Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen

Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen

Rating: 5 stars

First, I just want to apologize to my neighbor for actually writing about this book. When I told her that I was blogging about books, and trying to shine the spotlight on the Great Ones, she looked at me with slightly wild, very serious eyes. "Don't tell everyone about Violet the Pilot," she said quietly. Now you need to know a few things: First, we live in the woods. There was no one around but our kids to hear her talk...well, maybe a deer or two, or a gang of bluejays. So I thought that was a bit funny. Second, um, not many people are actually reading these words I type, so I think the secret is still pretty much safe.

But don't make it be! Go out and find this book! It is wonderful, especially if you have a little girl in your life! Go get it! Make my neighbor get mad at me--your daughter will thank me!

I just had to get that out.

In all seriousness, this is a Great One. I mean, you know I'm a bit anti-princess and I definitely don't encourage super-duper, over-the-top girly ventures. Steve Breen has come up with the best heroine of them all: a quirky little eight year-old who is a mechanical genius. "By the time she was two, she could fix almost any broken appliance. By four, she could take apart the grandfather clock and completely reassemble it." I am curious how her parents found out that she could fix any broken appliance, and I do wonder how the dexterity of a four year-old would allow her to fix a grandfather clock...but my sarcasm aside, I do know how to suspend my disbelief and it's completely suspended by page 4.

Violet makes flying machines from spare parts she scrapes up from the junkyard next to her family's house. In part because she wants to, finally, be a bit cooler in the eyes of her tormentors at school, she enters a flying contest. She builds her own flying machine--"The Hornet," which does a test flight and everything--and flies off to the show, eager to see what she'll return with...maybe a blue ribbon? Instead of arriving, she flies over a river with in-need-of-rescue boy scouts. She doesn't think twice about whether or not she should help, but her successful rescue attempt makes her miss the air show completely. Her lone friend and dog, Orville, keeps her company as she sits on her bed in disappointment until the entire town comes to her house to reward and award her heroic efforts.

I just love Violet. She's smart and fearless, but also just wants to fit in (like we all do) at school. Breen sneaks in the best detail in one illustration of almost all the books I've read--Orville has a barf bag during the test flight. It makes me smile every time, not that I've pointed it out and therefore taught Lorelei the word "barf." I think that can wait till grade school, unless my husband gets to it before that. (The teaching, I mean, not the barfing.) The contraptions she creates are so unique and pulled together that Lorelei has a great time guessing what each thing is on each flying machine, including the Tub-bubbler, the Bicycopter, the Rocket Can, and Lorelei's favorite, the Wing-a-ma-jig.

A must-read. A must-buy. For every girl you know under the age of 8. Or maybe older!

Sammy and the Dinosaurs by Ian Whybrow

Sammy and the Dinosaurs by Ian Whybrow, illustrated by Adrian Reynolds

Rating: 4 stars

Sometimes, a book just grows on you. Unlike adult books, where you carve out the time to read a book once and maybe just maybe you read it another time a decade or two later, you read children's books again and again and again in the course of a week. Sometimes in the course of a day. Once, while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, I walked out from seeing a movie, paid for a second ticket for the same movie, and walked right back in to watch it again. It was that good. Or maybe it was just because the air conditioning felt so good? Or that the men on the screen looked like me, but weighed more than me? Hmmm...this is a tangent I should end. Anyway, my point is that good children's books are read hundreds times more than adult books, and sometimes the good-ness of a book doesn't reveal itself until its third or fourth (or tenth or twentieth) reading.

Take Sammy and the Dinosaurs. At first, I wasn't so impressed. I found the title on a list so ordered it up from the library. It's about a little boy who finds a bunch of old dinosaurs in his grandma's attic. He washes them, patches them up, and then carries them around in a big bucket. They do everything with him, until he forgets them on a train. He's sad, but Grandma takes him to the lost and found where he names them all individually, which impresses the Lost and Found man: "They are definitely your dinosaurs. Definitely."

I really like how the dinosaurs are Sammy's dinosaurs, and he takes his role as caretaker very seriously. Other than the noted exception of forgetting them on the train, they are inseparable. And he obviously misses them wholeheartedly when they are gone. The dinosaurs obviously are alive to him, which is evident in the cute illustrations and also in how, just twice, the dinosaurs whisper things to him.

