Thursday, March 31, 2011

Books for the (Jewish) Holidays

While there are many, many books available about Jewish holidays, I have found most of them merely adequate.  Since my children and I are already familiar with the holidays, I'm usually not looking for books that explain their historical background or how to observe them.  I'm really seeking books that simply take place during a certain holiday, transmit Jewish values and, most importantly, tell a good story.  Here are my two favorites and one series I just can't stand.

In Barbara Cohen's The Carp in the Bathtub, Leah, now an old woman, relates how, as a child she and her brother Harry once tried to rescue the eponymous carp from his destined fate - to become gefilte fish which will be eaten at the Passover seder.  Although she and Harry fail in their mission (vegetarians and those with sensitive children, consider yourselves warned), the book is delightful.  Bringing details of the early-twentieth-century Jewish immigrant experience to life (Leah and Harry have a bathroom in their apartment, rather than down the hall, meaning that they have the burden of bathing twice a week, rather than once, at least until the carp takes up residence), the book has humor and warmth (and, some - but not me - might say, verges on kitsch).  It is also wordier and a bit longer than most picture books, almost a picture novella.  That and the subject matter make it more appropriate for kids approximately ages 5 and up.

In my other favorite, The House on the Roof by David Adler, an old man keeps dragging objects he collects off the street into his apartment, without the reader (or his landlady) knowing why.  Each time his landlady spots him with his haul, she yells at him.  When he brings his grandchildren up to the building's roof to see the sukkah he built with the ephemera, she follows him there and is not pleased to discover that he's erected a structure on her roof.  In fact, she is so offended that she takes the old man to court, insisting he has no right to build anything on her property.  The old man begs the court's mercy, explaining that he built the sukkah so he could observe the holiday of Sukkot which  lasts only another 4 days.  The judge agrees with the landlady.  "You're right," he tells her.  "It is your building."  Then, in a stroke of Solomonic wisdom, he tells the old man "I'll give you just ten days to take your sukkah down."  With its courtroom setting (which I love, both because I work in one and because it's not only the only depiction of a courtroom in a picture book that I know of, but one of the few depictions of a workplace) and sophisticated ending, it's also for the 5-and-up set.  It would be great paired with a visit to Sukkah City, an annual exhibit of sukkahs created by artists and architects which meet the technical, religious-legal requirements of sukkah-dom but which look nothing like traditional sukkahs.  My whole family went to the first Sukkah City in 2010 and we were all fascinated, kids included.

Now, for my least favorite Jewish holiday books: the popular Sammy Spider series.  They are pedantic, condescending and simply boring.  I especially can't stand it when, every time Sammy expresses interest in celebrating a Jewish holiday along with the Shapiros, whose home he and his mother inhabit, she scolds him, "Spiders don't celebrate [insert holiday here].  Spiders spin webs."

What is your favorite Jewish holiday book?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kindergarten, Here I Come... or Go!

Most books about a child's first experience with school (which used to be kindergarten, or even 1st grade, as in B is for Betsy, but is now most often preschool) focus on allaying the soon-to-be-student's fears.  Yes, mommy will go away, but she will come back, and while she's gone you will have so much fun you won't even miss her!  There are a number of fine books that take this approach, among them Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney and The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, both of which focus on separation anxiety and Lucy Cousins' Maisy Goes to School and Maisy Goes to Preschool, which focus on the fun to be had.

But far more interesting to me are the ones that turn this paradigm on its head.  My two favorites involve kindergarten drop-outs.  In the chapter-book classic by Beverly Cleary, Ramona the Pest, Ramona had no fears to allay.  She was only too eager to follow in her big sister Beezus' footsteps and start kindergarten.  But one day, Ramona's beloved teacher Miss Binney tells her she cannot come to school unless she is ready to behave and refrain from pulling Susan's boingy-boingy curls.  Ramona, with refreshing honesty and self-awareness, tells Miss Binney she is unable to do this, and a kindergarten drop-out she becomes.  Ramona's stubbornness keeps her out of school for several days until, after receiving a letter from her teacher, she agrees to return. 

My kindergartener was delighted to discover that Ramona's class, like hers, is housed in a trailer behind the "main building."  Not only that, but Ramona's class had 29 children!  Apparently overcrowded schools and large class sizes are nothing new, although perhaps the parent and public consternation over it is.  Ramona's mother, Mrs. Quimby, certainly expresses no such concern.  Unlike Ramona in 1950s-60s Oregon, however, my daughter does not walk to school herself.

Ramona the Pest is the second (depending on how you count) in this eight-book series which was, remarkably, written over a span of 44 years.  In my opinion these books stand the test of time and I am enjoying them as much, if not more, as I did when I read them the first time.  My daughter seems to agree (although I was dismayed to learn recently that a friend of mine does not), as she and I are on our second cycle of reading the entire series at her request.  I was so pleased (and impressed) when she pointed out that
My daughter's Ramona
upon rereading "you can notice things you didn't notice the first time."  With some gentle questioning (i.e. interrogation), I discovered that she had learned this bit of wisdom from her beloved kindergarten teacher.  She recently named a doll/Purim grogger (noisemaker) that she made Ramona in honor of the series' well-meaning but impulsive, creative and mischievous heroine. 

