Monday, May 5, 2014

Mortimer's First Garden

I've written before about our love for growing things.  And I've written before about our love for my friend Karma Wilson's books.  So it's possible that nothing in this post will seem especially new, but I'd love to highlight how my kids transfer things they learn in books (picture books, even!  Picture books especially!) into their real lives.

Mortimer's First Garden was written by Karma Wilson and published in 2009.  It's the companion book to her Christmas story Mortimer's Christmas Manger.

Mortimer is a lovable and adaptive little mouse.  It's worth your time to "meet" him properly in his Christmas book, but the two stories can stand alone.  Mortimer's First Garden is our very favorite springtime story.  We have read and enjoyed it for years, but DD has taken recent interest in gardening and especially sunflowers.  We have Mortimer to thank for that.  As my husband and I talked about our vegetable garden this year, DD asked if we could get some flower seeds.  We got him the sunflower seeds, and he and his dad planted them.  (Then we had a deluge and some of them got washed out.  But some of them didn't!)  DD has been watching his sunflowers grow and has loved how similar his real plants look to the pictures in the book.  

In the story, little Mortimer is looking forward to his meal of three sunflower seeds when he hears the humans in his house talking about springtime and planting a garden.  As the humans discuss the miracle of planting seeds and anticipating a harvest of vegetables, Mortimer takes note.  He decides to take a chance with one of his sunflower seeds.  

He is dubious, but he carefully finds a spot for his seed, buries it, and waters it.  He remains patient through days of rain and no apparent return on his investment.  One beautiful sunny day, green appears from the ground!  Mortimer continues to tend his plant.

And in the summer warmth
the tiny seed continued to grow...
and grow...
and grow...
Until one day in his garden Mortimer found...

By the end of the story, Mortimer's sunflower has produced more seeds than he can eat and plant next year, so he asks God for a friend to share with!  

At this point, reading with my children is about reading with my children.  It's about the time together, the appreciation for the written word, the learning to sit quietly.  I don't really need picture books to teach something.  But I really love it when they do.  DD doesn't know how to read, but I bet he could have found sunflowers on the shelf at the store.  He knew how to plant them.  He knew that they needed water and sun, and to be tended.  He knew that he would need to be patient as he waited for green to appear, and that he needs to continue in patience as we wait for yellow.  He knows that God is the creator of all life.  He picked up on all of these things from Mortimer's First Garden.

He also loves that the book is inscribed to him: " the sky!" 

I think they all are doing just that.   

DD's favorite:  "When the rain falls.  Sunflowers need rain, and sun, and also someone to get rid of pesky weeds!" 

Parents and teachers, this is a great one for the spring!  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Seven Silly Eaters

Once upon a time, I worked at Barnes & Noble and met many wonderful people.  My friend Christina is one of them.  We met in the summer of 2000, and fourteen years later, we're still friends .  She and I eventually joined a few others in a tight circle of friends who worked, played, and especially appreciated the written word together. Some of us formed a book club, despite the fact that we weren't all living in the same city or even state.  Our meetings always involved book discussion, food, friendship, and the creation of at least one memorable group photo.

Here we are circa 2004(?) during our discussion of Bill Bryon's The Mother Tongue.  Christina and her now-husband are peeking over their shared copy, while I'm in the stripes with the long hair.

Anyway, I've always thought booksellers (once a bookseller, always a bookseller!) are some of the best judges of a quality book, and Christina and her family were responsible for buying Mary Ann Hoberman's The Seven Silly Eaters for DD for his second birthday back in 2011.

I've always really liked this book, but DD has shown some some renewed interest in it lately, and I've found new things to appreciate with each reading.  Now, it probably won't win the love of any nutritionists out there, but if you're willing to hang in there for the sake of the fun and funny story, the rollicking rhythm, and the incredible illustrations, I don't think you'll disappointed.  

The book begins with youthful-looking Mrs. Peters, doting mother to wee Peter Peters.  He's just the best baby in the world, but he's a finicky eater.  He wants milk, warm milk, and it had better not be hot or cold, or he might pitch it on the ground.  

But Mrs. Peters did not mind.
She was a mother sweet and kind;
And when his milk spilled on the floor,
She patiently prepared some more.
She'd take the bottle from the shelf 
And chuckle softly to herself,
"What a silly sort of eater
Is my darling baby Peter."

