Tuesday, December 27, 2011

'Tis the Season... for Colds and Flu

As I am stuck home with a sick child, I realized there's nothing like a book about someone else who is sick to make you feel like you are not alone.  My favorite is The Sniffles for Bear by Bonny Becker, one in a series of Bear books (I talk about another one in the series here).  Bear, suffering from what must be the worst cold in the history of colds, does not appreciate his friend Mouse's cheerful attitude and lack of sympathy.  At the end, Bear recovers and Mouse, having caught the cold, takes to his bed.  When Bear tells him he's sorry he's sick, Mouse replies that just that made him feel better.  Sometimes sympathy goes a lot further than hot tea and honey! 

There are many other books in which the caretaker becomes the one in need of care.  In Old Bear and His Cub by Olivier Dunrea (of Gossie and Friends fame) and Anna Dewdney's Llama Llama Home with Mama, the child ends up taking care of the sick parent while in a Frog and Toad book (I can't remember which one!), just like in The Sniffles for Bear, the caretaker gets sick from his charge.  That should sound familiar to any parent who's ever caught a bug from his or her child. 

Those are books about being sick.  As for books we read (and activities we did) while my daughter actually was sick, in an attempt to ward off cabin fever, they include finishing three chapter books we were in the middle of (Little House on the Prairie, The Cats in the Doll ShopGoing, Going, Gone! with the Pain and the Great One), reading tons of picture books, reading 6 books online on Raz-kids.com, playing Mastermind, Memory and Shut the Box, making beaded snowflakes, doing other art prjects and watching plenty of TV.  Unfortunately, we still had cabin fever!

What is your favorite book about being sick?  What is your favorite book to read when you or your child is sick?  What are your favorite sick day activities?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Old-Fashioned Toys, Old-Fashioned Joys

Samantha on a Roll, by Linda Ashman and illustrated by Christine Davenier is an utterly delightful book.  Frustrated that her mom can't help her try out her new roller skates, Samantha takes matters into her own hands (and feet).  Told in verse, Samantha on a Roll demonstrates the old-fashioned joys of speed, independence, and of getting away with a little misbehavior.  The skates, although not the story, also bring to mind the old Newbery-award winner, Roller Skates, a chapter book for older kids set in 1890s New York, which follows 10-year-old Lucinda as she explores the city on skates with considerable freedom. 

We didn't give our girls roller skates this holiday season (I wasn't sure whether they were even still sold until a quick search reassured me) but we did give one old-fashioned toy (and one mentioned in a book!) and the kids loved it: steppers.   Essentially overturned buckets or cans with rope handles attached, these are a simpler version of stilts.  In one of the Ramona books, she and her friend Howie make them out of tins cans.  The modern-day plastic version is a bit safer although you do sacrifice the do-it-yourself aspect.

Other old-fashioned toys that are always popular: building toys of all sorts (wooden blocks, Legos, Magnatiles, marble runs), magnifying glasses, binoculars (well-received here, too), puzzles, dolls, pretty paper/notebooks and pencils (a princess stationery set was put to immediate use), board games (Shut the Box and Mastermind for Kids were also hits at our house this year), jump ropes, scooters (which appear in Mimmy and Sophie under the guise of "skate boxes") and of course, bicycles.  Toys are notably absent from the Little House series (for a while Laura makes do with a doll made from a corn cob) and although I know that children back then were both better able to amuse themselves, of necessity, and kept busy doing chores, it still strikes me as rather sad and boring.

What is your or your kids' favorite "old-fashioned" toy?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Is the Original Always Better?

Lately I've read a few books which are clearly derivative of (or perhaps, more positively, homages to), classics which came before them.  They are not "remakes" in the sense of movies with new casts and updated language and settings.  Rather, they use the original work as a starting point for a whole new work.

Wendy Mass's middle-grade novel, The Candymakers, has a premise similar to that of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (recently published in a new pop-up edition by famed illustrator Quentin Blake), but with several twists.  It's been called a cross between Charlie and The Westing Game.  In The Candymakers, the four protagonists are contestants in a candymaking competition and the perspective of the book shifts among them (although none of them narrate it directly).  As the point of view alternates, the reader learns new information.  This mystery-adventure is a great book and I'm eager to read others by Ms. Mass. I think, if I'm being honest, I might even like it more than Charlie

When I saw the title, A Sock is A Pocket for Your Toes by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon, I immediately thought of Mary Ann Hoberman's, A House is a House for Me, discussed here, and written more than twenty-five years earlier.  Sure enough, it too is a creative look at containers for items, here described as pockets rather than houses.  Here, I definitely prefer the original on the merits alone.  This one has a rhyme scheme I don't particularly like, and the ending is too sickly-sweet for me.

