I'm Emily Reynolds.
I'm Emily Reynolds.
Are you a goal-setter? If you're here, reading this book review about children's literature, you must be. So just for you, here are a half-dozen story* recommendations that will inspire you to train for that triathlon, start your own business, lose thirty pounds, travel around the world and learn a new language, or get your pilot's license in the new year.
(*Slight caveat: not all of these "story recommendations" are in picture book format--two of them are movies...Wha?!!! Time to shake things up, I guess.) Enjoy! This list is a quickie...
1) After the Fall, by Dan Santat
If you're not acquainted yet with Dan Santat's genius, you're in for a picture book BFF relationship! This title of Mr. Santat's is my personal favorite of his repertoire. I won't say more than this spread alone made my entire family laugh--from our six year-old to the forty-seven year-old!
I had to open the book up multiple times over the two week period when we checked this out--just for the sheer pleasure of poring over the names of these cereals. I mean, check out the pic of the black and white box of bland old "Twigs and Berries" on the bottom (left) shelf--it's completely out-radianced by the cereals named, "FREE TOY!" or "SUGAR FROSTED SUGAR" on the top row. Dan Santat, you're having way too much fun. And aren't we glad because of it?! Ha ha!
So much so, that I wouldn't mind eating a bowl of "Sad Clown" cereal (second shelf up, third from the right--behind the sliding ladder) if it meant I could peruse through "After the Fall" while munching on a bowl.
Go, gobble this book up yourself. And you'll exceed your laughing quota for the day. And perhaps get a little surprise of finding yourself teary-eyed at the end. Warning! You may have to read through the conclusion a few times before the "what happens" really sinks in. It took me a minute. Or maybe I'm just slow. More likely the latter. :)
2) Vera Rides a Bike, by Vera Rosenberry
Do you and your little people know the Vera books? If not...(OH!) you will love them! I even adored them before we found out Ms. Rosenberry lives in England. (Okay, I openly admit it--I am obsessed with all things English. How dorky am I? Yes, I know it. You all know it. *Blush.* Oh well. What to do...)
But here's why Ms. Rosenberry's books work. Vera's view of the world is so spot-on, so childlike! And Vera's vision of the world is authentic, so much so that adults and kids can't help commiserating for this little soul as she tries her best to navigate the world of big feelings and first happenings in a small person's body. Vera Rides a Bike just reminds one of the great feelings we all experience after finally figuring out a new skill. Then to make it through a scrape using that new skill is fantastic, right?!
Not to mention that the quirky illustrations are genuine and one-of-a-kind. I sure wish I could draw in such a fresh style. Teach me, Vera! Teach me.
Here's a link to the Goodreads blurb about this title:
And here's a list of Vera Rosenberry's many other published books:
3) Sahara Special, by Esme Raji Codell
My eight year-old, Quincy, just read this one last summer. She fell in love with it even more so than I did a decade ago, when my older sister first introduced me to Ms. Raji Codell's writing (Thanks, Celestia!).
Every person with an Achilles Heel, that is, um--all of us--can relate to the vulnerability Sahara feels when her weaknesses are exposed publicly amidst the desire to achieve her heart's dream of becoming a writer.
And because there are two or three curse words in this book, checking out a title before we hand it to our children is a good idea, as each child is particular in their methods of handling media. If I had the time to read all of my kids' books aloud to them, I would just swap out the few swears, but reading this one ahead, may be helpful for some.
Here's what one parent's review from Common sense media says:
"An impressive offering
I was offered this as a choice to use for a book review assignment for a diversity class. I found the book to be a strong voice for students that often go unheard. It offers inspiration for the young reader and insight for those of us that are a bit older. It reminds us that kids' lives are as complex as our own and that each child needs that consideration. I highly recommend this book."
And one child's review of the book, just as a heads-up:
"very good book...
I loved this book...I thought Sahara is funny and has a heart of gold. The language surprised me. I couldn't believe it was in my school library! ( I'm in elementary school, my school accepts grades K-6th Grade) Still, it is an AWESOME book and I would love to read it again."
The way this book made me feel was unforgettable--empowered and touched. This title would be an exceptional read-aloud, which would solve any problems regarding children reading cursing, as a parent could skip right over the profanities. Note: Ms. Codell is writing from the perspective of an inner-city school where she taught for several years in actual life. Still, note to self, that when writing my own book, I can make the narrator explain that any unschooled characters, "cursed under their breath," rather than spelling out the unsavory wordage. Right? Right.
4) The trilogy:
Emily of New Moon,
Emily Climbs, and
Emily's Quest, by L.M. Montgomery
No, I did not choose this trilogy because of the name, Silly goose. Probably more likely that I must have subconsciously empathized with the protagonist as she discovered a love of words and writing. In my adolescence, these were three of my very favorite books by L.M. Montgomery about following one's dreams. I almost loathe to admit it, but I like these titles even better than the Anne books. EEK! Is that blasphemy? They're right up there with Pat of Silverbush. Are they your old friends as well?
Here's Goodreads weighing in, once again, on the trilogy:
Emily of New Moon, book 1:
Emily Climbs, book 2:
Emily's Quest, book 3:
And now the anomalies I promised...the family MOVIES to keep you entertained through the long winter...
5) Dangal has, by now, hopefully been seen by you all. But, if there is one soul out there who has not seen this movie yet, this entire blog was written just for you. Dangal is (quote) "an extraordinary true story based on the life of Mahavir Singh and his two daughters, Geeta and Babita Phogat. The film traces the inspirational journey of a father who trains his daughters to become world class wrestlers." (UTV Motion Pictures)
I cannot say enough good about this movie. If you know me personally, you've already heard me blab on and on about it, until I've pestered you for at least six months, asking, "Have you seen it yet? What about now? Have you had time yet?" Until you've finally watched the movie just to appease my blethering. It's that good.
See the official trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuIVa_K59QE
And a behind-the-scenes/making-of-the-movie here:
I always know I'm in for a treat--that a film is going to be supremely good--when my husband Matt, movie connoisseur extraordinaire, insists that the whole family watch something together that he's already previewed and enjoyed on his own.
I'll tell you something...when elementary-aged kids can sit down right along with the high schoolers, and the adults thoroughly enjoy the whole thing along with every one of the kids--this, my friend, is fine cinema at its superlative.
By the end of this movie, you'll be giddy to wake up at 5 a.m. to go run the mile, drink raw eggs by the fistful, and dust off whatever other strange ambitions you've always wanted to accomplish.
Truly, this based-on-real-life movie is simple inspiration--showing us one true example of how one man's dreams and patience to mentor his daughters, brought an entire community and country together, above prejudice and dusty ideas, to witness something exceptional--all for the love of the sport and one's own people. Meet you on the wrestling mat. (With a head bobble. You'll see what I mean when you watch the movie.)
(Unfortunately, this film is only available on Netflix, as far as I know. If you've found it elsewhere, or have located a great place from which to order the DVD, please fill us in, and comment below!)
6) Pele: Birth of a Legend
This movie makes me want to be a better parent. My family laughed, cried, hoped, and danced at the end. I mean, up on our feet, jamming. You will too, just wait and see--oh, just wait! (With such powerfully-rhythmic music, ninguém pode evitá-lo--no one can avoid it!) So beautiful. So touching, and so incredible that the story is actually true, neh? (As they say "no Brahz-io.")
Besides, I'm a sucker for the Brasileiro and Português cultures--from my days serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in ye olde days of snail mail--gasp--can you imagine?!) in Portugal and the Cape Verde Islands. Makes my heart go wild when I see the big heartedness of the Brazilian culture and hear the beauty of that sing-song Portuguese language of the Iberian Peninsula. Joy.
