Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Library Round-up #8

Mini-reviews of just a few of the 100+ books we currently have out from the library.

When I Was Small  by Sara O'Leary, with illustrations by Julie Morstad.  My 5-year-old picked this gem out at the library by herself.  With its old-fashioned, vintage feel and beautiful illustrations, as well as its understanding of childhood, it reminds me of works by Charlotte Zolotow.  A young boy asks his mother to tell him about when she was "small."  Not young, small.  And so the mother interprets the request literally, and poetically tells him about when she and her doll were the same size, when she could wear a daisy for a sunhat, and lived in a dollhouse.  Lyrical, beautiful, original.  This one's going on my to-buy list.  I'll also be placing a hold on When You Were Small by the same pair at the library and checking out anything else by either the author or the illustrator, as well as the publisher, Simply Read Books.

Please, Louise! by Frieda Wishinsky and Marie-Louise Gay.  This story about an older brother, Jake, who wishes that his little sister Louise were a dog because she just won't stop bothering him is spot-on in its portrayal of sibling relationships.  When Jake thinks that his wish came true, he realizes how he should have been more careful about what he wished for.

Oonga Boonga also by Frieda Wishinsky. Another book about older-brother-younger-sister siblings.  Here, the older child is the only one who can comfort his baby sister.  This is a nice, empowering read for a new older sibling.  The baby here is also named Louise, so I thought this might be the same pair of sibs as in Please, Louise!, but alas, the older brother here is Daniel.

How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman, illustrated by Allen Say.  The story of how the author's American sailor father and Japanese mother met and tried to master each other's eating habits is a charming tale of overcoming and even embracing cultural differences as well as showing what unites us all.

I Gotta Draw by Bruce Degen.  The seemingly autobiographical story of a boy who loves to draw, the real heroine here is the teacher who finally realizes that she has to change her teaching methods rather than punishing her student for doodling.  When she lets him spell words as he draws them and incorporates his art into other areas of learning, she finds it has enormous benefit for him as well as the rest of her class.  I love how it shows that teachers learn from their students.  The dedication, while ambiguous, is, I bet, to the real teacher on whom the fictional teacher is based.

Goldilocks and Just One Bear by Leigh Hodgkinson.  Another book that turns the Goldilocks story on its head (like Mo Willems's Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs which I review here), this one inverts the story so that it is a bear who makes himself at home at someone else's apartment.  The unexpected twist at the end adds to the humor.

No Bears by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Leila Rudge.  Ella thinks bears have no place in books.  A book needs pretty things and funny things, and even scary things - as long as those scary things are not bears.  Of course, the joke is on Ella...

Chloe and the Lion.  This Mac Barnett-Adam Rex collaboration is my favorite of theirs so far.  In it, the the author directs the illustrator how to illustrate his story about Chloe and the lion and predictably, conflict ensues.  Suddenly, Chloe and the lion themselves get into the act to complain about the plot and how they are depicted.  Unique and funny.

Have you read any of these?  What did you think?

Friday, January 25, 2013

So, You Know Jews Like Chinese Food, Right?

There are tons of jokes about the Jewish affinity for Asian (particularly Chinese) food. They have a basis in truth and, as I learned at an event held at an NYPL branch, from food historian Sarah Lohman, that affinity could be attributed to both the proximity of the Jewish Lower East Side to Chinatown, and the fact that Chinese food does not use dairy, thus allowing Jews to eat it without violating the prohibition on mixing meat and dairy.

But in Where on Earth Is My Bagel?, Frances and Ginger Park invert this stereotype, having a Korean boy develop a sudden, insatiable craving for a New York bagel.  With Grace Lin's signature folk-art illustrations, this book reads like a modern-day fable... with the boy finding that what he was searching for was in front of him all the time - sort of.  While awaiting a response to his request for "one bagel to go," sent to New York via pigeon, he takes matters into his own hands and asks the local farmer, fisherman, and beekeeper in his rural village if they have his bagel, to no avail.  When he finally receives an answer to his letter, a New York bagel-shop owner explains that bagels must be eaten the day they are made but provides his recipe.  The local farmer, fisherman and beekeeper turn out to have all the needed ingredients.  The only thing missing from this lovely cross-cultural story is the actual recipe!

Thanks to my mom for telling me about this book!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Toy Library... With A Single Toy

Today there was a great article in the NY Times about one NYPL branch that lends out an American Girl doll.  Yes, "an."  A single doll.  As most of you know, these are incredibly expensive dolls, sold with expensive accessories at a store which includes a cafe for tea with your doll and a hair salon - for the doll!  Each doll comes with a set of books and has a back story, each set in a different time and place in American history.