Finally, King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bentley and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, harkens back to  Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, particularly in the pictures.  I actually love this sweeter, gentler take on a child's imaginative journey, although it lacks many of the psychological elements (acting out, parent-child relationships) that make Where the Wild Things Are truly special and unique. 

It takes a lot of guts to challenge a classic head-on like this.  After all,  Ms. Mass could have made the contest about something else - inventions in general, even - but she chose candy (with its echoes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) for a reason.   But I'm not sure what the reason was. 

It's worth noting, too, that two of these three books are all by established authors/illustrators; the exception is Elizabeth Garton Scanlon, for whom A Sock is A Pocket for Your Toes was her first book.  Would publishers have dismissed the others as derivative if they'd been submitted by unknowns?

Of course, lots of books share themes or even plots. What distinguishes them is language, character development, pacing, and a million other indefinable things.  Intellectual property law distinguishes between works which rely too heavily on the original and those which use it as a jumping off point and are derivative (in a legal, not pejorative sense).  So why do I have a voice in my head saying "the original is always better"?  That's how I feel about movies made from books, too. But is that bias fair? And what if I'd read the second book first? How would I feel then? 

What do you think?  Is the original always better?  What other pairs of original/derivative books can you think of?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good-bye, Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, creator of the inimitable Frances, died earlier this week.  I had no idea that he had also written for adults, or that he and Lillian Hoban, who illustrated 6 of his 7 Frances books, were divorced.  Learn more here and here. What is your favorite Frances book?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

She Started It!

My 6-year-old, H, frequently complains that her younger sister, M, is "bothering" her, while her sister does absolutely nothing.  In fact, it is M's very existence which bothers H.  She's going through a phase (a long one, I suspect!) where she wants privacy and time alone, whereas her sister wants to be with her all the time.    On the other hand, last week I took H alone to a gym/playspace that I usually take the girls to together (M was sick).  Afterwards, I asked her whether she preferred going alone or with her sister.  "With M!," came the immediate reply.

Judy Blume really gets both sides of this.  And in The Pain and the Great One, she shows both sides - literally.  This 1974 picture book is really two books - one read from the front and told from older sister Abigail Porter's (the "Great One" as her little brother not-so-affectionately calls her) perspective and one flipped over and read from the other front, from little brother Jake's (the Pain's) point of view.  At the crux of all sibling relationships is, of course, competition for parental attention and love and each book ends with the words "I think they love him/her more than me."  But just as with my two, when the kids get what they thought they wanted - Jake to build with blocks alone, Abigail to stay up late without her brother - they are lonely and bored.  And I love the tag line: "Little brothers are never wrong!/Big sisters are always right!"

Many years after writing the picture book The Pain and the Great One, Judy Blume began a chapter book series featuring the same characters.  The chapter books stay true to the theme of sibling rivalry and love.  While these two may not always get along, they always stand up for each other.  The fact that the picture book exists is a nice way to segue a child into early chapter books (although these would have to be read to a beginning reader).  Of course, Blume's Fudge books, which I read as a child but have not (yet) revisited, are also great books about siblings.

In Mimmy and Sophie, the two eponymous sisters find adventure and joy in everyday life growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn, just as the author did.   In my favorite, Mimmy, the older, gives voice to my older daughter's exact feelings when she yells at her younger sister "[W]hy do you always have to be where I am?  Can't you go somewhere else?" To which her not-quite-5-year-old sister replies, quite logically, "Where?"  At the end, in response to Sophie asking "Am I still your sister?" Mimmy draws a picture of them with their arms around each other, in chalk, on the sidewalk.  It looks remarkably like the drawing H did of herself and her sister the other day.  As with The Pain and the Great One, Cohen followed the initial picture book with a chapter book, Mimmy and Sophie All Around the Town.  Thanks to Storied Cities for the recommendation! 