Once again, thanks to the hubs for insisting last winter that my kids and I watch this great pic. Você tem bom gosto, Matt! What'll it be next? Bring it on! I'm ready...
So a happy, shiny, new 2020 to everyone! And don't be shy. Someone out there has GOT to have a fun new year's resolution to share in the comments below. Pretty please? With a Brazilian cereja on top...
1) Christmas Day in the Morning, written by Pearl S. Buck, illustrated by Mark Buehner
In my mind, this is one of the most meaningful picture books about Christmas that a child can read. In fact, that everyone should read it. Why, you might ask? Because, not only does it share with us what event--and actual being--started this millenias-old Christmas season, but also why Jesus Christ's life, example, and atoning sacrifice help and change us today and forever.
These hard-to-grasp topics can be tricky for little people to digest (and those of us big people too, for that matter!), unless seen applied in our own lives. This beautiful, simple story, by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century (if you also love The Good Earth, by Peal S. Buck, you'll know what I mean), does just that.
When I was a girl, I remember being shown a film strip, based on this story, at church every year around Christmas time. (Yes, that does make me a million years old to admit that I was around when humming projectors were used to show movies. But weren't they fantastic?! Those ancient projectors that flipped the last strand of film around and around at the end of the movie...) The film version of this story made me weep like a baby, as an eight year-old, just as reading the book aloud to my own kids does now.
The storyline is of a boy, Rob, overhearing his father's tender desire to let his growing son get enough sleep. And with this accidental eavesdropping, comes an awakening to the fact that the boy's father loves him, and that he loves his father in return. But how to show his dad, with little money to buy a Christmas present?
So as the boy thinks about his father, when they arise before the crack of dawn each morning, he decides something...
On Christmas morning, after rising at 2:45a.m., the boy dresses, goes out to the barn in the darkness, and does his father's chores by himself, puts everything to rights for the day for his dad, then climbs back into bed and pretends to be asleep, waiting for his father to discover his gift.
Just serenely joyful, isn't it? Thanks to Mark Buehner, and the late Pearl S. Buck, for bringing such a gift of love and light to the world. I can't help but want to give copy after copy of this book away at Christmas over the years. This story just encapsulates everything right in the world. And the glowing illustrations aren't anything to sneeze at, either!
2) Lighthouse Christmas, story by Toni Buzzeo, pictures by Nancy Carpenter
Trying to use my own weak words to describe this little gem of a cozy, heart-warming story is absolute slaughter. But I have to try, as the voice of these homey, family-oriented characters is spot-on to people we all know and love. From Frances and Peter's conversations, to the simple, home-spun computer illustrations. Just read the first page of text below, and you'll see what I mean:
After the passing of the children's mother the previous spring, their father takes a transfer from the mainland to be a lighthouse keeper on a small island off the coast of Maine. Peter, the youngest, wonders if Santa noticed their move? He longs for sugar cookies, singing, and presents.
But practical Frances, now stepping-up to fill her mother's homemaking shoes, worries the supply boat won't make it to their island before Christmas so the family can receive even the simplest of necessities such as sugar to flavor their bland oatmeal again--let alone ingredients for baking holiday cookies.
So when the children's aunt Martha radios to offer sending her dory to fetch them for Christmas Day on the mainland, the children's longing hearts must decide whether to leave their father home alone for Christmas (someone's got to keep the light burning to protect the ships at sea from crashing into rocky shores!), or fulfill their wishes of enjoying Christmas traditions with extended family.
But when a shipwreck off the coast requires an act of bravery and sacrifice from the Ledgelight family, Frances and Peter learn what the true meaning of Christmas really is. Without deflating the ending here too much, I'll just say there's a lovely surprise conclusion--based on actual events for many lighthouse-keeping families throughout the last century.
So in a nut shell, in the midst of hardship and kindness, two children learn what it means to give up one selfish desire for something even better--loving one's neighbor. And one good turn deserves another.
The author, Toni Buzzeo, gives a lovely nod to a big-hearted part of New England history--included in the author's notes at the end of the book. (Don't you love indulging in "author's notes" after your kids get up and walk away?) In my eyes, the "author's notes" were written for the grown-up readers, who'd care for a little bit more info re: the history of the hows and whys of the story.
This book is Just delicious, almost as good as Christmas butter cookies--sweet with sugar! :)
So if you're looking to add another feel-good Christmas book to your family's collection, Lighthouse Christmas is a singular choice--a reminder of how serving our fellow men is what makes Christmas so magical.
3) Christmas on Exeter Street, written by Diana Hendry, pictures by John Lawrence
After housing fifteen people under one roof for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago (only three of them being adults), I have an even keener love for this quirky and splendid story about making enough room in the inn, and revelling in the adventure that comes with it!
My husband was rather impressed with our nieces and nephews, "Those are some pleasant kids!" Pleasant, dish-washing guests do make for an enjoyable holiday, I must say. Thanks for the happy memories, guys!
And the guests at Mrs. Maggie Mistletoe's home in Christmas on Exeter Street are no exception to being good guests--if uninvited tailgate crashers, at that! Still, they're easy to please as you'll see below.
And for all of you fellow Anglophiles out there who love a good British book written with English phrasing and cultural tidbits, this book's a complete charmer...
From the first set of grandparents arriving (getting the finest "spare bedroom") to the next set of grandparents getting the second-best bedroom, you can guess what happens...As quintuplet aunts, an uncle fresh from Australia, neighbors with parents visiting Timbuktu, mere acquaintances, the minister's family, and even complete strangers (with a broken-down car) all show up...they all seek asylum under the roof of the cozy Mistletoe home on Christmas Eve.
According to that center illustration above (of Jane and Annie lying on the mattresses), it looks like it wasn't just my sisters and I, who would lay on our backs with our feet soles-to-soles playing the pedal-'madly-til-you-giggle-yourself-into-almost-having-an-accident game. The details of hominess in this book are too inviting!
Funny, as I've noted that the text in the older version of this book has been edited out. The older copies (on the above page) say something along the lines of, "Lily slept on the small sofa in the playroom, which had been bounced on so often it was very soft and saggy, kind of like Lily herself." The editors must have thought better on that one. Whew!!! Probably was the one who'd had a few babies, and knew what it's like to have one's body go from being fit and young, to drooping into soft and sagginess as the babies come, the years go by, and we don't have time to play tennis and freeze tag anymore. Ha!
But not even the kitchen sink was safe from being made into a safe haven that night on Exeter Street...
The zaniest turn of the book though, is when the five quintuplet aunts arrive from Abingdon, bringing with them a big turkey and their three Pekingese dogs.
Their bunking arrangements take the cake--or at least the plates off the shelves by which to eat any!
The highlight of this book, which kids love, is the full-spread layout of the lodging arrangements--showing all five stories of the Mistletoe home, and where each person is bunking down for the night:
And don't forget the Christmas Day feast, to which they all wore Lily's Christmas hats (except for Amos, who wore his blanket tied around his head because "he felt happiest that way"). Such a silly, sweet, wonderfully welcoming book. I hope you're kooky enough to adore it with me as it reminds us all to let the Christ child in, and make room in the inn for everyone!
4) Merry Christmas to You, Blue Kangaroo, written and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
This book is on the list because it's pure eye candy--it's as plain as that. I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for bright splashes of color. And all of Emma Chichester Clark's books have that luminosity. Besides, every child and adult (hard to remember as it may be...) can relate to having had one special toy that was everything to them for a spell. Blue Kangaroo is that stuffed toy for Lily. It's Blue Kangaroo's first year with his person, and Lily wants to show and share with him everything magical about Christmas.
So Lily introduces her special stuffed toy to his first advent chain countdown.
And Blue Kangaroo's first Christmas tree.
And when Aunts Florence and Jemima arrive with mince pies and gingerbread men...