There are so many things I love about the idea of lending one of these dolls out.  I love that children of all different backgrounds are borrowing the same doll and returning her with accessories and clothes from their own cultures.  I love that despite the "children getting older younger" phenomenon, girls as old as eleven are still playing with dolls, as they should.  (I've noticed that in older books about dolls, the girls who play with them are almost always older than the age at which girls allegedly outgrow dolls today.)

My daughter devours the American Girl books, which are a great introduction to historical fiction.  But she has no idea there are corresponding dolls.  There is no promotional material in the books other than the picture on the cover, which looks like the corresponding doll.  But if you don't know about the doll, then it's just a regular book cover.

I know there are other places in the country and around the world that have toy libraries, as I mentioned briefly here.  I know a lot of them cater to children with special needs, but just like a typical library, a toy library could serve all children.  I'd love to have my kids try out toys before I buy them, which is essentially what I do when I watch them carefully to see what they play with at other people's houses!

Maybe this article will encourage more libraries to lend out toys.  After all, they lend music and movies and music scores.  Why not toys?

Have you ever been to a toy library? Does your town have a toy library?  Do you wish it did?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Read-Alouds to a 7-Year-Old (and an Excuse for Me to Fill in My Kidlit Gaps!)

I feel so lucky that my daughter still likes me to read aloud to her, although there are more and more evenings when she chooses to skip it and read alone.  We recently read Understood Betsy, an old classic that I had never read myself (but which I found mentioned in the Ramona books).  It is the story of the blossoming Elizabeth Ann who has lived a very sheltered life until now, cared for by her overprotective, overly anxious Aunt Frances, who projects all of her anxieties onto Elizabeth Ann.  When Aunt Frances must leave her with relatives at a Vermont farm so she can care for her ill mother, Elizabeth Ann (whom the Putney relatives immediately and familiarly address as Betsy), discovers that she is neither nervous nor frail.  New experiences, including the simplest of tasks such as getting out of bed on her own, as well as others such as making butter, cooking potatoes, walking to school not only alone but on her very first day!, and becoming a kind of mentor to a younger friend, push her to become more independent.  To her surprise, she not only finds these experiences empowering but actually fun.  The girl Aunt Frances comes back to retrieve is a very different one from the one she left.  I found the story line a little obvious but my daughter loved it and it was an enjoyable read for both of us.  The edition we read was illustrated by author-illustrator Martha Alexander, whom I love.  She chose to illustrate it because she herself loved this book as a young girl.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper was another big hit with my daughter.  Don't say I didn't warn you - have a box of tissues at the ready!  Narrated by an 11-year-old-girl with such severe cerebral palsy that she cannot walk, feed herself or even talk, I cried so hard at times that my daughter had to take over the reading!  When technology enables Melody to "speak," everyone but her parents, a close family friend, and her school aide, are shocked at her smarts.  As she says, cerebral palsy "limits [her] body but not [her] mind.  In addition to her physical challenges, Melody has to navigate "mean girls" and bullying, and, as such, this book could be paired with Wonder.  However, this one could have benefited from a little editing; it is unnecessarily long and a subplot involving Melody's sister seems irrelevant.  The strength and love of Melody's parents is simply heartrending though, as is Melody's own strength.  There is no truly happy ending for Melody, though; she will always have to struggle with her severe physical disabilties.

We're currently in the middle of The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, another book I somehow missed out on in what I thought was a well-read childhood.  I love how the descriptions of the Times Square subway station are timeless.  However, I suspect my daughter's lack of interest in this one is one of the reasons she's been choosing to skip our read-alouds more frequently as of late.

What books have you been reading aloud to your 7-8-year-olds?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

One-Hit Wonder No More: Kate Feiffer

You know how, when you find a book you really love, you immediately go out and try to find all the other books that author's written.  Well, that's what I do anyway.  And it is so disappointing when none of the author's other works live up to the promise of the first one you read (which may not be the first one the author wrote).

That's what happened to me and Kate Feiffer, at least with regard to her picture books.  I loved, loved, LOVED My Side of the Car, published in April 2011 and illustrated by her famous father, Jules Feiffer.  I had no idea that it wasn't her first book or even that she'd written other books.  But then I saw that she'd just come out with No Go Sleep! (2012), also illustrated by her father and when I reserved that at the library, I discovered a number of other books by her.  In order of publication they are: Henry the Dog With No Tail (2007) (illustrated by Jules Feiffer), My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life (March 2009) (illustrated by Diane Goode), Which Puppy? (April 2009) (illustrated by Jules Feiffer), The Wild, Wild Inside: A View From Mommy's Tummy! (March 2010) (illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith), But I Wanted a Baby Brother! (May 2010) (illustrated by Diane Goode), The Problem With the Puddles (June 2011) (a chapter book illustrated by Tricia Tusa), President Pennybaker (January 2012) (illustrated by Diane Goode), Signed by Zelda (April 2012) (also a chapter book), and Double Pink (2013) (illustrated by Bruce Ingman).