Ramona and Beezus was the first (and so far the only!) movie my rather sensitive daughter has seen in a theatre.  Despite my aversion to movies based on books, I thought it was a well-done, age-appropriate adaptation and relatively enjoyable for parents, as kids' movies go.  The author herself was pleased with much of the movie, although she disapproved of some moments that were not faithful to the text.  Since the movie is an amalgam of events taken from the entire series, I'd advise reading all the books before seeing it, if you're, like me, a stickler for that sort of thing.

More subversive is Amy Schwartz's Bea and Mr. Jones. Five-year-old Bea and her dad, Mr. Jones, switch places.  Bea goes off to work at an ad agency and Mr. Jones goes to kindergarten.  But instead of this reversal making them appreciate their "proper" places in life, they both discover they love their new lives.  And there they stay, with Bea thinking up ad campaigns and jingles and Mr. Jones acing the colored lollipop game and making good use of his height and excellent motor skills.

Finally, First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg is a more traditional entry in the school anxiety genre.  But even this one has a surprise ending.  The protagonist, whom we do not see fully until the end of the book, reluctantly drags herself out of bed, certain she will hate her new school.  The last page reveals that this unwilling school-goer is... the teacher! 

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Torrent of Good Books

Before I became a parent, I had no idea that an umbrella is the perfect gift for a three-year-old.  But it is.  You can never have too many - they always break, or get lost.  And they are always a hit.  One of the reasons preschoolers love them so is, I think, because umbrellas give them a tiny taste of independence.

That's the tack Taro Yashima takes in her delightful Umbrella.  Momo receives an umbrella (as well as rubber boots) for her third birthday but, much to her dismay, a streak of sunny days follows.  When the rain finally comes, Momo is excited but also knows she must "walk straight, like a grown-up lady." Yashima describes the sound of the rain beautifully: "Pon polo, pon polo, polo polo pon polo."  And, as the narrator wistfully recalls, "It was not only the first day in her life that [Momo] used her umbrella, it was also the first day in her life that she walked alone, without holding either her mother's or her father's hand."  Any parent can relate to the combination of pride in and mourning at a child's new-found independence.

Yellow Umbrella, a wordless book by Jae Soo Liu, comes with a CD of music composed by Dong Il Sheen especially to accompany it.  The book opens with an aerial view of the title yellow umbrella and follows it, as it is joined by more and more umbrellas, on a journey to what eventually turns out to be school.  The illustrations, with solid-color umbrellas standing out against the gray sky and sidewalk, are beautiful in their simplicity.  However, the author-illustrator's message that under their umbrellas, children's "physical differences disappear" is lost.  The music, which to me did sound like raindrops, suggested ballet to my five-year-old.

In Il Sung Na's The Thingamabob, an elephant discovers an umbrella, but can't figure out what it is or how it is used until one day it finally rains.  The endpapers in this book, showing a bird's eye view of opened, patterned umbrellas are especially lovely.  I'm eager to check out other books by this author.

With its beautiful, full-page, close-up illustrations of African animals who foretell the rain's arrival through each of their senses, varied (but mostly large) text size in a block-print font, and simple but lyrical prose, Manya Stojic's Rain is, like her subsequent work Snow, perfect for younger readers. 

What are your favorite books about rain or raingear?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Library Loot #3

For the kids:

Not pictured: the hated dead squirrel and Dora books, which I managed to return to the library surreptitiously.  You'll notice I'm not linking to them!

For me:

Not pictured: I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson, which I had to return to the library before I had a chance to photograph it.  Fun read although I think her other novel, I Don't Know How She Does It, was better.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Shake Your Sillies Out (in Rhyme)

Kids LOVE silly books.  Parents (at least this parent) love silly books, too - as long as they are also clever.  Without further ado, our current favorite silly books that will please both parents and kids; each is told in rhyme.

Mary Had a Little Lamp by Jack Lechner (disclaimer: he and his family live down the block from me and we are friendly; this review, however, is entirely my own opinion) is a whimsical take on the well-known children's nursery rhyme.  Everyone knows a child with a slightly odd transitional object.  But Mary's parents are concerned by her choice, a lamp.  My favorite verse?  "Their doctor [who appears to be a psychiatrist] said/'I've never seen/So puzzling a condition./But lamps are not my specialty/You need an electrician.'"  Mary finally gives up her lamp... only to become attached to another unusual object!  Don't miss the droll blurbs on the back, with comments from other nursery rhyme characters ("I hated it," says Mary, Mary Quite Contrary).  With distinctive, cartoony art by Bob Staake, this one's a winner.