I love the way Shirley Hughes does siblings, too.  From her Alfie books (particularly Annie Rose Is My Little Sister) to Dogger (our favorite!), siblings annoy each other, play with each other, protect each other, help each other, and comfort each other.  Hughes's illustrations are pitch-perfect, from the loving mom who looks like someone you could meet, to the messy toddler.

In Charlotte Zolotow's Big Sister and Little Sister, the ability of the girls to comfort each other is the focal point of the story.  Irritated by Big Sister's bossiness, Little Sister runs away.  In a nice role reversal, Little Sister ends up comforting Big Sister as Big Sister sobs when she can't find her younger sibling.  The book closes with a lovely thought: "And from that day on little sister and big sister both took care of each other because little sister had learned from big sister and now they both knew how."  I love the illustrations in this one, too! 

The Frances books almost go without saying on any list of great sibling books.  In A Baby Sister for Frances, the Hobans perfectly capture Frances's jealousy and resentment "Things are not very good around here anymore," she says after Mother does not have time to iron her favorite dress or buy her favorite oatmeal topping.  (Books about the arrival of a new baby are admittedly a whole separate genre, but here the series continues as the girls grow, so I figured it was fair game.)  In later books, they again sum up the essence of having and being a sibling.  My favorite is in A Birthday for Frances when Frances, in an attempt at generosity, buys little sister Gloria a birthday present (gumballs and a candy bar) but ends up eating most of it herself! 

These books are all great on the theme of sibling relationships but they are also just all great books, period that the kids and I all love.  Of course, there are tons of books about siblings.   What are your favorites?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Reading Is Not A Sport, Take Three

Yesterday my 6-year-old was inducted into her school's Reading Hall of Fame.  In order to be inducted, the child has to read a certain number of books and/or do a certain number of book-related activities (taking online quizzes about the books, for example) over a specified period of time (here, summer vacation).  The required amount of reading varies with the children's grade. 

The inductees were called up to the stage by name and received a certificate and a badge, with the rest of their class watching.  Then the principal announced that they would also get a special snack in the cafeteria and extra recess time.

I have mixed feelings about this.  Oh, who am I kidding, I have mostly negative feelings about this.  First of all, as I've said repeatedly here, here, and here, I'm opposed to rewarding reading.  Reading should be its own reward.  Reading for donuts (the special snack) just doesn't cut it for me.  The principal's speech about how the kids would "get lost in their books" was rendered less convincing by those donuts waiting in the next room.

Second, the idea of rewarding quantity doesn't sit well with me either.  My husband likened it to the testing craze.  There is such desperation to measure student progress, which is only partially measurable, that administrators have to pick something they can measure.  Number of books (or pages) is an easy, objective, measurable item.  The book's degree of difficulty, or how much the student learned from the book, or how much effort or time the student put in, or, heaven forbid, how much the student enjoyed the book are not quantifiable.  But real literacy and a real love of reading are not about racing through books just to list them on a reading log.

Finally, there was a shame element to the ceremony that I was really uncomfortable with.  The kids who weren't up there on the stage, did they really need to witness their peers being rewarded?  And then watch them as they marched off for their special snack and extra recess time?  There's something to be said for incentives but I'm not sure this is the way to do it.

On the upside, my daughter said that she would definitely participate in the next reading challenge, because she wanted more donuts, although she would read even without them.  She told me "I think my school really wants kids to read so we can learn and stuff."  Admittedly, seeing her happy, proud face as she ascended the stage gave this mother naches (Yiddish for parental pride).

What do you think about rewarding reading and measuring reading by the number of books read?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Real Poems by Fictional Children

I'm embarrassed to admit that when I first picked up This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, I wasn't sure if the children who'd allegedly written the poems were real or not!  The fact that the book was written and not edited by Joyce Sidman should have tipped me off, but I was a little slow on the uptake.  While I was a little disappointed to realize that the children poets of the book are all fictional, the poems themselves are wonderful.  A set of apology poems paired with responses (although, oddly and inconveniently, the apologies are responses are not on facing pages but all the apologies are in a section at the front of the book, followed by all the responses), the poems ring true.  Based on the famous William Carlos Williams poem of the title, the subjects range from dodgeball injuries to sibling rivalry, to parental neglect.  Some are sincerely apologetic; others are not.  And not all the offenders are forgiven.  My 6-year-old loved this book, as did I.  It would be great to read it with real kids and then challenge them to write their own apology and response poems. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Alphabet Books for All Ages