...Lily shares with Blue Kangaroo all the joys of being with family and making special foods together to celebrate the holidays.
Do you not love the aunts' so-very-English hats? I forgot to mention that this book is just one in the entire fabulous series of Emma Chichester Clark's Blue Kangaroo books. Not to mention her scores of other British gems! Wouldn't it be loverly to have a Limey friend read this book in an authentic accent? I'll put Emma's official website, listing her scads of books, at the bottom of this review. (Lest you fall down the rabbit hole now, and never finish reading about Blue Kangaroo...)
Okay, those illustrations made me totally snacky--I just caved and went to sneak that last gingerbread cookie out of the jar. My kids will kill me! EEK! But, hey, they all got a gingerbread man packed into their bags for their snack time at school today, so all's fair in cookies and war. Moms are people too, you know. (And it was so spicy and satisfying!) Gingerbread is truly one of the perfect homemade treats on this earth. Besides, there's nothing better than having that very food on-hand which you're seeing pictured or advertised before you! Am I right? You know what I'm talking about. :)
Can't you feel the cold blast of air swirling in with the snowflakes--melting on the grandparents' coats as they greet Lily and her snuggly, warm little sleeper-clad brother here? These illustrations are perhaps the loveliest, homiest, most welcoming pictures in about any children's picture book I've ever seen. How does this illustrator create such moods? I would love to know. Great shadows and saturation, maybe?.
So as Blue Kangaroo is repeatedly overwhelmed with love from Lily, he longs to do something "just for Lily" in return. And since he's been such a good little stuffed marsupial all year, his wish is granted.
On Christmas Eve, a certain someone arrives with a great "thump"(!) in the night to help him find a suitable present for Lily ...
Isn't the above picture every child's dream-come-true? To see Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, just chilling in the kitchen--writing a little note over milk and cookies...so fun!
But not only does Blue Kangaroo give Lily a sweet little gift (with the help of Father Christmas), but unexpectedly finds one left in a tiny blue stocking for himself as well...
A very happy ending for a sweet little girl and her mild-mannered blue side kick. Just so you know, in the other Blue Kangaroo books, Lily's a bit more headstrong, and gets into the regular mischief that any other normal, healthy child would. So we relate with her even more when we know she's as mischievous as our own kids.
Here's Ms. Chichester Clark's website:
Enjoy the rest of her books!
5) A Christmas Like Helen's, written by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Mary Azarian
Every year, I think I'll thread popcorn and cranberries on a string to decorate the tree. We've only been so leisurely and romantic once--years ago. And had really sore thumbs afterward. But, it always looks fun, doesn't it?
To really get a taste of this book, you'll just have to read its prose, not my own nonsensical foolishness. Without further adieu:
Are you starting to hanker for an old-fashioned taffy pull by now? Mmmm-hmmm...
There's something binding in braiding a little girl's hair--a connection of action between one being made tidy, and another being grooming the other out of love. It's therapeutic.
Queue the Celtic music...
Okay, okay, okay...I live even farther north than Vermont(!), so I do not like that line above that says, "You'll have to not mind living in a place where winter lasts nearly eight months of the year." ARGH! I suppose it's true.
But November through February is the prettiest time of year for many of us in New England. Truly spectacular coats of ice on the trees and shrubs, and a Narnia like feel when walking in the woods. But, March through May--I could leave it! Mud city, my friends! Blech. One of these years we'll escape back to Utah for the spring to see the daffodils bloom under our old front window in late FEBRUARY!!!
But the rest of the year really is as enchanting in the northeast as this book purports. Just NOT during the spring, which is why this book is not titled, "A Spring Like Helens." Because Vermont and any place further north like Maine have no spring. Only winter until mid-May, a week of strange, sudden transition, and then summer in June. So weird. But so worth it.
The lines above are a bit eye-opening for any of us who don't grow all of our own food, right? I mean, most people have probably had experience gardening a few crops of some vegetable in their lives. But how many of us, in the middle of January, think about who raised the crop of apples sitting in our refrigerator--six months ago?! Kind of some cool thoughts going on in that text to make kids ponder on where things come from, and who does all the work to make it happen...
Here are my favorite hay bales from around the corner and down the road a mile, just across the street from my friend, Christa's place. Some time this winter, I'll paint these happy bales (I can hear Bob Ross saying that..) in oils. I can hardly wait...
What a neighborly sentiment to teach young kids reading this book. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" will never go out of fashion.
Notice (in the illustration above) that as the youngest, Helen isn't even wearing skates--she's just being pulled by the older kids who do. So accurate in the order of taking the turn being the littlest. Reminds me of when my sister and I (being the two youngest of five) inherited the smallest two pairs of metal roller skates from our older siblings, so we could join them in skating around our basement in upstate New York when I was five, and she was six. The skates consisted of metal toes and metal heals that could slide up and down a metal sole bar (attached to metal wheels) to accomadate one's foot size. We secured the (ancient-seeming) skates around our feet with strips of cloth. Brilliant! And then we had such a blast--going rickety-gliding over the concrete floors playing cops and robbers! Shwoopee! Crash! Oh, the days...
When I was fourteen I was a gangly, late-blooming wanna-be ballerina. I auditioned for the Nutcracker (which the Utah Valley Regional Ballet Company would put on every year). I made it into the performance as..."a parent." I'd started taking lessons so much later than the younger girls in my classes, and was so tall compared to my peers (who were being cast as Russian dancers, soldiers, or sugar plum fairies), that the only role the directors could use me in, was as a parent at the Christmas party where Clara gets her nutcracker. It was a little awkward, as most of the other parents, were, well...real parents. Yes, it was a funny situation...but I was thrilled to take part in my first ballet!
Anyway, to make a long story short, those were stressful weeks, being in an onstage performance at a university theater, and having lots of new systems and routines to learn quickly. The slip of my ball gown even caught on the heal of my "stage partner's" character shoe during one matinee and was pulled down to my ankles. Exciting times! Maybe it helped the audience to enjoy the show that afternoon?
But by the last night of performances, I began to feel weak and achy. A gripping cough seized my chest, and I couldn't draw full breaths. I remember slumping down against the wall in the wings of the stage, and people walking about in tights and tutus at my eye level. Then at the end of the last round of applause, my parents were standing before me. And my dad scooped me up, and carried me out of the building, and through the parking lot of the Harris Fine Arts Center at Brigham Young University. After weeks of early hours, long days, stress, and exhaustion, we were going home. Bless-ed home! And even more blessed were my mom, dad, and family!
The ordeal was done. I'd made it into a ballet--and successfully wiped myself out. As I lay listless in my dad's arms outside that fine arts center, huge snowflakes (the size of silver dollars and goose down) drifted slowly out of the pearly sky. I've never seen such a serene snowfall. And I'd never loved my dad so much before for helping me--carrying (and caring for) me, as when I felt so miserably ill.
My sweet mama took me to the doctor the next day, and I came home with a diagnosis of bacterial bronchitis--the nastiest sickness I've ever felt. But I'll tell you what...that Christmas is my most memorable one. My family laid out a cot next to the Christmas tree, so I could enjoy the glowing lights, and experience the season even if I couldn't sit up much or do anything for the next few weeks. I loved my parents more than ever that year. I don't remember a single present, but I do remember my mom reading to me, propping me up to watch a movie with everybody, and feeding me. Family is what it's all about.
So since my oldest two girls have begged/promised their way into getting a doghouse-converted-chicken-coop full of hens, I now understand an inkling more about the realities of the unglamorous life of living on a farm. This book makes farming as a family seem pretty swell, indeed. And I'm sure there are many pluses to such a wholesome lifestyle. But there are probably many drawbacks as well. Cleaning out the chicken coop, being one.