It was always cute, but it wasn't until the third or fourth reading that I was hooked. Reading this book aloud helped me love it. It was really fun to whisper like the dinosaurs do in Ben's ear--which, of course, made Lorelei lean into me, waiting for her turn for Mommy to come close and whisper in her ear. It made Lorelei and Ben pay attention all the more. And then, at the end when Sammy reclaims his pets-oops-I-mean-toys, he closes his eyes and yells, "Come back my Stegosaurus! Come back my Brontosaurus!" to all of them. Ben especially gets a kick how I, too, closed my eyes and yell the same way.

Hmmm. Maybe, in Lorelei and Ben's eyes, this book is just okay but they give ME five stars for reading it...well, I'd like to hope that's true. I might go buy this book so I can read it to them in their teenage years. Maybe it'll still hold their attention then?

Around the time we started reading this book (thanks to our local library), we went shopping for new Spring pajamas. Lorelei chose mermaid ones and Ben chose, you guessed it, dinosaurs. My husband overheard me reading this book to our kids and decided that they needed more dinosaur stuff. Now. Lots of it. So on its way to us are three more books (why didn't we preview them at the library?!) and a huge trunk--little buckets are just for little imaginary Sammys--full of dinosaurs. So maybe the dinosaur obsession will happen a little earlier for our kids.

Friday, April 23, 2010

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Rating: 5 huge stars

This book has it all--a fun tale, repetition, onomatopoeias, and good pictures. It also has lots of loot that are often sold with the book, so I guess you know that a book is a great one if there is more stuff attached to it... This is one of the first books we bought when I was pregnant with Lorelei; I can't believe that that original is still in-tact, and often in Ben's bed with him.

I love that it is wonderful for girls and boys, and love that after each black and white illustrated page of "We're going on a bear hunt, we're going to catch a big one, etc" there's a beautiful color page with an onomatopoeia on it: "Swishy, swashy, swishy, swashy" for the tall grass, "Hoooooooo wooooooo, hoooooooo wooooooo" for the snowstorm, for example. I always did the same thing with Lorelei, then with Ben: I'd make my rocker rock crazily for the swishy-swashy and blow in her/his hair during the snowstorm and stuff like that. (I've been known to not be as calming as I perhaps should be during bedtime, but luckily I now have kids who can put themselves to sleep. I think my job is to just get them happy at the end of the day, and then they read by themselves for 5-30 minutes before falling asleep.)

I do wonder every time I read this book why the bear walks home along the beach? Where is this story located where you can go from grass-filled hillside to snowstorm, to deep forest to...beach?! Please let me know, because I'd like to move there.

10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle

10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle

Rating: 5 stars

This is a great book, but it was made even greater because it was given to Lorelei and Ben from their beloved Grammy. And, what's even greatest of all, was that it came in the mail. A package! In the mailbox! For them! Hurrah for the old-fashioned postal system! This book appeared in our mailbox last year, just a few days before we drove down to the beach, and we read it at least five times a day--in the house, on the deck, on the beach, and of course many times in the car during the looooong car drive. (Who takes pictures of themselves while reading? Yup, we do.)

As with other Eric Carle books, this one does so much! It's a great story--just a simple tale, and based on a true story! Ten little rubber ducks get thrown overboard and they drift ten different ways, meeting ten different animals. The book has its own little rhythm to it that makes the words easy to remember; Lorelei memorized the book within a few days. It is definitely a "counting book" but also introduces or reinforces--depending on where your child is--sequential counting (first, second, third, etc). And the animals are all sea creatures--dolphins leaping out of the water, huge sea turtles, giant whales, and flying pelicans. It is a GREAT book, perfect for anytime or for a trip to the beach.

Cowpokes by Caroline Stutson

Cowpokes by Caroline Stutson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Rating: 3.5

A new baby was born into our extended family; his name is Wyatt. So I was in a bit of a cowboy-mood when we strolled into the library last week. This book was standing out from the stacks, on display on the top of the shelves. I had to have it, in honor of baby cowboy Wyatt. We live nowhere near the range, but I sure wish we lived a bit closer, so that a good horse was a required purchase. Sadly, in our area of the country it is not necessary, it's decadent, and not for us. I grew up riding, and the love of horses is still strong!

Of course, I'm trying to pass the interest down to Lorelei, not only so that I can be around horses again and have an excuse to ride and possibly own a horse one day. (When we found out we were having a girl, one of my first thoughts was: Great! I'll ride again!) So I'm always on the prowl for books that will get her excited about riding and horses and all that stuff.