Peter is quickly joined by new baby Lucy, then Lucy becomes big sister to Jack.  Mac, Mary Lou, and twins Flo and Fran show up in short order, and each child has his or her own particular food of choice. Homemade pink lemonade, applesauce, lump-free oatmeal, homemade bread, and eggs for the identical twins (poached for Flo and fried for Fran) are all on Mrs. Peters' daily agenda.  Increasingly worn out, with piles of toys, laundry, and food always surrounding her, Mrs. Peters trudges on.  Text and illustrations both capture her exhaustion and occasional frustration, but the worn-out mom never ceases to work hard to prepare what each of her brood requires.

Months and years pass, and one night finds all seven Peters children staying up late, planning a breakfast in bed for their mom's birthday the next day.  Each child intends to make his or her food of choice, but when it comes down to trying to actually do it, the kids realize they don't know how to cook!  Hilarity and happenstance ensue, and the result is a beautiful, unintentional cake - made from the foods of the seven silly eaters combined.  

It's just the kind of surprise ending that my kids love, and DD brings this one to me over and over again.  More times than not, the minute we finish reading, he wants to begin again.  The story is just delightful. 

But I think the illustrations are - hold onto your hats - equally good.  Illustrator Marla Frazee goes above and beyond to depict a family of nine with realism, humor, detail, and grace.  Each member of the family is easily recognizable, even as he or she grows from baby to older child.  The transformation of the Peters adults from relatively carefree parents of one to exhausted ringleaders of seven is so sweet, because the love and affection for their children never wavers.  The endearing details throughout are such a treat: you'll pick up on the never-stated fact that Mrs. Peters is a cello player, that Peter (my favorite!) loves to read, that the laundry is always in process but never done (hear that, moms?!), and that Mr. Peters is always trying to keep up with the family appetites, too. (I love the scene in which he's planting a lemon tree to help provide lemons for Lucy's pink lemonade!).  The illustrations are so expressive that a non-reader can pore over the book for some time, just soaking in the pictures.  Recently, DD asked if we could make the cake that's featured at the end of the book.  I told him that the book didn't include the recipe.  He told me we just needed each child's food: milk, pink lemonade, applesauce, oatmeal, bread dough, and eggs.  When I said I didn't know how much of each thing, he said, "well, three eggs." I asked him how he knew, and:

Ahem.  Indeed.

It's not a short book, so little-bitties might not stay interested, but it is certainly one of DD's favorites at the moment.  He's four and a half.  

His favorite part/comments: "When the kids hide that mess in the oven.  The Seven Silly Eaters is soooo funny!  I love that book!"

This title is so worth checking out!  And, believe it or not: zero commentary about how he'd like to pick just one food to eat all the time.   

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Encouraging a Love of Books

Several people have asked me what I did/do to encourage my children along the path of being lovers of literature.  I'd like to take this opportunity to state loud and clear that I'm not an expert on anything. Anything at all.  If you need an expert, ask my four year old.  He knows everything.

*Disclaimer: my children are probably genetically predisposed to like reading.

Here are all the tips I have to offer:

1) Start early.  As previously mentioned, I read to DD while he was still in utero.  I didn't have time to dedicate to specifically reading to the unborn when I was pregnant with the other two, but they got much more in utero exposure to books, because I rarely stopped reading to DD.  When the babies were born, and really up until the age Gorilla is now, say 10 months or so, they sat willingly for reading, but didn't really seek books out.  Keep at it.  You might just find them walking and "reading" at the same time, soon.

DD at just shy of one year, with a dumb little Sesame Street book I got at the dollar store.  He loved it (I think) because it was tiny enough for him to easily tote about.

Teep at a little over one year, with same dumb Sesame Street book.  We got some bang for our (literal!) buck.

2) Make time for it.  I was fighting a sinus headache and sore throat over the weekend and complained to my husband that the boys wouldn't stop bringing me books to read.  He commented that that was not the kind of thing that would ordinarily bother me.  He meant that I pretty much read to my kids anytime they ask.  I'm not saying that's what you should do or that anyone else out there has time to do that.  My house and my paperwork and my dinner prep have all suffered, but I decided even before I had kids that I wanted my children to love books, and we place a very heavy emphasis on reading in our house.