What I love about this book is not so much the lifestyle or place it describes, but the light the story sheds on the joys of family life. The memories made with siblings and parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. This is the stuff joy is made of. Sledding, going to church together, playing baseball with brothers in an open field at night, telling stories around the dinner table, raising animals together, helping out the neighbors as a family.
Read this book with someone you love this Christmas, and bask in that warmth of that familial strength.
6) The Night Before Christmas, written by Holly Hobbie, poem by Clement C. Moore
This version of The Night Before Christmas is perhaps the most lovely illumination of Clement C. Moore's poem I’ve ever seen. Artistically, it is a wonder of design and craftsmanship.
Are any of you as ancient as I am? Do you remember the Holly Hobbie paraphernalia that was so popular in the 70s? Those Holly Hobbie dolls were all created by this very same Holly Hobbie, the author and illustrator of the Toot and Puddle books. We're talking, this woman knows how to make and remake her style again, and again, and again. I am impressed. If you haven’t seen this redo of The Night Before Christmas, though, you are in for a treat! I can hardly wait for you to check out a copy of this book, pull a little person into your lap, and revel in its peace!
So this is a little spooky. The house above could be my neighbor's around the corner--but without a snowman, and painted green instead of grey. Typical old Main-uh home, eh.
Such a sense of place. You can almost feel the sandy blast of ice crystals blowing against your face here, with that beautifully-painted gust.
I love the old creaky-looking floorboards!
How does Holly Hobbie do it? Really, it kills me how stunning these paintings are!
You're wanting to scratch that warm, lazy cat's belly, right? (Unless you've got allergies like me...Ugh!) But aren't those ilustrations a treasure? Almost as much of a delight as...
...or decorating for Christmas, or going out to walk in the first snow of the season, or watching your husband or child open a gift you know they'll really like.
So, if you're looking for a timeless book to celebrate Christmas for adults, or kids, I think this instant classic by Holly Hobbie pleases both crowds.
Now, since it's Christmas, I'm throwing in one last extra recommendation. I just couldn't narrow the tremendous list of fantastic picture books down to six. So, pretend the Half-dozen Mama is the Septuamom, for this month, as here is a seventh book title:
#7--a Bonus Book, since it's Christmas and all): Stickman, written by Julia Donaldson, and illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Do you know this book? It's strangeness is equal only to its charm. My kids and I LOVE it! In fact, if we didn't keep it up on the top shelf with the Christmas books for 11/12th of the year, we'd be reading it once a month. Which we did, after we were first acquainted with Stick Man.
Who wouldn't "root" for this spindly guy from the get go? (Carrying his tiny twig son on his shoulder like that!)
The story of Stick Man is as basic as they come. A hero is separated from his family and wants to find his way home. A tale as old as "The Odyssey." And the Christmas twist at the end is that Stick Man helps Santa Claus out from a very tight spot, so you can guess how Santa thanks him...
And the rest (this isn't The Little Match Girl--I never did quite understand that tragic tale...), is before you below...Kids will be glad to read the satisfying ending. Don't look at the last page below if you hate spoilers, even in picture books. :)
Yeah, you knew what would happen all along, but it's still good to see it spelled out plainly with a fun illustration by Axel Scheffler.
Congratulations! You just slogged your way through the longest book review of your life! Ha ha! Oh, boy...(*head shake...*) But I hope the titles listed above did give you at least one or two ideas for gift-giving to those you hold dear in your life.
And since you're a marathon reader and made it ALL THE WAY down this far (bless you, patient soul!), PLEASE, tell me what your favorite children's picture books to read at Christmas time are in the comments below, or share your most cherished holiday memory or tradition. We would all love to get some more great recommendations for new books--and ideas of how to bring our families closer this season.
Merry Christmas and much love to you and yours!
1) Remy and Lulu, written by Kevin Hawkes,
and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes and
Hannah E. Harrison
First off, you may want to pick up two copies of this book, as each spread could be cut out and framed as a masterpiece of light and color. So keep one copy for reading, and one for dissecting and hanging on your wall. (But of course, I've never committed such blasphemy to a children's picture book before--who would do such a thing to The Seven Silly Eaters, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, or Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse? Never me...ahem...*throat-clearing...*)
But really, my heart just sings at the harmonious play between sunshine and shadow in these illustrations. The haziness that Kevin Hawkes achieves in depicting the soft hues of depth of field in the French countryside is absolute eye candy. Just lovely. And we haven't even gotten to the story yet!
For a synopsis of the book by the publisher, click on the following link:
A fresh tale about one being loyal and true to the art that you create--without comparing oneself to others, or letting self-doubt creep in.
Maybe I love this book so much because it hits home. In my own personal art career, three different galleries politely declined my work over the last few months. Ouch! I felt the keen rejection after being snubbed. They wanted an edgy modern Jackson Pollock. Whom I am not. Until on the fourth go, this past Monday, a gallery owner said, "Yes! I love this! We'll put you in our holiday show!" Upon hearing these words, I started to weep, and had to turn away to catch my breath and wipe my eyes before this kind gallery director she could see me getting emotional.
And the words of my college professors came back to me for the billionth time: "You just have to find the right person who loves your art. For every one hundred mailers of your work that you send out, you'll only get about one or two contracts. Don't give up. Keep working, keep showing your stuff."
Anyone who's ever undergone a creative endeavor then, will appreciate Remy and Lulu's delightful story of exuberance in capturing a subject's essence, trying to please an audience, dipping into creative stupor, and the redemption that comes after finally sticking with it through the downs to make it to the ups while trying to create something original and meaningful to share.
As Steve Pressfield says, "There’s an axiom among artists and entrepreneurs: to succeed, you have to be arrogant or ignorant or both. What that means is you have to blow off every response that says it’ll-never-work. Be arrogant. The nay-sayers are idiots. Or ignorant. Stay stupid and plunge ahead."
So, for a clear vision of inspiration to plunge ahead and "capture a person's essence," check out a copy of Remy and Lulu, and go create, as Remy does, "from the heart."
2) Katie Meets the Impressionists, written and illustrated by James Mayhew
If spending an afternoon in a world-class art museum is your idea of heaven, then this book is for you. But if just the idea of spending an afternoon in a famous art museum makes your better half's flat-arched feet start to ache and throb, then you're both still in luck--this book is still also for you.
Because you don't have to walk three hours to exhaustion in a hushed setting to share the classics of London, Paris, or D.C. with little children or a wiped-out spouse anymore. Just open up a book from the Katie series, pull out the snacks (that you can't munch down in a no-food-policy museum), let the kids comment all they want in voz alto, and travel the world over with unhindered an Katie for some frolicking adventures through art history!
While reading our library's copy of Katie Meets the Impressionists in bed tonight to my youngest, she asked if we "could get these books?" I think we could arrange that--making one Christmas gift decision a whole lot easier.
WARNING: Katie is a bit of a stinker in Katie's Picture Show, the first book in the series. She does the unthinkable and reaches out to touch a John Constable painting (and who wouldn't want to, right?), and then falls into it, rather Alice-in-the-looking-glass style. So you may want to discuss how a wild alarm will go off on your next visit to The Musee D'orsay if your child decides to mimic Katie by climbing into a van Gogh painting. I never knew an angel child who didn't have a mischievous streak!
P.S. Check out all of James Mayhew's Katie series on Goodreads at:
3) The Museum, written by Susan Verde, and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
This book makes this art lover smile. Peter Reynolds's illustrations, in general, evoke the uncomplicated emotions of childhood in a simple, true style. Fun.
Read the full review on Goodreads:
4) The Journey, written by Sarah Stewart, and illustrated by David Small
Just one of the many golden winners by this husband and wife team of Stewart and Small! If you're a fan of their book, The Gardener, I hope you won't be disappointed to find that I won't refrain from reviewing that book later on in the year--even if everyone already knows it; I just never tire of reading it! And The Journey has that same poignant, salt-of-the-earth sensibility.