Cowpokes is pretty good. For me, this book does too much; it should focus on one thing--they rhyme of the text or details of the riders in the cattle drive (a la Lili at Ballet) or the characters themselves. But the illustrations save the book itself, as the pictures of the rodeo events and the cattle drive are neat, regardless of how old you are. We probably won't check it out again, but it was fun watching Lorelei pretend that her jump rope was a lasso. I'm glad she wasn't successful in roping one of our weimaraners...that could have been too fun for her, and not so fun for the dogs!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Goodnight Train by June Sobel

The Goodnight Train by June Sobel, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Rating: 5 stars

Sometimes, we just get lucky at the library. Lorelei and Ben have been into trains lately--our little tea table and chair set from IKEA magically turns into a train some days, and we caught glimpses of the Metro while stuck in traffic yesterday. So I ordered up some books from the library after doing a quick search for "trains." We got this book. What a great one!

I don't know about you, but I like books that I read to my kids to put them in the mood to sleep. Crazy idea, I know. This book does just that. I mean, my head is slowly drooping with every page I turn. It is a poem, which of course I love, and after every other stanza there's a train-like sound: Toot toot! Whoooooooooo! Whoooooooo! Choooooooooo! Chooooooooooo! Shhhhhhhhhh! Shhhhhhhhhhhh! then Hush-a, hush-a, hush-a, hush-a, Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

Ben is not yet train-crazy, but I hear that this phase is inevitable. I'm going to keep this book in mind the next time we've got a little boy birthday party to celebrate. This book might be one we actually buy...I wish it was available in a board book. (I fully believe that all bedtime books should be available in board books, so at a young age you can read them to your little one and then give them the book so they can read to themselves before they drift off. I'd much rather hand Ben The Goodnight Train than Clip Clop, which is wonderful but way too exciting to read before a nap!)

I just read it again. Now I must go take a nap. Good night!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Art Lesson by Tomie DePaola

The Art Lesson by Tomie DePaola

Rating: 5 stars!

Here's a shocker: Lorelei is into reading. Just a bit. We have books EVERYWHERE: in the car, on the kitchen floor, in drawers in the bathroom, in the hallway, in both kids' beds, all sorts of places in the playroom... It is actually embarrassing sometimes. I read (in Mem Fox's Reading Magic) that it's ideal to have big, beautiful books lying around so that they are within reach if/when a child's curiosity piques about books. She'd be proud that I took her suggestion quite literally.

But when it comes to art, Lorelei is a five-minute-art-project gal. I actually got The Art Lesson from the library, hoping that it could serve as a bridge between the world of words and the world of art. We talk about the illustrations in books all the time--how they help you figure out the words, how they paint a picture, how when there aren't enough pictures you can close your eyes and paint your own. But when I bust out the paint or markers or crayons, Lorelei just wants to write the alphabet. Hmmm. I will keep trying!

But this book is just wonderful. It was made for little kids--probably, ideally, for preschoolers and elementary schoolers--who can't stop drawing, like our niece, who at 2 1/2 could draw an actual ladybug that someone other than herself could identify as a ladybug. And lots more things, too. It's a story of Tomie himself, and how he drew anything and everything at home, and was looking forward to first grade, when he got to have art class--gasp!--with a REAL artist. He waits and waits in anticipation, and carries his huge box of Crayola crayons in to use (can't you just picture a little kid doing this?!), only to find out that the art teacher will only let you have one piece of paper, and you have to use the school's crayons, not your own. That wouldn't be fair, after all. Sigh. And, even worse, you have to COPY the artist's drawings. Copy?! Copy?! Tomie had been told by his artist cousins that to be an artist you have to do original stuff, to NOT copy, to be bold and big and courageous with your art. And so a compromise is reached, and Tomie is allowed to use his crayons and get a prized second piece of paper.

This is a great book--a really good gift for a little artist, especially if you include some art supplies (not just one piece of paper).