While I loved the accurately self-described "retro-modern" art of Paul Thurlby's Alphabet, I was a little surprised when both my children did as well.  Usually I think of alphabet books as being geared towards younger children or being so sophisticated that they are really for adults.  But this one appealed to my 3-year-old, just because of her love of letters (she is learning to write and loves figuring out what letter a given word starts with) and the illustrations.  We had borrowed it from the library and when she received it as a gift she exclaimed, "I love this book!"  Meanwhile, my 6-year-old really appreciated the visual puns.  In this book, as is typical for alphabet books, each letter is assigned a word (e.g., A is for Awesome, etc.) but then, in a unique stroke, the picture depicting that word also incorporates the shape of the letter itself.  When my 6-year-old grasped that the arms "catching" the ball were shaped like the letter C, her face registered understanding and delight.  My favorite is J for Jazz, with a saxophone in the shape of the letter J.

A few weeks ago, my mom handed me Animalphabet, published by the Metropolitan Museum and which she bought for $4 at the Strand who-knows-when.  Thanks, Mom!  Here the puns are verbal (and, befitting the title, animal-related) and matched with works from the museum's collection.  So K is for Kitty Litter and is paired with a Currier & Ives painting of a cat and her kittens, a group of donkeys is an Ass-embly, and C shows the emblem of Luke the Evangelist, or a Holy Cow.  While this is more of an alphabet book for adults, I love having it in my collection.

What is your favorite alphabet book?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Sounds of the City

Symphony City by Amy Martin is, to put an already-overused term to work again, visually stunning.  From the endpapers with overlapping circles of color  to the black-white-taupe-and-red first page to the spreads with tree branches outlined against brick buildings, every page is gorgeous.  She uses both line and color in bold, eye-grabbing ways as she tells the story of a lost little girl following the music she hears in the city, from musicians playing at the subway station to those practicing in their apartments.

The book opens with that little girl getting separated from her mother.  Her mother boards the subway and the little girl loses her grasp of her mother's hand and fails to get on the train with her. This scenario is probably one of my children's (and my) worst nightmares. If you are reading this to a sensitive city child, I'd expect, at a minimum, a lot of questions.

I think this book, like Frank Viva's Along a Long Road, another triumph of illustration, would be better if it were wordless.  I don't think the text adds all that much to the story and in some ways takes attention away from the illustrations.

Ultimately, though, this book is simply so beautiful to look at that it is worth picking up, despite my reservations.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

How'd I Do?: Librarian for A Day... Or Two Hours

My daughter's public school library is run and staffed entirely by volunteers.  I work a two-hour shift once a week.  The job consists mostly of checking books in and out, shelving, and handling clerical tasks (pasting new bar codes on books, for example).  But every now and then a student comes in who really loves books and actually asks my advice.  One of them came in last week and again today.  When I first met her last week, she was looking for a book on John Adams because, "he's my favorite president."  Today this fourth grader, clearly a strong reader with lots of interests told me, "I'm just looking for a really good book.  Any recommendations?"  Browsing our (fairly limited) shelves, I suggested Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Doll's House by Rumer Godden, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, Half Magic by Edward Eager and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  She ended up taking Anne of Green Gables and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (her own idea), both of which she was adamant about wanting to make sure were not "children's editions."  I assured her I would never give her a children's edition!  She spent so long making up her mind that her teacher sent another student from her class looking for her.  She made being a librarian for a few hours really fun!

With my oldest child only 6 and having only recently started reading middle-grade and YA fiction as an adult, I am still working on recommending books for this age group.  So, how'd I do?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Library Round-up #2

Once again a recent library haul yielded some longed-for books.  Here they are:

My Side of the Car by Kate Feiffer and illustrated by her father Jules Feiffer was one of those rarities that lived up to my expectations!  Based on a true incident that occurred between author and illustrator many years ago, Sadie (based on Kate) insists as she and her dad drive to the zoo, that it is not raining on her side of the car.  I love Sadie's stubbornness and willingness to stick to her story in the face of (very wet) reality ("people are putting on their sunglasses and going to zoos all over the world on my side of the car") and her dad's abundant patience.  Ultimately, the sun comes out to save the day.  The illustrations are perfect - Feiffer makes them look so easy to just dash off, with the pencil outlines visible, yet they are really the product of so much talent.  The pictures add to the text, not just depict it (note Sadie's change of clothes after she gets wet).  The brief dialogue between (actual) daughter and father at the end of the book discussing the real event the book is based on is entertaining and the author-illustrator photo on the book jacket showing the pair from 30 years or so (give or take) is a nice touch.  We all love this one.