This story tells of one child's longing to see the world outside of the gentle Amish bubble she knows and loves. As her family gives her the gift of traveling to the big city of Chicago to discover the outside world, we see her gape at the new, and make tender connections with the elements she holds so dear back home.
For a concisely nice synopsis of the book, check out this site for David Small:
And to read a delightful interview about the writing and illustrating dynamic/life between Sarah Stewart and David Small, you can tumble down this rabbit hole (don't forget to come baaaaaaaack!):
5) Drawn Together, written by Minh Le, and illustrated by Dan Santat
Might as well just say it right up front. Dan Santat's a genius. And after this story, now we all know that Minh Le isn't too shabby of a writing conjuror either.
As my eldest kids grow closer to young adulthood, and begin to think I am more and more old-fashioned (After I made some fuddy-duddy comment this afternoon, one of them said, "That makes you sound so old!"). "Whew! Aren't I glad!" I certainly don't want to go the other direction!), this book becomes more meaningful to me.
The divide between generations sometimes feels like a chasm, but this relatable book reminds us that a simple connection of common interests between generations can cinch that void together--if only for a few moments here and there, to forge bonds of love and understanding that last forever.
The Goodreads review can't be beat: "When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens-with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words."
So, if you haven't seen this book yet, and know a grandparent or grandchild who would love to be closer to their gapped generation counterpart, this gem might spark a few ideas. Don't you think? I know what we'll find under the Christmas tree this year at the Reynolds's house...Dan Santat and Minh Le, crouching there, with big shiny bows on top of their heads! Or...at least one or two of their works.
And finally...our chapter book:
6) Under the Egg, written by
Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Reading aloud to six kids makes a mom pretty discriminating when it comes to chapter books. But there are only so many times a gal can read the Little House on the Prairie series when the teenagers are wanting a little more excitement. A book has to be interesting enough to capture all ages, but wholesome enough to not mention profanities for the little ears listening most intently.
My bookworm buddy, Melanie, (who I swear will someday be a Recorded Books narrator on Audible), recommended this title to us after loving it with her kids. We were not expecting though what a thoroughly engaging, intriguing, and funny jaunt this book would be. It reminds me of a mixture of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (but--I hate to say for Mrs. Konigsburg--much better!), "The Parent Trap" movies (two opposite young girls come together and resolve differences for friendship), "The Monuments Men" movie, and Chasing Vermeer (I hate to say it again, but so much more credible than Blue Balliet's fun, but quite unbelievable, art-related tales).
I'm actually jealous of any of you who have this unopened book yet before you to read. I still remember exactly what the weather was like one day when my older kids and I gathered around our table in the breakfast nook one day after school. They were all asking, "Where's Under the Egg, Mommy? And can we make some hot cocoa while we listen?" Mother/child bliss, I tell you!
If you'd like to research the book a bit--to gauge a sensitivity-meter for your family--the paragraph directly below, entitled, "What Parents Need to Know" from Common Sense Media will tell you specific details about the book. Common Sense Media gives parents reviews on various levels of appropriateness such as: Educational Value, Positive Messages, Positve Role Models and Representations, Violence and Scariness, Language, Sex, Drugs, Drinking, Smoking, and even Consumerism. Cool. And so helpful. They also guage what age books are geared toward...but this you'll have to judge for yourself. See what you think. I'm guessing if you're reading this book blog, you probably already use this resource, right?
WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW (from commonsensemedia) about Under the Egg. [It's an] "engaging, fun mystery with an admirable heroine and very little to be concerned about. The story starts out with a tragic death of a family member in a scene that includes a very brief description of blood; historical atrocities such as gas chambers and slave labor are mentioned but not described. Highly educational, the book also shows the benefits and rewards of heroine Theo's "unplugged" lifestyle as she makes the most of a shoestring budget and solves complex problems with careful, critical thinking."
Again, read the reviews on Commonsensemedia, as there were a few instances when I glossed over a sentence or two about a reference to the artist Raphael's mistress, and the word "stupid" was used two or three times, as well as one usage of the word "boob." Various parts of history of WWII are mentioned, such as the Holocaust and gas chambers. But none of these, to me, felt offensive or explicit.
Here's what Kate DiCamillo said of the book, "When a book is good, I stop being a writer and I'm just a reader, which is what I did here. You just fall into it as a reader. But the writer in me did go and check a couple times to see, 'Is this really the first thing that [Fitzgerald]'s written?' Because it's so accomplished and it's packed with stuff...It's really a very compelling read and I don't know how she did it."
So go soak up every minute of Under the Egg, if you're so inclined--you lucky ducks! Jealous! When you're done reading it, come back to bask in Laura Marx Fitzgerald's website:
Happy November reading, everyone! So thankful for good books and fellow reading buddies!
Dear John Adams,
Though you are long gone from this country which you and Abigail so passionately helped to found over two centuries ago, I hope you know you sparked a “pursuit of happiness” in many hearts and minds over the decades.
An author from my current day, and your old tie, Mother England, by the name of Neil Gaiman once said about creativity, “The world always seems brighter when you've just made something that wasn't there before.” I wholeheartedly agree. It's what motivates people to quilt, sew, bake, garden, draw, paint, build, compute, write, act, sing, and follow any creative endeavor.
When life gets too grim with its realities of washing dishes, burning off warts, working long hours to pay the bills, fixing flat tires, and facing the commute each day ("hardships" that would, perhaps, make you scoff, Mr. Adams)--we of modern America can set our phones down, and carve out thirty minutes a day to create. And freedom, with hope, returns...
Whenever self-doubt about my own creative gifts settles in, I think on you, John, and something you once wrote regarding your own purpose in life:
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons [and daughters] may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Wowza! Right? (Did they have that expression back in 1776? Guessing not.) But if your words hold true, Mr. Adams, two hundred years later, this must mean that because I studied illustration and fine art in school, my gritty forebearers fulfilled their duties to establish a stable (okay...maybe semi-stable at present) God-fearing government!
The sacrifices of so many, after the example of yours, set a new nation in motion. And because so many of you initially studied legislation, administration, and negotiation, farmers (like my grandparents on both sides) settled the land and raised crops to build an infrastructure, that raised up children (like my parents) who studied mathematics, philosophy, geography, natural history, commerce and agriculture. So that students like me (two decades ago), could choose to study children's picture book-making, as a regular offering in the course curriculum.
Not gonna lie, I feel a little spoiled—reaping what you've sewn, Mr. President. And humbled. And grateful. So thank you, for sacrificing your down-time, so I could practice writing and drawing picture books for a future generation of children someday. In the meantime, I'll keep painting and trying to capture a cross-section of this generation of "creators."
And perhaps someday I'll write and illustrate something that will inspire my grandchildren to want to improve the world, by sacrificing their leisure time to study "legislation, administration, and negotiation,” (and yes...maybe even porcelain), to keep the cycle of freedom going.
P.S. Mr. Adams, if you are permitted up there, now and again, to look down and read the writings of this lucky generation, please know that regarding your words, “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it,” you're right...I don't think we will ever know how much it cost for you founding fathers to preserve our freedom, but I do hope, in my own tiny way, to make the most of it with my own God-given duties. And just so you know, I'm jealous of the rolling wooden ladders in your Stone Library.
1) Pumpkin Cat, written by Anne Turner,
and illustrated by Amy June Bates
If you don't love Halloween hoopla, this little bastion of soft, comforting hygge can’t help but leave you liking the fall season itself. The characters in Pumpkin Cat remind a reader of what's really important in life—helping others, and establishing a warm, welcoming home for those we can serve.