Strega Nona, Her Story by Tomie DePaola

Strega Nona, Her Story by Tomie DePaola

Rating: 4 stars

I grew up reading Tomie DePaola books, so it was me who pushed them a bit in the beginning. I love, love, love his drawings and can't get enough of DePaola's artwork. He makes his characters simple and cute. I'll try and focus on Strega Nona, Her Story first then babble on about all the types of books DePaola writes later in this entry. In case you're not of Italian descent, strega means witch. Strega Nona is a witch doctor from the old tradition, and her grandmother raises her with the expectation that she'll take over the practice when her grandmother retires. It is a sweet story, especially as Strega Nona learns the secret ingredient through a letter from her grandmother: Love. How sweet!

For me, these Strega Nona books are just a great way to introduce those tried-and-true parts of human nature. There's almost always a temptation for modern stuff, but the traditional wins everytime. Strega Nona is challenged by Strega Amelia, a friend whose witch ways are new-age and alluring, but her new ways just don't work as well as the old-fashioned ways. I love that.

Lorelei just loves this series. It surprises me, actually, that she does. There are a few characters surrounding Strega Nona that Lorelei loves--the faithful Bambolona and the bumbling Big Anthony (who has books of his own, which we love). You'll just have to check them out for yourself and see if your child has a quirky side like ours certainly do!

Now, stop reading here unless you want to know more about all the books that DePaola writes.

He has four categories of books for preschoolers: (He also has some chapter books that I accidentally checked out...oops, no Lorelei might be a bit precocious but I don't think she's quite ready for chapter books. I'm sure my husband would argue with me. He thinks she's ready for fifth grade the day after her 3rd birthday!)

First, his Strega Nona series. Strega Nona is the first of the series, and I do like it, but it's not my favorite. It won the Caldecott awhile ago. Our copy of Strega Nona, Her Story (one of the next in the series) is actually signed by the author himself! It was a gift from my mother, to me. So that makes it special both to me and to Lorelei (I love that she thinks it is extra special too; right now it is in her bed as she naps). Like I said before, Big Anthony has a few books of his own in this series, too. They are super cute, and are especially good for tall little boys!

Second, his autobiographical series. These are probably my favorite, with Tom and The Art Lesson and The Baby Sister leading the pack. They are all sweet and funny...reviews on those to come sooner rather than later, I hope. I really like how Lorelei can get to know an author through his books, and figure out what it takes to become one. Not that I'm pushing any particular vocation at this young age, but...

Third, his amazingly beautiful "legend" series. These are books like Tony the Baker (Lorelei's favorite) and Adelita (Mexican Cinderella story) and The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush that tell old legends, mostly from the Southwest/Mexico and Italy) with amazingly beautiful drawings. All have great morals, though some should be left for elementary age kids.

Fourth, the "other" category. There are a dozen or so books in this category, though it's the one we've explored the least. We love his wordless Pancakes for Breakfast and the word-full Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile because both are witty and (have I mentioned this?) full of great illustrations.

I am a fan!

Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora

Lili at Ballet by Rachel Isadora

Rating: 4 stars

We were at a birthday party a few weeks ago for a wonderful little girl in our life. It was a "ballet princess" party, and it was full of camera-worthy moments; all the parents on the sidelines ooohed and aaahed over the little dancing girls (and the lone not-so-dancing boy), especially when they donned their Cinderella costumes, complete with tiara and wand. It was all pretty adorable. After the dancing part came the eating part, and a grand tea party was set, complete with real china that made me glad I left freight-train Ben at home with my husband. During the tea party, the "head ballerina" asked everyone who their favorite princess was. When it was Lorelei's turn, she just looked at me. She doesn't know any. We were clueless in the princess part of the party, but luckily we were on board with the ballet part. The ballerina asked her if she knew of any ballerinas, and she said "Lili!" (She was also Lili for Halloween; shamelessly daughter-promoting photo can be seen at the bottom of this post.)

This is the first ballet book that Lorelei read; our neighbor had a girly tea party and gave this book out as party favors. The book is filled with pretty drawings, very true-to-life and descriptive, yet still cute enough to draw in a little toddler or preschooler. There is a story, about how much Lili loves ballet, but there are also descriptions of the pictures, explaining more about the positions or when kids start to practice en pointe, or what characters wear which costume.