The picture books weren't bad.  They just weren't special.  In No Go Sleep! I could relate to the parent of a child who adamantly refuses to go to sleep... until he just can't resist any longer.  In My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My LifeFeiffer achieves a nice balance of a protagonist who is utterly embarrassed by her parents yet still needs them.  Henry the Dog With No Tail  had some clever wordplay (Henry seeks a tail at the tailor's and asks a wagon maker to make it wag) but again lacked the zing of my favorite.  Double Pink, about a girl who takes her love of pink to such extremes that she ends up camouflaged in her pink room, was cute but nothing more.  Which Puppy?, about the Obamas' search for the perfect dog, The Wild, Wild Inside: A View From Mommy's Tummy! and President Pennybaker were also merely cute and silly. But I Wanted a Baby Brother!, well-written as it is, ends conventionally with protagonist Oliver discovering that his baby sibling is fun, even if she is a girl.

Then I discovered Ms. Feiffer had written two chapter books.  Would they redeem her in my eyes?  Would they ever!

The quirky characters, family troubles, a New York City setting and a unique type of mystery in Signed by Zelda reminded me of both Rebecca Stead's Liar and Spy and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler but didn't feel derivative or unoriginal. 11-year-old Nicky Gibson suspects his father is responsible for his grandmother's disappearance.  With the help of his new upstairs handwriting-obsessed neighbor, Savannah-transplant Lucy Bertel and a talking pigeon, they work to solve the mystery.  And while I thought the ending very upsetting and the issue it raised (elder abuse) glossed over too quickly, I found the rest of the book an engrossing read.  (My daughter refused to read it on the grounds that she suspected it was too scary.)

However, she loved Ms. Feiffer's other novel, The Problem With the Puddles, so much that she asked to buy it so she could reread it.  With that endorsement, I had to read it too!  It has a more farcical plot but was also fun read and its constant wordplay (a character who can never say anything once but always adds synonyms, often mangled, such as cinnamons) was reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth, which just happened to be illustrated by Ms. Feiffer's father.  The premise, involving a family in which the parents cannot agree over the smallest thing, including their child's name (whom they call variously Emily and Ferdinanda and whom everyone else calls Baby, the name on her birth certificate), is outrageous and the antics only get wilder from there.

Is there an author (or illustrator) who had one book you loved and were subsequently disappointed?  Do you have any favorite children's authors or illustrators who have done both picture books and chapter books you liked?  (By the way, Jules Feiffer has also written both picture books and children's chapter books, as well as written for adults and is best known as a cartoonist.  But he is a subject for another day.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Picture Book Biographies: Singing for Civil Rights

With the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and work approaching, I wanted to draw your attention to two books about two lesser-known women who fought for civil rights in their own ways.  Both of these picture book biographies of black women singers in the '20s and '30s are thought-provoking and gorgeous.

Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renee Watson is written simply yet poetically. Mills's refusal to sing where black audiences were not allowed is inspiring.  The text is complemented by Christian Robinson's stunning multimedia illustrations, some of which look like you could reach out and feel them.  This is a beautiful book about a lesser-known artist and fighter for civil rights.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick tells the story of Marian Anderson, the discrimination she faced, and how she sang before an audience of 75,000 on the Washington Mall, a concert arranged with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Nearly 16 years later, she finally achieved her lifelong dream of performing at the Metropolitan Opera.  With Brian Selznick's sepia illustrations, this book has a more advanced vocabulary than Harlem's Little Blackbird.

However, both are perfect to accompany a lesson on civil rights or Black History Month that goes beyond the same historical figures children hear children hear about year after year.  And although neither of these women became leaders of the civil rights movement, they both stood up for what was right and fought for justice.  Civil rights were won not just by a movement, but by individuals and these biographies both teach that important principle in an accessible format.

What are your favorite books about lesser-known figures who fought for civil rights?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Where We Read

The other day we took a short (1 express stop) subway ride.  My 7-year-old brought two books - one she was almost finished with and a back-up, and I brought the chapter book I've been reading to my 4-year-old.  We all snagged seats and began reading.  As we exited, another woman complimented me on raising two such voracious readers, noting their concentration (my older daughter later told me she didn't even realize I had been reading aloud to the younger one, so engrossed was she in her own book).

One of the ways to raise a reader is to bring a book everywhere.  My phone is the flip variety from 1998 or so so it has no games, no apps, no nothing.  So what do we have with us?  Books!  We read on the subway and the bus, while waiting at the doctor and the dentist and the post office.  But we also read on benches, stoops, and even sidewalks all over the city.  We read at the park, in between the monkey bars and games of "shark" (where one person pretends to spot a shark and then everyone has to run away).  I read to my younger daughter while we stand in the schoolyard waiting to pick up my older one.  My older one reads in the schoolyard in the mornings while waiting for her teacher to pick up the class - unless the supervising teacher has the chutzpah to insist the children run around so they don't freeze!  My husband has even been known to bring a book in the elevator for the ride down to the laundry room!