2) The Runaway Pumpkin, by Kevin Lewis
and illustrated by S.D. Schindler
This iconic lap-slapping, rhythmic classic, must be a favorite for thousands. But this review is for "the one" of you who has not yet discovered it. From the thumpity-bumpity prose, to the funny and clever illustrations, this story is sheer childhood magic.
When Buck and Billy Baxter and their baby sister, Lil, find, and pluck, a gigantic pumpkin from its stem (at the top of a hillside above their grandparents' farm), all chaos breaks loose. The resolution is cozy and homey, and full of satisfied family goodness. Like hot pumpkin soup in a warm bowl, you could spoon it up and almost slurp it down. (Check out other fantastic books illustrated by S.D. Schindler: Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails, Louder Lili, and The Story of Salt.)
3) A Job for Wittilda,
by Caralyn and Mark Buehner
If you have a nasaly, but likable, witch voice (cackle's included!), you can pull out all the stops with this one. Husband and wife team, Mark and Caralyn Buehner, sure did with their comical story and delightful illustrations. Wittilda's big-heart draws children in to make them root for her character to find and keep a job. After all, who else would support her household of forty-seven cats?! EEK! Retro in sense of time and place, this tale feels as if it's lit from within by a glowing lava-lamp.
P.S. As with all Buehner books, Wittilda is packed with hide-and-seek pictures to keep little people searching while listening, and adults chuckling at the engaging play between what going on in the illustrations vs. what's spelled out in the story.
P.P.S. Be sure to seek out characters from the Buehners’ other books while reading, such as "Marvin the Ape." And, ask your child to see if he/she can spot the author's self-portrait Easter egg in the crowd at Dingaling Pizza. (Hint: he’s ear to ear with the snowman.) Enjoy!
4) Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson,
and illustrated by Axel Scheffler
This dynamic duo from England and Germany must be the cleverest creative pair yet from over the pond. Have you seen all their collaborations? If not, Google their titles and have fun checking out one each visit from the library over the next several months.
*Spoiler alert!* This joyful story lets gentle readers see for themselves that, “what we reap, we sow.” The tender witch is so gentle and open to welcoming lost and lonely souls, that the ending of the story is truly a satisfying thrill for children.
After reading the story, you won’t be disappointed to find that the short film adaptation (on Amazon Prime this October) is every bit as loving, big-hearted, and funny as the book.
Here's a fun link that introduces more Julia Donaldson titles (and these aren't even her best--I'll review those over the months to come...): https://www.kidsstoppress.com/article-individual/6-books-of-julia-donaldson-every-child-must-read/15023?fbclid=IwAR0CSKppKa_xHnbnl7_SLmsuPdnk8mcCvhZBhtD813WJ1R1sKl4BREPH_Kw
5) A Witch Got on at Paddington Station,
by Dylan Sheldon and Wendy Smith
Another witch book? Yep. And another UK-created title--at that! This little treasure was a serendipitous find for me at a thrift shop last year. Bingo! I absolutely love it! I begged my kids to let me read it aloud three or four times the first week we brought it home. A sweet but slightly clueless protagonist shares a (Mary Poppins'-style) surprise, on accident, with grumpy and complacent passengers on the city bus. And they're all the better for it--reminding us of the magic that lies in wait around every corner of this life—even while using the public transportation system--if we root for the underdog and have patience with others' quirks.
*Alert, alert!*: This nugget is super fun to read-aloud in a cockney accent if you happen to be an Anglophile. "Cheerio, and spit spot, Jane and Michael. Let's tidy-up, then!"
6) Pat of Silverbush, by L.M. Montgomery
What could be more delicious than to read some L.M. Montgomery in autumn?
The sense of home in the Pat of Silverbush, and Mistress Pat books is so vivid, one almost feels guilty for such raptures in the simple goodness of life as we know it. What a blessing is each day!
Here's a favorite review from a dear friend on Goodreads (thanks, Jo! Hope you don't mind I'm plunking down your words here...):
"I loved this sequel to Pat of Silver Bush. I think I even probably like the two Pat books better than the Anne of Green Gables books - I just adore the picture of contented domesticity at Silver Bush they paint, with the marvelous descriptions of evenings sat together round the table, eating and telling stories. It just makes me feel all warm and cozy inside, and I love those sorts of books. In the second half of this book, the domesticity rather recedes, and it becomes the gentle romance I was hoping for at the end of Pat of Silver Bush - the ultimate resolution of the plot is exactly what I expected, but there were several points during the book when I couldn't quite see how it was all going to work out correctly. When it finally did, in the last four pages or so, I found that it was so joyful I had to go to bed for a bit of a weep. An utterly lovely book. I'm just sorry that it's a library book and I'll have to take it back rather than keeping it on the bookshelves."
If you ever find yourself in Prince Edward Island, stop at the Anne of Green Gables Museum--across from the Lake of Shining Waters--the actual Silver Bush Farm, of which L.M. said, "I love this old spot better than any place on earth."
As Anne Shirley once said, “I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” So bring on the cooler nights, pile on an extra blanket or two, fill up a mug with hot cocoa, and check out a copy of Pat of Silverbush!
Happy golden minutes of reading, my bookworm buddies!
So I do recall a time when the morning after trick-or-treating, I’d awaken and think to myself, “Only 364 more days of waiting again.” And now, the morning after Halloween I find myself thinking, “Whew! We made it through another one—but only 364 days of peace left again…until that wretched pagan holiday supplants all structure!”
I don’t mind the month leading up to Halloween. Really, it’s actually quite pleasant, what with fall-themed decorations, the making of carrot muffins and butternut squash soups, and ideas going back and forth between children about what costume each child would like to wear or put together. And I do love carving a good Jack-o’-lantern with my kids. I really do enjoy these parts of October.
But what I don’t enjoy, are the candy bombs that upset all routine and normalcy in our home each year. I shiver at the cranky meltdowns that ensue every autumn when we have to wrench a sticky Dum-dum out of a child’s fist at 7:30 p.m.—when that very child should be putting a tooth brush into her mouth--and on a school night, for several weeks of school nights in a row!
There just seems to be no end to the demon candy once it's gotten. The stuff appears out of the woodwork. "Oh, little brother, you've eaten all of your candy? No problem, take some handfuls of mine." (Nooooo! Wait! I mean, really, we're glad that you're sharing, child, but we were hoping at least one of you would be through with your candy reserves--by St. Patrick's Day.)
Somehow each year I think to myself, “This year, we’re going to get things under control for Halloween.” This year, we’ll stay home and bake donuts and make popcorn and watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! But this is a (pumpkin) pie crust fantasy—that only a day-dreaming mother (or so my husband keeps telling me) of great naiveté would have. I'm clueless, but hopeful.
But none of my children would prefer this fairy dream of mine. In fact, my kids let me know quite regularly of the horror stories regarding the occasional friend whose parent is wise enough to rule out trick-or-treating in their home. You sage, courageous parent—wherever you are—blessings on your head. I'd like to shake your hand. And take a page out of your book. But my kids would never forgive me. Which is worse...a cavity or two, or a lifetime of one's children telling one's grandchildren how deprived they were as kids? They'll already be sharing horror stories enough about their chore-doing and myriad other issues. I'll let them have the trick-or-treating.
But in the meantime, the actual holiday is coming, and I haven't settled on at any really enticing alternatives to offer my littlest two, who get effected by the sugar the most. They at least might be persuaded into staying cozily at home! Otherwise, they'll end up a cranky, grouchy, Jolly Rancher-crunching-all-day-long mess for the few weeks following the 31st. Until my husband and I realize we've dealt with enough children refusing to do chores because of sugar crashes, and we begin confiscating candy at an exponential rate--pushing the loot deep down into the recesses of the closest garbage can.