Frank Viva's Along a Long Road, which follows a bicyclist on his trip on a yellow (not brick) road, fell short for me in terms of language and plot but the illustrations, which are the point, in my opinion, are unique and beautiful.  With a retro -seeming palate of black, gray, white, light blue, red and the orangey-yellow of the road (the texture of which is smooth and shiny, making it stand out even more), this is more a picture book for adults interested in design.  But my three-year-old said she liked it.  I think it would work better as a wordless book.

Hallie Durand's Mitchell's License, illustrated by Tony Fucile manages to make a full picture book out of a single joke: that three-year-old Mitchell "drives" the Daddy car to bed every night.  With lots of analogies to real elements of cars and driving, this might go over better with transportation-obsessed children.  I had to explain some of the jokes and references (putting the car in neutral, turning on the blinkers) to my city girls.

I couldn't decide how I felt about Nadia Shireen's Good Little Wolf, the second story about bloodthirsty predators I read this week (for the first, see my first Library Round-up).  I guess that's a throwback to the fairy tales of yore but these days it's a little jarring.  Here, especially, I found the ending shocking as the book first seemed to be a feel-good type of story: a good little wolf tries to become a big, bad wolf.  He thinks that he is failing but when a wild, fierce feeling overtakes him and he uses it for good, not evil, he realizes he can be a good little wolf after all.  I expected the book to end there.  But in a final twist, the good guy doesn't finish last.  I found this juxtaposition somewhat disjointed and wasn't sure it worked.  But the twist delighted my six-year-old who, after a few seconds of staring intently at the two-page spread, figured out what had happened (as in I Want My Hat Back, you have to read between the lines and/or pictures to understand the surprise ending).  For another take on the book, head on over to Playing by the Book.

What long-awaited books have you read lately?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A New Take on Noah and the Ark?

This past Shabbat, Jews all over the world read the story of Noah (and Hebrew school students made ark-related art projects - see below!).  There are many books (and songs)  retelling the story of the ark and the animals but almost none mention the women who were present - the wives of Noah and his sons.  In Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, at attempt is made at telling the story from Noah's wife Naamah's point of view.  While it's a great idea in theory, I found it lacking in execution.   The story follows Naamah, whose name according to some interpretations means great singer, as she sings the animals and people on board to sleep.  However, the book is unique in that it plays with a largely unknown (to me and probably you) form of Arab poetry. 

What is your favorite children's book about Noah?  How does it approach the story?  From a Jewish or Christian perspective?  Traditional or modern?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Classic Children's Book Characters, Sullied

I'm not into Halloween.  I let the kids dress up (which I have mixed feelings about, from a Jewish perspective), but I've never gotten into it (I don't do it for Purim either).  I think it stems from my memories of rather rough early-dismissals from school on the Lower East Side on Halloween, with broken eggs littering the sidewalk (don't worry, Mom, that's my only scar from growing up there!) and all those 1980s razor-blades-in-the-apple stories.  But now I have another reason not to like this holiday.

This year my six-year-old asked me to dress-up so that when I take her trick-or-treating, I won't give away who she is.  So I braved Ricky's and found, among the zombies and witches, tarted up (to put it mildly) classic children's book characters.  I'd seen a  "sexy" Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and an "adult" Alice in Wonderland before, but today I even saw an inappropriate Pippi!  At least Anne and Ramona remain untouched.  For now.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Happy Birthday to the Statue of Liberty

The NYPL reminded me that today is the Statue of Liberty's 125th birthday.  Serendipitously, I picked up a book about this very topic while volunteering yesterday at my daughter's school library: Eve Bunting's A Picnic in October in which a family travels to Liberty Island despite the fall chill for a birthday picnic because "that's what Grandma wants."  But it's not Grandma's birthday - it's Lady Liberty's!  I must confess, I didn't have a chance to read this book carefully, but it's so appropos that I couldn't resist mentioning it.

Another wonderful picture book about the statute is Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statute of Liberty by Linda Glaser.  A biography of Emma Lazarus, the poet who penned the famous poem that is printed on a plaque at the base of the statute: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," this book can be approached in so many different ways: among them to discuss income inequality (so timely!) and immigration or to introduce the genres of biography and poetry.  We loved this one.