Of course, raising a reader is not as simple as bringing books everywhere, but it certainly helps!

Where do you and/or your kids read?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Birthday Books and Inscriptions for a 5-Year-Old

My "baby" just turned five!  She has been listening to chapter books eagerly for a few months now and for Chanukah I purchased a few of the Riverside Kids books that are out of print.  But for her birthday, I stuck to picture books that she loved when we took them out of the library.  For each book I also pasted in a bookplate sticker of the "This book belongs to..." variety.  (Oh how I wish they said "From the library of..." which sounds so much more elegant, but this company has them with adorable silhouettes of children and I couldn't resist.)  I also wrote my daughter a message in each.  Here are the books I gave her and what I wrote.          

Umbrella by Taro Yashima, which I review here. "You are turning into such a grown-up young lady."

Mimmy and Sophie by Miriam Cohen, which I discuss here and here. "May you and your sister always love and take care of each other like Mimmy and Sophie."

My Side of the Car by Kate Feiffer, which I review here.  "Is it raining on your side of the bus? [As city people, we are on the bus a lot more than we are in a car.]  Because it's so sunny people are wearing sunglasses on my side of the bus.  May you always be on the sunny side of the bus."

Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges, which I talk about here. "May you always stand up for what you believe in.  And remember, girls can do ANYTHING!"  She also chose to donate a second copy of this book to her preschool class in honor of her birthday.

Do you always write an inscription on the flyleaf when you give a book as a gift?

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Sweetness of Learning

My husband and I have been "rewarding" (that is, bribing!) our daughters with chocolate chips to get them read - to get my older one to read in Hebrew (she needs no reward to read in English and was horrified to read recently of a girl who read "only" 3 books a week!) and to get my younger one to read in English.  I'd been feeling a little guilty about this practice, as it conflicts with my principle that learning should be its own reward.  But principles and reality are often at odds, especially when it comes to parenting.  Then I remembered the ancient Jewish tradition of dabbing some honey on the alef-bet - the alphabet - when a child first starts to learn his (back then it was always his) letters - so he would know that learning is sweet.  And I felt better.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Dr. Seuss Dichotomy

My mom never liked Dr. Seuss books and so I've always had a bias against them.  But now my almost-five-year-old's preschool class is studying them and I'm developing a new appreciation for at least some of them.  She came home thrilled after they read Horton Hatches the Egg, repeating "An elephant's faithful, 100 percent!" ad nauseum.  But she explained to me she didn't like the Dr. Seuss books that are "just rhyming" like Fox in Socks.  Although she didn't have the vocabulary to express it, she likes books with plot.  (This might explain why she has a general aversion to poetry but makes an exception for narrative poetry, like Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems.)

This school unit exposed me to a Dr. Seuss book I wasn't familiar with (to be honest, he was so prolific that I am always discovering new ones): Please Try to Remember the First of Octember!  A parent keeps promising his child outlandish things... but not until "the first of Octember."  I don't think my daughter quite got the joke that the first of Octember would never come and therefore the parent would never have to make good on his promise, but I did and it amused me!  I also like I Am Not Going to Get Up Today! although the rhyme scheme peters out at the ending, and my kids love finding all the "wacky" things in Wacky Wednesday.  As for the "just rhyming" books, I have a soft spot for There's a Wocket in My Pocket! since I used to sing it to my older daughter.  It's rollicking rhythm just lends itself to song.  And how could I not like it after she told me that I'm her "zillow" because "the zillow on my pillow always helps me fall asleep"?

What is your favorite Dr. Seuss book?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Baby Jealousy With a Twist

There are scads and scads of picture books about new baby jealousy.  A Baby Sister for FrancesJulius, the Baby of the WorldPeter's Chair, and When the New Baby Comes, I'm Moving Out come immediately to mind.  And there are tons of others, with good reason.  The entry of a new baby into a family is an event with dramatic and lifelong consequences for the until-then only (or youngest) child.

However, there's a subgenre of picture books about pets jealous of a new baby.  And one of them was written by none other than Madeline L'Engle and illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators, Christine Davenier!  Even among this subgenre, though, L'Engle's book has a twist.  The dog at issue believes the new baby is also a dog, simply one of an inferior breed, one which is not house-trained and which gets to be carried everywhere.  While the aptly named The Other Dog is not of the same quality of L'Engle's other works, it is worth seeking out by dog lovers, parents of older-siblings-to-be, and picture-book-collectors.

Other picture books about pets jealous of a new baby include Bittle and McDuff and the Baby.  Do you know of any others?