Though it's not the most graceful parenting strategy--using candy as leverage for kids who feel sudden entitlement from the newly-gained control over eating hardcore sugar at will--it has worked, I'm embarrassed to say that I have and still do threaten things like, "Not a single piece of candy until you've practiced that piano." I know, I know--psychologists always say, "Don't use food or sugar as rewards!" But did those same psychologists deal with several children needing to fold laundry, clean toilets, load the dishwasher, and play outside, and feed chickens? On top of doing any homework? I don't think so. Those PhDs sat in clinical offices all day, while their maids scrubbed their floors back at the ranch.
When you are the maid, you need help! If a body makes a mess, and many little bodies certainly do, they have to learn to clean up after themselves. A trick-or-treating bag full of Milk Duds and Kit Kats make kids run circle around the house for ten minutes, then collapse on the couch, grumpy and only wanting one thing--more candy! (They're not wanting to pick up the trail of shoes, jump ropes and stuffed animals they'd just strewn in their wake. Oh, the sugar lows!
Don’t get me wrong, though, my family and I eat our fair share of slightly-sweetened cereals (the word “slightly” makes a parent feel not so guilty, right?), ice cream, and desserts after dinner usually twice a week—plus birthdays and holidays, or when having guests over. But kids with pillowcases full of candy at their disposal for free-reign consumption at any given time of the day? The thought makes me shudder. I'm feeling my eye start to twitch.
As a new mom, I loved Halloween! I bought Halloween candy the first week of October. And then bought more the week before the 31st, because I'd consumed half of it already. I dressed up my kids with glee and took them all over the neighborhood. I have to admit, trick-or-treating really gave us an excuse to connect with neighbors and see them in their homes, and feel...well, neighborly. But as an old, worn-out mom, I sneakily try to get away without buying any candy--until one of the kids reminds me on Halloween Day. So a bag of Smarties can fit the bill now, 'cause I know I won't touch them.
In fact, scooping up handfuls of Double Bubble penny candy and tossing them into the garbage after Halloween gives my endorphins a pleasurable zing! Even throwing full-size candy bars (highest on the scale of candy value) into the trash--with impunity--fires thrilling sensations of peace and freedom in my soul. Makes me want to skip around outside, humming in the cool autumn air.
What’s more, how did this strangely morbid, gratuitously-dark pagan holiday (which celebrates motion sensors setting off gyrating skeletons on people’s doorsteps to startle innocent mail carriers) survive through the ages? It’s the candy, I tell you, the sugar addiction. Free refined glucose for the begging! But as we all know, nothing is free. There’s always a price. It’s just usually the parents who have to pay it, in this case--over the next few weeks of November!
It’s great to dress up and eat treats with friends. I love decorating with happy pumpkins and cute black cat decor. It’s just I don’t like the idea of buying back candy from one’s children, or watching a society spend $2.6 billion on candy a year to see it pile up in the landfill, or rot our children’s teeth for weeks on end as they plow through their reserves. (All when we work so hard to help and remind them to brush their teeth carefully every other day of the year!) We are so funny as a society, aren't we?
And really, when millions of people are suffering from hunger and disease all over the world, maybe we should be giving our kids Unicef boxes again instead. Or at least passing out leaves of kale at the door. :)
In the end…I did love trick-or-treating myself, as a kid. I looked forward to it all year long. But there was never a more cleverly-enticing alternative offered. (Unsanitarily bobbing for apples? Hey, siblings share germs anyway, right?) Any ideas? Post them below…Please! I'd love to hear your better suggestions...
Here’s mine: I’m going to ask my youngest two if they’ll have a mini read-a-thon with me after we roll out pumpkin cardamom donuts together on the 31st. (And watch other people go trick-or-treating in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.) As for my other older kids…they’ll probably still go trick-or-treating with friends. Which is great! I don't want to squelch all their youthful enjoyment. Other things like pop-quizzes and hours of homework do that well enough. But perhaps I can convince them to just hit ten houses each, then watch Charlie Brown afterward. Ha ha! Nice try, stodgy Mom! Probably not happening! But a motherly, vegetable-loving heart can try…
In any case, come back to my blog this Friday for six sweeter (rather than scarier) holiday gems—highlighting not so much this-weird-Halloween-culture-we’ve-constructed-as-a-society, but perhaps more of the ordinary kindnesses that make life sweet (with a Halloween twist). See you around then, on Friday October 4th with a great picture book list!
And, I suppose, I'll have to say it, Happy Halloween!
Because, the state’s motto is, after all: “Maine, the way life should be.” (“Except from muddy March to bare, brown May,” said every Mainer ever! Wink, wink!)
1) If I Built a School, by Chris Van Dusen
The third clever installment in the If I Built a House /If I Built a Car series. As buying a book early in its first printing always casts a vote to a publisher that readers want more of that particular author or illustrator’s work, right now is an excellent time to request this book from your local librarian. This book is hot off the presses, as of August 13, 2019.
I love to think that just requesting a book from the library could support Maine-based author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen into coming up with even more wildly-imaginative tales. Who knows, if you write him enough fan mail, he might just listen to an idea inspired by you, (like he did with the myriad school children who kept at him until he wrote a book about a school! What a good man.) What would your dream design be? For a boat? A grocery store? A treehouse? Perhaps a cutting-edge retro art studio. Ahhhh! That’s the ticket.
2) The Wicked, Big Toddlah, by Kevin Hawkes
As long as I’ve been taking kids to the library, I’ve been a huge fan of Kevin Hawkes’s books. We used to pore over Weslandia and Library Lion again and again, and I’d think to myself, “There’s something different and luminous about these pictures. I wonder what makes this illustrator tick?
Imagine my surprise then, when we moved to Maine and discovered that Kevin Hawkes, his wife Karen, and their fabulous kids, are a part of our community! And just happen to be the nicest people on the planet. I soon found out exactly what makes Kevin tick—a good dose of humor, humility, family, and fun.
Wicked, Big Toddlah's tongue-in-cheek take on Maine culture is “larger-than-life,” and almost as much so as baby Toddie, If you’ve never known a true Mainer, you’ll get a taste of just how unique and hearty they are with the delightful dialogue in this book: “Hi, how aah ya?” and “That’s a wicked big toddlah ya got theyah, Jessie!” Kevin Hawkes’s vibrant illustrations jump off the page with exuberance at the sweet sacrifices made by all, when a new (BIG!) “little” person joins the family. Look for more of Kevin’s luminescent books to be highlighted here soon…
3) Miss Renee’ s Mice, by Elizabeth Stokes Hoffman, Illustrated by Dawn Peterson
*Spoilers ahead!* If anyone (young or old) has ever wanted to decorate a dollhouse, or loved and played with one, this is your miniature cup of tea. Like a modern nod to Beatrix Potter’s tale of Two Bad Mice, this delightful story takes Miss Renee, a builder of fine dollhouses on the coast of Maine, full circle as her tiny new tenants annoy her to distraction with their careless ways. But after Miss Renee has had enough of their messy partying, she builds a tiny ship and sends the riotous rodents packing on a voyage around the world.
After she boots them out though, Miss Renee regrets her hastiness as she realizes she really didn’t mind their company after all. And the mice (rightly so!) learn some courtesy and thoughtfulness on their journey—returning home to their provider a year later to present Miss Renee with fine foreign gifts from all over the globe. Very sweet.
4) Time of Wonder, by Robert McCloskey
When I think of Robert McCloskey’s soft color palette that so exactly captures the essence of the Maine coast, and the feelings imbued in the reader when one sees his simple scenes of childhood exploration in nature...the word petrichor comes to mind:
Petrichor: the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. The word is constructed from Greek petra, meaning "stone", and īchōr, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.