Monday, October 24, 2011

We Already Have A People's Library!

I don't blog about politics and I'm not commenting on the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Except for one thing: what the protesters call "The People's Library," described here and here.

We already have a People's Library!  It's the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library  and the Boston Public Library and the public library in every city the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to.  It's free.  It's open to the public.  It doesn't get more populist than that.

The NYPL branches closest to Zuccotti Park are probably the Battery Park City branch and the New Amsterdam branch.  I strongly urge protesters - and the passers-by checking them out - to go have a look.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

These Just In: Library Round-up

When I hear of a book I'm interested in, I immediately put it on hold at the library.  But for new books, the library has often not yet actually come into possession of them (they are "on order") or there already are four bazillion holds on the book I am requesting and I am hold number four bazillion and one, meaning that I sometimes have weeks or even months before I can take these books home.  So when they arrive, it is cause for celebration.

Except when it isn't.  Sometimes these books disappoint, making me glad I got them from the library rather than buying them.

Here are some of the books I'd been waiting for for a long time and what my girls and I thought of them.

Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? by Susan A. Shea and illustrated by Tom Slaughter is a brightly-colored joy. With funny rhymes ("If an owlet grows and becomes an owl/ can a washcloth grow and become... a towel?") and lots of flaps to lift, both my kids loved this one.

The much-ballyhooed I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen left me cold and didn't thrill my kids either.  The story of a bear who asks other animals for his missing hat, finds it, and does something surprising to get it back requires the reader to read between the lines, something many young children can't do.  Neither of my children understood what had happened the first time I read it to them.  The older caught on with a rereading but I had to explain it to my three-year-old, although she does think it is very funny that the bear does not realize on his first go-round that one of the animals he speaks to is actually wearing the hat.  I had already learned the ending from a review somewhere, so that may have spoiled my enjoyment somewhat, as may have my inflated expectations but I don't think those are the main reasons.  I think that the main reason it didn't appeal to me is that, as Playing by the Book says, this is ultimately a picture book for adults.  And among adults, I know plenty of people who have enjoyed it - including my husband and my parents.  You may, too.  I just wasn't one of them.

The first picture book Lauren Castillo has both written and illustrated, Melvin and the Boy is a sweet story of how a boy takes a turtle from a pond to be his pet and ultimately realizes on his own that the turtle belongs back in the pond.  The illustrations are beautiful and I particularly like the ones featuring the figures in black shadow.  The park, with its skyline backdrop reminds me of Central Park but is probably Prospect Park given that Ms. Castillo lives in Brooklyn.

Eve Bunting's Tweak, Tweak is another entry in the crowded field of mother-child love stories, and to me, not one that stands out, despite the lovely pastel illustrations by Sergio Ruzzier.  In addition, the mother elephant constantly reminds her child of her limitations: No, you can't do that, you are an elephant.  Although I hate the sin of reading too much into things, this particular trope really bothers me, with its echoes of, "No, girls/women/African-Americans/minority group of your choice can't do that."

Eric Litwin's Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes and Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes are the opposite of I Want My Hat Back : books that please only children but not the adults reading to them.  Thus, while I found them a bit boring (Pete's white shoes turn colors as he steps in different substances; he goes to different rooms at school, respectively) and the moral annoying ("Does Pete worry?  Goodness, no!  Because it's all good.), my three-year-old thoroughly enjoyed them.  Of course, preschoolers have a different relationship to repetition than adults so she finds the constant refrain reassuring rather than monotonous.  The primary-colored palette by James Dean is appealing to children of all ages. 

Finally, Hopper and Wilson by Maria van Lieshout follows two stuffed animal friends as they sail off in search of the end of the world.  Ultimately, they return home, discovering that it and each other are all they need.  The storyline could come across as cliched, but Ms. van Lieshout pulls it off successfully.  A more detailed review at A Fuse #8 Production is here.