3) Remain open-minded about the types of books your kids fall in love with.  I am (probably obviously) not a huge fan of the book the boys are pictured with, above.  But they loved it and I read it.  And, in the spirit of confessions, I was never very interested in those books with no real story, pictures of "real" people and things, and some sort of overt educational intent.  I got some for cheap or free when I was a bookseller, and guess who fell in love with them? 

Matching baby boys looking at boring real people book

Tiny Teep hanging out with photos of real babies

Gorilla having her cake (or well-supervised stolen apple) and reading about it, too

Do I get a little bored with repeating single words while pointing to the accompanying photo?  Yes.  Do I wish there was an awesome story and beautiful illustrations?  Yes.  But my kids love these books, and they have learned a lot from them, too!  One of DD's first words was "blue", and I remember being so struck by his joy every time he saw something to which it applied - "blue!!"  He was clearly thrilled to be able to speak aloud the correct word for a given thing, and it was one of those books (Happy Baby Colors) that provided him with the information about his world.  Gorilla is pictured with companion book Happy Baby Words and there's a Happy Baby Animals, too.

4) Don't only read at bedtime.  I think a story before bedtime is so sweet.  The sleepy heads on my shoulder, the cuddling, and (not least) the favorite books of mine that lend themselves to that time of day.  But  many people through the years have told me that their kids didn't like reading, and then gone on to say that they only read at bedtime.  This is just a theory, but I wonder if reading at a time that many children dread causes an association between distaste for bedtime and distaste for books.  

5) If they want to drop it, drop it.  A couple of months ago, I started reading The Magician's Nephew to DD.  I grew up with the Chronicles of Narnia and C.S. Lewis and have fond, fond memories of read-alouds with my parents.  He seemed super interested for the first five chapters, but didn't want me to read anymore on subsequent days.  I was a little sad, but thought he might be too young for that kind of book.  I put it away and didn't say anything else about it.  A few weeks ago, he came to me and asked to read it.  He didn't remember the name of the book, but described in detail what had happened up to the point we had read.  I got it out and we finished it the next day.  As eager as I was to share an experience with him that had meant so much to me, I didn't want to potentially ruin it by pushing it on him.

For what they're worth, those are my tips.  My children are still young, and it's possible they'll grow out of their love for books (sad, sad thought!), so I am eager to avoid sounding like a know-it-all.  They've worked for us so far, though, and I hope they will help you!

DD in bibliophile's bliss during a bedroom switch

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book! Book! Book!

Booksellers and librarians and schoolteachers are some of the folks I know who can be reasonably counted upon to love a book about books.  I feel that way about collections of essays and novels and, of course, picture books.  So it stands to reason that I was bonkers for Book! Book! Book! by Deborah Bruss when it came out in 2001.  The good news: it's an adorable, funny book about books.  The bad news: it's no longer in print.  Man.  I hate it when that happens.

But I'm equal opportunity around here, and I like to feature some out of print titles we love, just in case you find them at a thrift store or yard sale and want to check them out.  

The story is this:  the children have gone back to school, and the animals are bored.  They make their way into town to look for something to do, and end up at the library.  The hen, horse, cow, goat, duck and pig note that the folks exiting the library look happy, so they decide this is the place to settle.  Each animal wanders in the library and asks politely for something to do, but the poor librarian doesn't understand neighs, moos, baahs or oinks.  The hen takes matters into her own hands.  

Up flapped the hen, and she announced, "I am going in, and no one is going to stop me!" Into the library she flapped.  "Book!" clucked the hen politely. The librarian looked around and said, "What's that noise?" "Book!  BOOK!"clucked the hen.

Maybe it's corny, but DD laughs and laughs when the librarian understands the clucking of the hen.  But understand she does, and the kind librarian selects three books for the hen.  Triumphant, the animals head back to the farm, bearing the world's best cure for boredom.

They spend a wonderful evening, gathered around the books and expressing delight with all of their different animal sounds.  Except for the bullfrog.  

And do you know what he said? "I already read it! Read it, read it, read it..."

Teep is a little too young to "get it", but DD is really going through a joke phase, and he cracks up every time.  Both boys enjoy the soft pictures and animal sounds. Speaking of animal sounds, DD first learned what each animal says from Eric Carle's  The Very Busy Spider, so don't discount a good story as a way to learn.