If a little girl in your life is into ballet, this is a must read. Rachel Isadora has a bunch of ballet books out there, and we've read all of them. She's a good author and a talented illustrator, so a good author to check out at the library.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Machines at Work by Byron Barton

Machines at Work by Byron Barton

Rating: 4.5 stars

You know how when you have a baby, they give you a bunch of stuff when you check out? Each time we left, barely managing the new baby in our arms, we got a bunch of newborn diapers (helpful), a booger-sucker (super helpful--should have grabbed a second), tons of samples and coupons for formula (not so helpful, I breastfed our kids), cheap diaper bags (um...wasteful), and other things I don't even remember. I think that in these grab-bags of stuff, tucked away in a pocket to read when you're up in the middle of the night, should be a book or two. If you have a boy, then Machines at Work or anything else by Byron Barton should be one of them. (I don't mean to be sexist here...Lorelei likes this book just as much as Ben! But, well...there's just some connection between boys and machines, just like there is between girls and horses.)

Barton's drawings are what grabbed me at the library. We first got Building a House and I was captured by its simplicity--the sentences, yes, but also the drawings. It was as if--and I know this won't come out as a complete compliment, but hear me out--his 8 year-old son (that I'm making up right now) did them. And I think that's great--this is one of the few books that I think Lorelei could look at the pictures of and say "I can draw that." It'll be a few more years, of course, till she can, but Barton's drawings are a bit more achievable than Tomie DePaola's or Eric Carle's.

We love to read Machines at Work out loud, together. I know that it would only be half as entertaining to my kids if I left out the sound effects of each page. I have no idea what a crane crashing a building actually sounds like, but both of my kids can mimic the sound I completely made up that I do at least five times before turning the page! And when the workers eat lunch, we make them munch and sip and munch and sip and, I confess, burp every now and then.

All of Barton's works are just great foundations. Dinosaurs is the basic story of when they lived, how many there were, and the variety of the species. Building a House has, I'm guessing, 15 sentences, from grassy knoll to a family moving in. Now, anyone who has ever seen a house go up in a subdivision realizes that it's much more complicated than that. But how wonderful, for our kids, Barton has provided an uncomplicated story of a bunch of basic things. We really look forward to reading the rest of his book!

The Baby BeeBee Bird by Diane Redfield Massie

The Baby BeeBee Bird by Diane Redfield Massie, illustrated by Steven Kellogg

Rating: 5 loud stars!

I'm a big list person. I have found a bunch of "best books" lists on the web and am slowly making my way through them. For the most part, I've not been too impressed. Even the Caldecott book winners, which have plenty of gems among them, have a bunch more duds. I understand it's the lens through which you view the book that makes you think one is spectacular and another is not so awesome. It just seems that the Caldecott people are looking at and reading books with a grown up mindset. I'd like to know if they take all of the nominees home with them or to children's hospitals and read them out loud. Do they see the reaction of the illustrations on the kids' faces? Do they see which ones they select to read quietly (or loudly) by themselves? Because The Baby BeeBee Bird is definitely a book that would win over a children's vote for an award, especially one based not just on illustrations but the story, too. It is wonderful!

Humor in toddlers and preschoolers is a funny thing. Sarcasm is dangerous, and much of adult humor is, sadly, sarcastic meanness. But it's not yet middle school boys farting (though toots are funny in our house any time of day) and flicking boogers on girls. Somehow, Massie gets this and has produced a book that makes both my three year-old and 17 month-old giggle. I'd like to think that it has something to do with my reading of the book. Or Grammy's reading of the book; Grammy was in town visiting when we picked this up from the library. Grammy unknowingly volunteered to be the book Sherpa before she realized we check out about 20 books at a time. Is she still icing that shoulder?? Hope not.

Anyway, Grammy read this book to Lorelei and Ben during dinner last week. It's about a new animal at the zoo, a baby bee bee bird, who naps all days and then sings "BEE BEE BOPPI BOPPI!!" loudly all night long because she's wide awake. Then, in the morning, when she settles in for her nap, all the other animals in the zoo work together and trade in their respective sounds for "BEE BEE BOPPI BOPPI!" to keep the baby bee bee bird awake. Moral of the story: Nighttime is really for sleeping. I LOVE that moral! Since the reader has to say "BEE BEE BOPPI BOPPI!" precisely 4,235,902 times in the book, that alone is pretty funny. (Facial expressions that would be embarressing at any adult-only affair are a requisite for this book.) But what do all kids over 1 year know? What sounds animals make. So when the lions say "BEE BEE BOPPI BOPPI" instead of roaring, and the bears say "BEE BEE BOPPI BOPPI" instead of growling and the hippos say "BEE BEE BOPPI BOPPI" instead of...what do hippos say, again?...it is FUNNY!