So, in the end, I had three winners out of six (counting the Pete the Cat books as one), but my three-year old likes five out of the six.  Not bad, especially for books we read for free!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Old-Fashioned Fun

Reading the Little House books to my daughter and finding out a friend of hers loves them because they are "old-fashioned" got me thinking - what other books are there about "olden times" for the 6-8 year-old set (either as a read-aloud or for them to read on their own)?  A quick question at my fabulous local independent bookstore yielded recommendations I already knew about: the Betsy-Tacy books, another Betsy series, the B is for Betsy one, and The Saturdays.  But none of them were set quite as long ago as the Little House books.  The only books that came to mind from that era or something close to it and that embody the same pioneer spirit were Sarah, Plain and Tall and the Great Brain series.

Do you have any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Art en Route

This past weekend we went to the NYC Transit Museum.  Housed in a decommissioned subway station, it has old subway cars that you can go on, complete with ads from the era when the car was in use, as well as exhibits on the building of the New York City subway.  If you haven't been, you must go!  My husband and I found it so fascinating that we want to go without the kids one day.

Of course, my girls wanted to buy something at the gift shop.  My 3-year-old got a placemat to match the one her sister received as a party favor.  My 6-year-old kept suggesting items I had to turn down (no more stuffed animals!).  And then I found a small book, Art en Route, showing the art at different subway stations with a marked price of 50 cents.  She was sold, and I was thrilled with both the book (more of a brochure, really) and the price. I later found you can request it for free or even download it!  (I was shocked, however, at the paucity of non-fiction books about the subway system for kids her age.) 

This morning she perused it over breakfast and came to me with several subway stations she wants to visit.   Now we just have to find something to do at each stop when we get there!

Sunday, October 16, 2011


My 6-year-old just read her first chapter book all on her own!  I'd been looking for a chapter book that she might be able to read by herself, and I am pretty pleased with myself as my first choice turned out to be a hit.  Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg (it's her first book) has super-short chapters (1-3 pages) and short sentences placed on separate lines, so it's a lot less intimidating than long paragraphs and pages dense with words.  In this sweet book, 8-year-old Eleanor's babysitter Bibi, who has taken care of her her whole life, moves away, making Eleanor's summer "as bad as pickle juice on a cookie."  But Eleanor adjusts to a new babysitter, while never forgetting Bibi.  A great first chapter book.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Up for Debate

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, discussing The Phantom Tollbooth on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, writes "As with every classic of children's literature, its real subject is education.  The distinctive quality of modern civilization is, after all, that children are subjected to year after year after year of schooling ."  He goes on to say that the child is presented with a choice between formal but worthless education versus meaningful self-education.  As examples he cites The Sword in the Stone, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Babar, and Mary Poppins

All I can say is, "Really?"  Or perhaps more honestly, "Huh?"  I haven't had enough time to think about the issue in depth, but his sweeping claims that the subject of every children's classic is education and that years of formal education are the distinguishing feature of modern society strikes me as... well, simply wrong or at least overreaching.  Perhaps it's based in a semantic disagreement over the term "education" but I'm not sure.

What about the more fundamental theme of good versus evil (Harry Potter, anyone)?  Despite its setting at a school I don't think I'd say its "real subject" is education.

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Heresy (Or, How Laura Ingalls Wilder and I Don't Have Any Chemistry)

Right now, I'm reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my 6-year-old and having the same reaction to it that I did 30 years ago: it's okay.  Yup, just okay.  I know this is heresy to legions of Little House devotees (dare I say fanatics?), my sister among them, but these books just don't have the emotional resonance for me that the Ramona series or the All-of-a-Kind Family series (which a friend called, correctly, I think, "the Jewish Little House books") or, for an older audience, Anne of Green Gables, do.  Laura herself was bored during those long winters - why did she think they'd be any more interesting for her readers?  To be fair, the books are not nearly as boring as they could be, but they just don't do it for me. 

And yet, I am finally reading them to my daughter for a number of reasons.  Peer pressure was one - many of her friends are reading it too.  But I also I felt that it was part of the children's canon, books that every (girl) child should read in order to be culturally literate. 

I'm not sure what accounts for the series' appeal, but the hardships faced by Laura and her family and their lack of technology, not to mention what we consider basic creature comforts (like indoor plumbing) are fascinating to some.  But not me.  I can relate to many books that I "shouldn't" be able to - books set in a time and place I know nothing about, like Anne of Green Gables and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate but not these.  I love plenty of spunky heroines (Anne and Calpurnia again being prime examples) but for me, Laura isn't one of them.  I guess it just comes down to chemistry.  It's just not there between me and Laura.

If you or your child loves the Little House books, why?