Off to read some book!book!books! around here.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Thoughts on saying farewell (or see you later) to a few books

There is an Anna Quindlen quote I love.  She says, “I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”  So true, Anna.  So true.  My children have reaped the benefits of my love of children's books and my many years of being able to take advantage of an employee discount.  But they've also acquired quite a few books on their own, and the boys' bookcase is consequently filled to capacity.  We need a new "decoration".

We have commissioned a new bookcase from my super talented, wood-working father.  He will make something sturdy and beautiful and he always stains his work to my dark-cherry preferences.  But he actually has a day job, and excellence takes time, so we have been looking for a solution to the problem of the new books not having a home on the current shelf.  I'm a little obsessive and can't stand it when everything doesn't have its own place.  My husband suggested that we remove all Christmas books from the shelf, and bring them back out in time for next Christmas.  It's a great suggestion!  Practical, and maybe good for us.  Maybe reading Christmas books just at Christmas will render those books a little more special.  Maybe the association between the Christmas books and a certain time of year will become clearer. Yesterday, I pulled the books off the shelf.  I'm having a hard time.

Once, when DD was a wee tyke and could barely talk, I was picking up his books and putting them on the shelf.  I remember how he pitifully cried and asked for his favorites among them.  "Max", (as I attempted to shelve Where the Wild Things Are), "Moon" (for Goodnight Moon), "Mama" (for Mama, Why?). Through tears and pleas, he rescued each one back to his lap, and yesterday I remembered that moment, and understood.  I'll keep our Christmas books close, and we might even put them right back where they belong on the shelf once we have more bookcase real estate.  But the idea of putting a beloved book, any beloved book, up on a high closet shelf or otherwise out of sight, seems like a farewell to me.  Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear deserves a review, as does Bear Stays Up For Christmas  and Mortimer's Christmas Manger.  We love David Shannon's David, and we'll miss his Christmas book.  DD loves How the Grinch Stole Christmas any day of the year.

Maybe those reviews will wait until next Christmas.  And maybe they won't.

Are there any books that you put away for special occasions? 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sophie's Squash

I mentioned in my last post that I had spent some Christmas gift cards on seven new picture books.  They have arrived, and I love them to varying degrees.  The one I love the most was a recommendation from a bookseller friend of mine.  We worked together for some years at Barnes & Noble.  I moved away and she stayed at the store I'll always consider the home of my career.  The very smell of that store moves me.  Anyway, she now supervises the children's department, and she gave me a list of titles to research.  I've lost count of how many times we've read Sophie's Squash since it arrived last week.

Written by Pat Zietlow Miller and published in time for Fall last year, Sophie's Squash is, according to the author biography, based on a true story of the author's daughter.  To be honest, I'm sure there's a common-interest element that comprises some part of my love for this one.  I spent my childhood not caring one tiny iota about any kind of plant life.   Then I got married.  My husband knows at least a little bit about almost everything, but one of the things he knows a decent amount about is gardening.  Probably not devoting much thought to it, he tossed a couple of basil seeds in a pot and a tomato plant or two in another, sometime before our second anniversary.  When those seeds and plants turned into something I could retrieve from our apartment's patio for dinner (or at least part of dinner), I was totally hooked on gardening.  We moved from that apartment to a house at which we've had a garden every year.  I cannot imagine ever getting over the wonder of spending mere cents on a packet of seeds, only to have it grow and blossom and become edible.  I love knowing how it's been cared for and the convenience of plucking a bit of this or that to be part of a meal that ends up on my table minutes later.  I can't help thinking we should return to food preparation that looks more like that and less like boxes from the supermarket.  So, the gardening-vegetable-farmers'-market element of this book made it somewhat of a shoo-in for my affections.

But while I believe parents probably have some influence over the books their children love, I didn't do a thing to force it upon DD.  It arrived with two others.  We read all three, then he asked to read all three again, starting with Sophie's Squash.  Then just Sophie's Squash.  At bedtime?  You guessed it.  When I announced my intention to shelve it on his sister's bookcase,(because his is full) he stared at me with the frown and furrowed brow of my people.  He's not the boss around here, but it's worth noting that Sophie's Squash has stayed on the reading bench in his room ever since.

About the story: young Sophie accompanies her parents to the farmers' market.  She selects the squash that her parents are intending to cook and eat, and discovers that:

It was just the right size to
hold in her arms.
Just the right size to bounce
on her knee.
Just the right size to love.
"I'm glad we met," Sophie whispered.
"Good friends are hard to find."