My youngest and I came upon a copy of this classic recently while staying in my sister and brother-in-law’s cottage on the coast. We curled up on the sofa with Time of Wonder in our hands as the static of clouds built up around us outside. As we read such true-from-life-prose, written in second person, it was as if Mr. McCloskey was spilling out a description of what we were experiencing on a small-town peninsula that week. Such quiet inner observations that one often thinks, but doesn't usually articulate, are uncanny to hear aloud:
"It is time to reset the clock from the rise and fall of the tide, to the come and go of the school bus. Pack your bag and put in a few treasures…A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder – for wondering, for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?"
5) Hello, Lighthouse, by Sophie Blackall
If you haven’t read this book yet, put down that sandwich you’re munching, and go out and buy a copy, you Silly Goose! Without even flipping through it! Trust me, Hello, Lighthouse is that timeless.
Last year my husband and I gave this book to every family member on our Christmas list. ("Even to those without kids at home?" you might ask. Especially to those with no kids at home--they've seen the full circle of life and appreciate it the most!). But adults and children alike can relate to the turning of the tides and seasons in this masterfully-written and touchingly-illustrated marvel of Chinese ink and watercolor.
I especially thrill at the illustrated spread of the lighthouse keeper and his wife after the birth of their child. It gives me chills of joy to see such classic details, as the color wheel quilt pulled up to the chin of the new mother's damp head (certainly to stop the shakes of childbirth), and the lighthouse keeper holding his new babe in one arm, and writing the hour, minute, and day of his child's birth into the lighthouse keeper's log with the other. The gentle illustrations here are reminiscent of Garth Williams's style in Farmer Boy and Charlotte's Web. Just lovely.
Ms. Blackall credits her inspiration for this instant classic as Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. For those of you who know that treasure well, Hello, Lighthouse will give you those same poignant swells of longing, waves of joy, achings of change, rushes of reunion, and envelopes of peace. If you haven't done so yet, I can’t wait for you to read this one!
6) The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Spear
What can I say about this tried-and-true oldie, but greatie? Other than it reminds the reader what strength we each can muster within ourselves when we don’t relinquish hope in the midst of being tested to our limits. The kids and I read this one aloud last fall and they were asking for it as soon as they’d walk in the door from getting off the bus each day. It takes a minute to get into, but, of course, being Elizabeth George Speare, is a well-crafted tale of courage, adventure, stick-to-it-ive-ness, family, friendship, acclimating to cultural differences, forgiveness and loyalty. As the new cover depicts so appropriately, this story is golden! Ripe for a new generation!
There they are! Six favorite children's book recommendations to start off the school year with some cozy moments of reading aloud with those whom you love. Please leave your top six book recommendations in the comments (if I've enabled that feature correctly. Oh, boy! My no-tech skills!
And if you're crazy enough, and kind enough, to have read down this far, here's a little closing quote from Esme Raji Codell that seems to be what I'm experiencing with this cock-eyed website so far:
“Sometimes I think, Why invent projects? What is the point? How will I ever accomplish what I set out to do, what I imagine? Then I think of the past, even before I was born, the great small feats people accomplished.
Those people had to work to accomplish those things, they thought of details, they followed through. Even if I come off as naive and zealous, even if I get on everyone's nerves, I have to follow these examples. Even if I fail, I have to try and try and try. It may be exhausting, but that is beside the point. The goal is not necessarily to succeed but to keep trying, to be the kind of person who has ideas and sees them through.”
― Esmé Raji Codell, Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year
Did you ever hear someone say, "It was Colonel Mustard, in the studio, with a children's book"? Uh, no. Yet, author Hilary Mantel recently said, "It seems to me there's a point in your life where you hear an inner prompt, and it says, 'Choose your weapons.' This is it," she said, shaking her pen and nodding her head toward it, "mightier than the sword."
So if a writer's pen can be a weapon to fend off ignorance or inaccuracy in history and drama, then maybe I can give myself license to choose children's literature as my weapon to fight off the dragons in motherhood and family life. I choose picture books, in the home library, done with a child in my lap.
It’s a bit ridiculous to admit, but I added up the number of hours I've read children's books in my life. (I had my sixteen-year-old son double-check my math here, just in case.) Ready to hear the nerdy numbers?
So, Malcolm Gladwell, if you purport that an expert is a person with 10,000 hours of experience in any given field...then I'm almost there--170 hours away from being an expert children's lit fan. With 9,830 hours of spending time with kids' books, I'm either crazy, or just feel like children's literature has a lot of quality to offer--depth, beauty and truth which many adult books lose along the way when authors try to be edgy, confrontational, and dark. Life can be bleak enough. Who wants to read depressing stuff? I want stories that show me and my children the way to live a happier existence.
Why am I such a children’s book zealot? Because they’re what got me through sleepless nights of bringing my babies into the world. When my teenagers were toddlers, if we were having a rough go, I'd start to get the shakes, and realize it was because we hadn't been to the library in a week! (And I didn’t have a kids’ audio book on-hand for our escape while cooking dinner or washing dishes. Like many people, for the first few years of family life we had no dishwasher. Audio books rescued my mind from tedium!)
Loading up on the maximum number of picture books our library system allowed was what helped me connect with my kids instead of going insane. With often fifteen diaper changes a day between a newborn, a toddler, and a potty-training child, books could turn a monotonous day into a delight!
After all six of our children joined our family, keeping half-a-dozen small children alive physically with meals and clean clothes was a whirlwind of activity! I often needed to slow down at least a few times daily to keep us alive emotionally. Books created a bond for us to sit down, take a breath, and do something we all enjoyed.
By piling into a big glider chair with a bunch of books, we could escape into "a wonderful elsewhere." No dishes to do, no floor to mop, no taxes to file, and no blow-out-stained onesies needing a good soak…For at least ten minutes. Until we closed the cover of the book. Ahhh! Short-lived bliss. But right there within the covers of a book--and at our fingertips whenever we needed it.
Even without babies at home, when an older kids has a rough day at school, it's therapeutic to listen to Jim Dale reading Harry Potter aloud while doing dishes, right? JK Rowling is a pro at making the world feel as if everything's going turn out okay in the end. Sorry, old Voldemort, even your schnozless-appearances in the series don't tarnish that Hogwarts glow of comfort, delight, and the warmth of the Weasley family.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione are experts when it comes to learning how to make and keep friends. We feel the pain of Harry and Ron's separations when they have a falling-out, and then feel the relief and joy as they figure out how to overcome pride by apologizing.
Reading about others' experiences of navigating the wide world, reminds us that we're not the only ones going through this earthly realm. Some writer out there once had the same emotions that we now have, and had the foresight to write them down for us. Because of that, that we could relate to other human beings across time and over seas--when we'd need that (trans-time-and-place) commiseration and encouragement the most.
One of my favorite creative writing mentors, Shawn Coyne, says in his Writing Grid podcast (paraphrasing here), that since the dawn of time, people have used "stories" as the tools we need to cope with the challenges in life. We read how a favorite protagonist (Lizzie Bennet, possibly?) deals with a specific difficulty, and it gives us ideas of how to resolve our own problems when they arise at a later date.
So, I hope you might find six excellent children’s book recommendations handy and useful to enjoy each month on the first Friday with your children, grandchildren, or spouse (they may or may not fit in your lap).
Or you can enjoy these six books in the bliss of solitude. Some of my happiest reading memories are of discovering middle grade books as a lone single adult, while sitting on the N-line of the NYC subway. (That’s a pretty happy commute if you've got Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone in hand.)
And in honor of my half dozen children who teach me each day how to be a better person, and my crazy six passions: Family, Art, Writing, Nature, Cooking, and Books, enjoy the half-a-dozen recommended titles in tomorrow's post...
P.S. Now tell me what your favorite picture book title is in the comments below. Happy reading, dear bookworm friends!