This is a great, great book. I almost want to go out and buy it because I want it on-hand every night. Call me a mere mortal, but there are plenty of days when I hit 5 PM and I'm counting the seconds till bedtime--mostly my kids' bedtime, but also my own. This book revs me up, gives me a needed chuckle, lightens the mood in the whole house, and lets my kids and I laugh together. THIS is worthy of an award.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Alistair and Kip's Great Adventure by John Segal

Alistair and Kip's Great Adventure by John Segal

Rating: 4 stars

This book makes me want to move right into the children's book section and never leave. Maybe I'll try to dive right into this book and live there. No wonder why adults like me just love children's books and read them over and over again, regardless if the kids are asleep already. Doesn't everyone want to live in a world where you and your best friend have all the necessary material for a boat on hand, can construct a solid rowboat within a few hours, and then row it safely down the creek, to the river, and then the bay, just looking for adventure? It makes me want to re-read Huck Finn! As if that's not enough--and maybe it should be enough for those adventuresome little readers who might actually try such a feat--Alistair the cat and Kip the dog also capsize due to a giant wave, find a beach to rescue themselves, and then realize the beach is actually a kind whale who swims them back through the bay, up the river, and to the creek, back to their houses.

I mean, c'mon! Sign me up for that adventure! What fun! And the whale doesn't even get stuck! I think that Segal's decision to leave out that reality (of the likelihood of a whale getting stuck in a creek) is so thoughtful. I mean, why shouldn't kids' imaginations run wild, why shouldn't they believe it's possible for a big ol' whale to come swimming up the same creek that they themselves can wade across? I love it! I also love the absence of adults in this book: their mothers aren't hovering over them worriedly; they apparently trust the two friends with tools and time, and it turns out great for everyone in the end. And, in that end, one friend looks at the other and asks, "How about tomorrow we build an airplane?" Count me in!

Such a sweet book. It does make me wonder at what point kids need to step out of the bubble created by a good book and realize a bunch of things that I sure don't want Lorelei and Ben to realize? Hopefully I can wait a few years before answering that one.

Bravo, John Segal. We are fans!

A Child's Good Night Book by Margaret Wise Brown

A Child's Good Night Book by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Jean Charlot

Rating: 5 stars

Our board book A Child's Good Night Book has a hole in it. Ben liked it so much he ate it.

So I am not a big fan of Good Night Moon. I admit it! But this book is great. We actually bought it for my sister's yet-to-be born son, but, um, well...it didn't quite make it to her house. Oops. This book is right up there with Karma Wilson's Sleepyhead for quality bedtime books, in my never humble opinion. It's a Caldecott winner, not surprisingly, but I don't understand why more people know about it. When we give it as a gift, people are surprised by it and then fall in love with it.

The storyline is wonderfully simple: Brown says good night to a bunch of different animals, ending their few sentences with "sleepy bunnies" or "sleepy wild things" or "sleepy sheep." The pictures are very nice and actually pretty sleepy, showing animals falling onto their paws, onto each other, into their mamma's laps, falling asleep. The book ends with "And the children stop thinking and whistling and talking. They all say their prayers and go to sleep. Sleepy children." The next two pages are just one large illustrations, and the book ends with a gentle prayer. I say gentle because it's a quietly Christian book, not obnoxiously religious or anything like that. For me, that makes it all the better, even though I'm stepping into that complicated topic of religion and children. I think I'll end this paragraph now before I have to draw lines in the sand...

The only funnily odd thing about the book is the page on wild things. If you had to choose three wild animals to write about and draw, what would they be? My thoughts immediately go to Africa, and images of zebras and lions and gorillas come to mind. Brown chooses lions and monkeys. Okay, I'm with you on these two. But then mice. Mice? Wild mice? I don't know...it makes me actually stop short and wonder what she was thinking. Maybe if she had made them all wild animals we see regularly--deer, raccoons, birds. Or maybe I just don't like mice because a few months ago I realized they were living in my toddler snack-infested car? Perhaps. Anyway, I still think this book is a gem despite the inclusion of mice as a wild animal.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Jean Charlot

Rating: 3 stars

I won't spend too much time on this one. I mean, it's a classic and I'd be shocked if it wasn't in your child's library. It's soft and soothing and I rarely read it without yawning. But the text is so silly--rhyming for ryhming's sake, with the whole "mush" thing. How many parents out there have had to explain, poorly, what "mush" is to their children? "It's what you eat in jail, so stay out of there" is what I thought when Lorelei asked me a few months ago.