Speaking of Bob Staake, my other favorite book of his is The Red Lemon, which he both wrote and illustrated.
It makes the reader wonder - what if something you thought was unusual, abnormal, became the new normal?   The Donut Chef is also a fun read, with tempting illustrations of glass-faced bakery cases filled with donuts.  (It was even mentioned in this recent New York Times article about donut shops in the city.  Perhaps this book will inspire a (very yummy) field trip!)  His illustrations in We Planted a Tree by Diane Muldrow redeem the preachy environmental message (this one is not silly, nor does it rhyme) and it is fun trying to identify the different locations pictured.  My favorite is, of course, the tree planted in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

My 3-year-old has memorized John Lithgow's Marsupial Sue.  "Marsupial Sue,/ a young kangaroo,/ hated the hopping that kangaroos do."  You see, Sue is having a bit of an identity crisis.  In the end, of course, she learns the lesson repeated throughout the book: "Marsupial Sue, a lesson or two: Be happy with who you are."  While I'm usually not a fan of such explicit messages in books (not to mention it has a slightly defeatist attitude, "just do what kangaroos do," as well as being suggestive of the rationales given for why, say, women shouldn't be doctors, lawyers, etc.), the absurd elements of the story (Sue decides to try being a sea creature but upon swallowing "a scallop, a shrimp and a trout" ends up with "typhoid, pneumonia, colic, and gout") render the lesson less... well, annoying.  The rhymes are witty - Sue meets a wallaby who is a "version of her/in miniature."  How do authors come up with these?!?  The book comes with a CD in which the text is sung by Lithgow with great expression.  My only complaint is that the waltzing rhythm is a bit fast to dance to.

Finally, a fun tongue-twisting read-aloud is Bubble Trouble by Margaret Mahy illustrated by Polly Dunbar.  "Little Mabel blew a bubble, and it caused a lot of trouble... /Such a lot of bubble trouble in a bibble-bobble way./For it broke away from Mabel as it bobbed across the table,/where it bobbled over Baby, and it wafted him away."  We follow Baby as he floats across the town in his bubble, gathering spectators along the way.  The only moment that gave me pause is when Baby is about to fall, and a bystander says, "Upon my honor, there's a baby who's a goner!"  (My kids, though, were unfazed.)  In the end, of course, Baby is saved. 

What are your favorite silly books?  Rhyming books?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

World Read Aloud Day

Today is World Read Aloud Day!  So pick up a book and read aloud to someone you love.

Or do what I'm going to do and check out the 24-hour read-a-thon in Times Square.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Just the Facts, Ma'am: Nonfiction About Artists

We have the usual gender divide in our family: the girls and I read mostly fiction and my husband reads mostly nonfiction.  My girls have gone through phases where they are interested in certain nonfiction topics, particularly the human body and New York City, both of which I hope to write about eventually.  But generally, we stick to the fiction side of things.

Lately, however, a few nonfiction works have caught my older daughter's attention.  She's always been very interested in art so when I came across An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers by Natasha Wing, I immediately reserved it at the library for her.  Josef Albers, an artist whom I'd never heard of before, made the study of color his life's work.  My daughter was intrigued to learn that he spent years painting different colored squares to see how the various colors play off each other.  Just days later she received her issue of Click Magazine and found that this entire book had been reprinted in the magazine, along with colored squares of different sizes for the reader to cut out and experiment with.  Of course, you can try this yourself with colored construction paper.

On another note (pun intended), the self-described mockumentary, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven by Jonah Winter is a wacky exploration of why Beethoven lived in thirty-nine different apartments during his adult life.  Although the parody aspect of it was a bit over my five-year-old's head, she understood it once I explained it.  The book also describes the artistic process and how Beethoven dealt with its inherent frustrations, including by pouring water over his own head!

In Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan's Ballet for Martha: Making of Appalachian Spring, Martha Graham appears to be Beethoven's spiritual heir, as she throws her own tantrums (and shoes!) while choreographing Appalachian Spring, leading me to believe that the stereotype of the temperamental artist has a kernel (or more) of truth.  This book shows not just the inspiration but the effort, the editing, the back-and-forth which go into making a work of art, whether it's a musical composition, a sculpture, or a ballet.  The illustrations by Brian Floca show how dancing requires not just physical prowess but acting skills as well.  The authors end by explaining how, every time the ballet is performed, there is a new interaction between the dancers, the music, the set - and the audience - and that it is never the same twice.

This book was crammed wtih facts that were new to me.  I had no idea that Martha Graham asked Aaaron Copland to write the music for the ballet; I always thought the music came first.  Nor did I know that Isamu Noguchi, whose work I've admired and enjoyed (I highly recommend the The Noguchi Museum in Queens), was the set designer for the ballet. 

What are your favorite nonfiction children's books about artists?