that also had information at the right level for her.  After sitting on the floor paging through a variety of options, we ended up with First Human Body Encyclopedia, put out by DK publishing, known for its excellent non-fiction books for children.

My daughter and I are both extremely pleased with our choice.  The book has a mix of photographs and diagrams, intriguing enough for her to look at on her own when I cannot read to her.  The text is not dumbed down, but is not way over her head either and includes wonderfully gross information, such as the fact that we swallow about a glass of snot a day, as well as more basic facts.
There are sections on bones, muscle, blood, organs, reproduction (without explaining the birds and the bees although, if your child doesn't already know about them, this may prompt her to ask), the five senses, germs and the immune system, allergies, multiple births, and much more.

The book is not perfect.  More detail would have been nice at times. For example, today we saw a sign advertising a blood drive.  I explained to my daughter about different blood types and told her we could learn more in her book. I was disappointed to find that while the book does mention blood types, it doesn't get into any more detail than what I had already told her.  Overall, however, this book is a great introduction to many different facets of human biology and goes into more depth than many other beginner books on the subject.

I highly recommend this book for any child interested in the human body.  Do you have any other recommendations, or a recommendation for what book we could get next if (when!) my daughter wants more information?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Redemptive Power of Nature (Or, Invalids and Orphans)

As I've been reading classic children's books to my daughter, I've noticed a theme that doesn't come up much in modern children's literature: the healing, even redemptive, power of nature.  In book after book, children find happiness, peace, self-confidence, spiritual satisfaction, and their true selves as well as physical healing after finding or living in some special place surrounded by nature.  Perhaps a product of or related to the Transcendentalist movement in the United States, epitomized by Henry Thoreau's Walden, these works emphasize not just nature but self-reliance and solitude.  These books also express a belief that there is a significant connection between physical, mental, and emotional health.

In Heidi, first published in 1880 (perhaps the oldest book I have read to my children!), the title character is happiest when in her mountain home with her grandfather.  She spends day after day with her taciturn friend Peter and the goats he herds in the mountain pastures.  In significant contrast to today's children, she needs nothing more to amuse her - not toys, not books, and certainly not electronic devices.  She is content just frolicking with the goats, picking flowers, and admiring the view.  She is not asocial however, and her relationships with her grandfather, Peter, and especially Peter's grandmother are vital to her. When she is taken to live in Frankfurt to be the companion for the wheelchair-bound Clara, she languishes, both mentally and physically, in spite of the fact that she enjoys Clara's company.  Of course, in the end, the mountains prove healing not just for Heidi but for Clara's doctor, whose grief over his daughter's death is eased by his visit there, and for Clara, who ultimately regains the ability to walk.  Interestingly, Heidi's spiritual awakening comes not in the mountains but in Frankfurt, encouraged by Clara's Grandmamma, who urges her to pray and to believe that even if things do not turn out the way she originally wanted, God has a plan that will eventually reveal itself.  Nonetheless, it is the mountains which are portrayed as the source of healing.

In The Secret Garden, as the orphaned Mary Lennox tends the abandoned garden she has discovered, she tends her own spirit and body, and is transformed from a sickly, contrary child who cannot or will not even dress herself to a healthy, happy one who is self-reliant and resourceful.  As she spends time outdoors, she becomes "wider awake every day."  In a parallel to Heidi, a wheelchair-bound child (here, Mary's cousin Colin) who also participates in restoring the garden, regains the ability to walk.  Similarly, in Julie Andrews Edwards's Mandy, a more recent work first published in 1971, the title character (also an orphan) finds peace and happiness in tending a secret garden and turning a secret cottage into a home of her own.  As their gardens blossom, so do they.

A move to a country farm also results in the transformation of Elizabeth Ann in Understood Betsy from a doted-on, supposedly sickly, nervous child into a confident, independent and happier one, as I wrote here.  When her Aunt Frances must leave her with relatives at a Vermont farm, Elizabeth Ann (whom her Vermont relatives immediately and familiarly address as Betsy), discovers that she is neither nervous nor frail nor incompetent.  New experiences, including the simplest of tasks such as getting out of bed on her own, to other, more challenging ones, such as making butter and walking to school alone on her first day, push her to become more independent.  To her surprise, she finds these experiences not only empowering but fun.  The girl Aunt Frances comes back to retrieve is very different from the one she left.  It is the farm and nature which make the difference.

It is interesting how all these children enjoy spending time alone.  They each have friends, relatives, or mentors, but they spend a significant amount of time by themselves - and like it.  While today's books often address how to navigate friendships, bullying, and other relationships, these books focus on children's internal life.  It is not their relationships which nurture their emotional and physical growth (although they help), but nature which does most of the work.  Then again, these fictional children have the luxury (or hardship, depending on your perspective) of lots of leisure time, as they either do not attend school, or attend it for many fewer hours and days per year than children do now.

It is also noteworthy that not one of these children lives with her parents.  Is this just a plot device?  These children, orphans or pseudo-orphans, are somewhat forced into solitude and introspection.  It would be nice to see a book with the same themes featuring a child with her nuclear family intact.

Do you think these books still speak to children?  Are they too dated?  Has the idea of nature as a force for healing (both physical, mental, and emotional) been eclipsed by modern medicine, for better or for worse?  Are the ideas of living somewhere remote or undeveloped, or of nature as a redemptive force, too foreign to our plugged-in, urban and suburban children or do they open a whole new world to them?  My 7-year-old city girl has loved all of these books (except for The Secret Garden, which she has not yet read and which I am giving her for her next birthday), but is she typical?

Can you think of any other classics that would fit in this category?  Finally, can you think of any contemporary children's books with similar themes?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Name Those Lions!

No, not "those" lions.  The Riverdale branch of the NYPL was given two (sleepy!) lion statues and they need names.  You can vote by emailing

I suggested Darwin and Einstein as well as Shakespeare and Aesop.

What are you going to propose?