And the other thing about this classic that I do appreciate is this: WHY IS THE TEXT RED?!!? Against black? When Brown was writing this book, she surely realized it was a perfect-for-bedtime book, right? Bedtime involves low lights. And parents are a little older, grandparents older than them, so eyesight is going downhill fast. This book doesn't help!

In the next edition, I move that the text be changed to white. Then my poor eyes would feel so much better.

Sleepyhead by Karma Wilson

Sleepyhead by Karma Wilson, illustrated by John Segal

Rating: 5 stars

We thank Cheerios for helping us find this book. Cheerios had a promotion sometime in late 2009 where they attached a free book to each cereal box. We don't eat a lot of Cheerios, but I saw that this book was by Karma Wilson, one of our favorite authors, so I had to buy the box with the book attached. I can't believe that the flimsy little paperback, complete with Spanish and English (kudos to Cheerios for that), has held up for so long in our read-happy house.

Sleepyhead is one of the most soothing books I've read. It truly lulled Ben to sleep for a few months, and Segal's illustrations amuses Lorelei everytime. It's a simple little tale of a mama putting her baby bear to sleep, but he keeps asking for one more thing: (From memory) "One more comfy, cozy cuddle; One more kiss, and one more snuggle!" It is adorable. I only wish that it would come out in a board book, so that it could become one of my go-to books for newborns (along with a Miracle Blanket, which are truly godsends--we were introduced to them by my best friend Stacey when Ben was born).

The other wonderful thing about this book is the illustrator, John Segal. Turns out that he has a bunch of wonderful books that he's written and illustrated himself! We've almost read all of them at our own local library, though I'm sure there are more than those they can supply us. His illustrations somehow match simple with structured--I think what I mean is that he makes them whimsical but still realistic. I like my kids to be able to recognize what animals are in the pictures, you know? Sleepyhead is full of gorgeous illustrations by an artist whose fan club I'd join.

We Share Everything! by Robert Munsch

We Share Everything! by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko

Rating: 4.5 stars

I want to start a trend: books for birthdays. Nothing else, and only one. That's it. Think of all the crap--plastic, mostly--that wouldn't need to be put away, thrown away, or given away. I am a firm believer in gift receipts, so if the little birthday girl or boy already has the book, then they can return it. But my latest "thing" is to include a picture of Lorelei and Ben on the first page, with a hand-written note from me (until Lorelei's handwriting becomes legible--right now she just "writes" her name and Ben's name). This way, the recipient knows who it is from even before she or he can read, and in a few years they can smile at how little their friends are. Of course, if I have a picture of Lorelei and/or Ben with the recipient, all the better! ANYWAY, think about it. BOOKS FOR BIRTHDAYS. Maybe I'll get a bumper sticker.

So we've ordered this book for our wonderful little neighbor-friend's third birthday. We love C, and I love her mother even more (we live in the ex-burbs, with just a few houses on a dirt road). But...um, well, she's got some room to grow in the sharing department. Of course, we love her anyway. I'm still working on my sharing skills, after all! So when Lorelei and I were chatting about what book we should get C for her birthday, I asked Lorelei if there were any sharing books. She thought of this one, which we found by luck at the library. (That's another bumper sticker I'd have if I put them on my car: I LOVE LIBRARIES. My husband would be so embarrassed!) This book showcases a boy and a girl who don't share, don't share, and don't share until finally they say: Ok, fine. We have to share. What should we share? They share their clothes, and the little boy ends up in an all-pink ensemble. It's really funny, with great illustrations from Martchenko and a good little message about sharing. Very fun to read aloud, too.

One more thing--the funny picture of the author on the back (which Ben and Lorelei study every time we check this book out) made me check out Munsch's website. I'm so glad I did! I am going to read all of his books now (just 42; I should be able to do this by summer time). A few things that I like about him: he puts REAL kids in his stories, he made up his most famous book Love You Forever as a song to his two still born children (my heart breaks for him), and he returns all his fan mail from classes. Gotta love that!

All right...I'm going to stop blogging so I can log onto the library and order up some of his books...