Sophie names her squash, paints a face on her, and protects her from her parents' designs on a gourd for dinner.  The delightful, funny illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf add to the appeal of the book, and show Sophie as an auburn cutie in pigtails.  (An additional touch of common interest.  I'm becoming quite a fan of auburn cuties in pigtails.)  Sophie tenderly cares for Bernice the squash, takes her to storytime, plays with her, and carefully tucks her in bed at night.  But despite Sophie's careful ministrations, Bernice starts to age.  When a boy at storytime draws attention to the spots forming on Bernice, Sophie announces that her squash has freckles. 

At this point in the story, I was becoming concerned that there couldn't be a positive outcome.  Smart Sophie, however, has a plan.  She revisits the farmers' market and consults the farmer on the correct way to keep a squash healthy.  The farmer gives instructions: fresh air, dirt, and love.  Sophie makes a bed of dirt for Bernice, and tucks her in.  The scene seems comforting and sweet, and not at all sad or like a goodbye. Sophie passes the winter with her new friend, a goldfish from her intuitive dad.  When Spring returns, Sophie visits her yard and recognizes the bit of green that has appeared.  Sophie and her goldfish picnic with Bernice the plant every day, and it's not long before Sophie finds a surprise beneath Bernice's large leaves.

My husband says it's his favorite of the new books, too.

What DD likes: when Sophie's mom suggests eating Bernice with marshmallows, when Sophie takes Bernice to storytime.
What I like: the creativity of Sophie, who doesn't settle for a mere toy store plaything, the great illustrations, the fresh gardening applications.

It's fun, sweet, funny and endearing.  We think you'll fall in love with Sophie and Bernice, too.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Go-Go Gorillas

Well, Christmas happened around here.  And some holiday travel.  And some ongoing illness.  So while you may be sure that books are being read and pored over and otherwise adored at our house, it has indeed been frightfully long since I've posted.  The children got some really lovely new books for Christmas.  I got some Barnes & Noble gift cards from my oh-so-generous in-laws, who will doubtless not be the slightest bit surprised that I spent every last penny of them (plus a little) on children's books.  I expect, therefore, to have a lot of new, wonderful books to review soon!  But the one that I've picked for today is not really a new book.  It's new to us, because Gorilla got it for Christmas.

My husband and I did a quick read-though of this one at the store, but we primarily bought it because of the gorilla reference, and I wasn't really expecting to love the content.  Well, I'm here to tell you that I love the content.  Go-Go Gorillas was written by Julia Durango and published in 2010.  It's a rhyming book, and the bouncy text just makes me want to get up and dance.  It begins like this:

In the Great Gorilla Villa,
King Big Daddy paced the floor.
Then he called his royal messenger
and steered her toward the door.
  "Summon every last gorilla
to the Villa, don't be late.
I expect them all by sundown -
please don't make Big Daddy wait!"

Go get
Gotta get
gorillas, go!

The King's royal messenger is a tiny mouse on a bicycle, and she scurries hither and yon, gathering up the gorilla relatives.  The king's nephew, niece, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, cousins, grandpa and granny are all notified, and each chooses a different mode of transportation.  The air of expectancy is intensified by the responsiveness of the king's relatives.  Each finishes what he or she is doing and gets on the way, chanting:

Go-go gorillas!
Gotta go,
gorillas, go!

The relations choose a bike, rowboat, roller-skates, truck, bus, jalopy, hot-air balloon, pogo stick, taxi and airplane, respectively, to reach their destination.  A couple of spreads highlight the whole crew on their way, and DD likes to talk about who's riding on what.  He's four, and is able to identify each one.  It's been a fun way to discuss things like taxis and pogo sticks, with which he doesn't have personal experience.

One of my favorite things about this book is that at the end, we discover the reason for King Big Daddy's haste in gathering his relatives.  It's because he wants to introduce them to...his new baby girl!  We love that, as our own gorilla nickname sprang from a play on the word "girl".  And speaking of baby girl gorilla, her super talented and thoughtful aunt made her this amazing hat for Christmas.  Who knew a gorilla could look so sweet and feminine?

What I like: the rhyme, the gorilla references, the variety in transportation, and the refrain.
What the kids like: the refrain, the silly pictures, and the bouncy way the story moves along.  

Give it a read if you see it!  We hope you'll like it, too.