P.S. If anyone ever reads this blog, reads this post, and reads this book, and watches Survivor, doesn't Amanda look like Shambo on page 29?!??!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Where's My Teddy? by Jez Alborough

Where's My Teddy? by Jez Alborough

Rating: 2.5 stars

The succinct version: Beautiful pictures, but a dud overall.

We found Where's My Teddy? early in my search for great children's books. I did some serious Googling one night when I couldn't sleep; I was looking for all the lists I could on the best children's books. I found five or six lists (of course I'm sure there are more out there...there are books published about what books you should read) and then made my own list of all these. Then I just went down the list at our local library, ordering and reading, ordering and reading.

Side note: I say "order" because we order 90% of all our library books from the comfort of our computer room, where Ben can run around and be loud. Then we zip to the library, pick up our holds, choose a few more, and check out. This process takes 5-15 minutes. The librarians always laugh at us--we deserve it!

Anyway, Where's My Teddy? is on one the lists I found...man, which one was it? I can't remember. We like Hug, another Alborough book, so I thought we'd try this one. On a positive note, the illustrations are gorgeous! We read this book at the beach, and it made me miss our backyard--the whole story takes place in woods with gorgeous, tall trees with a thick canopy of leaves overhead. It's a simple tale of a little boy losing his teddy, then finding a giant one that actually belongs to a giant bear, who is bemoaning the fact that his teddy somehow shrunk. The giant bear isn't very friendly, but he's afraid of the little boy, who is of course afraid of the big bear. They each run home to their respective beds, happy to take home their very own teddy that actually fits in their bed.

Overall, it's okay. The story and illustrations are so simple that I can't imagine reading it more than a few times. It was fun to read aloud to Ben and Lorelei, but this was not one that they requested more than once. It is one of books that gets read a few times, then pushed aside. Check it out if you're into bears, but not worth buying.

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Rating: 5 stars

If Lorelei ever chose a favorite anything, this might be her favorite everything.

We adore Lilly and will be eternally grateful to our wonderful neighbor for sharing it with us (and introducing us to Kevin Henkes). Lilly is so unique and funny and headstrong...she is so endearing, I think, because she's so kid-like. She trots around in fantastic red boots that you could only get away with if you were a little girl. Or, in this case, a little mouse. She is smitten with her teacher, a fun mouse-dude straight from the 70s who dares to suggest his rodent-students put their desks in a semicircle instead of boring lines. Lilly goes to school with new treasures purchased with her Grammy over the weekend and can't WAIT till sharing time to share them. Beloved Mr. Slinger firmly and understandably takes them away from her. She gets upset and draws a mean picture, which she quickly regrets when her belongings are returned to her, complete with a sweet note from Mr. Slinger. Oops.

Ok, maybe I love little Lilly because I make little rash decisions almost every day that I wish I could re-do just moments later. I might be known to put my foot in my mouth just every now and then...maybe. I love that Lorelei gets a little lesson thinking before you acting--especially putting something in writing when you're mad!--at this young an age. I love that Lilly's parents a) make her apologize to Mr. Slinger and b) support Mr. Slinger and how he reprimands their daughter. And I love how Lilly's father is the one to bake treats rather than his mother!

As in almost all of his other mouse books (Weekend with Wendell is the only exception I know of), Henkes throws in quirky little stuff for the grown ups to chuckle at. I appreciate that, and it's nice to have a book your child can appreciate on deeper levels in a few more years. This is a wonderful book--another one for the required reading list!

Owen by Kevin Henkes

Owen by Kevin Henkes

Rating: 5 stars

Owen is one of those humbling books that just impress the heck out of me. It is so clever, so well written, so full of quirky little pictures, so charming that you think MAN that Kevin Henkes is GOOD! And MAN did the Caldecott people get it right that year! If you've not read it, just stop what you're doing and order it up from your local library. Actually, this is one you can buy without reading it first. Trust me--it's that good. Right up there with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but for toddlers and preschoolers.

Here's the gist of the story: Owen is a little mouse who is fiercely attached to his blanket, which his nosy-but-lovable neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers, suggests he cannot take to school with him. Mrs. Tweezers proposes three ways of helping Owen get rid of the blanket, but Owen outsmarts them all in cute preschooler ways. (For example, they try to take it away from him at night, a la the tooth fairy, but Owen stuffs his beloved Fuzzy down his pants.) In the end, Owen's mother has a perfectly brilliant solution of snip, snip, snipping and sew, sew, sewing the blanket into a bunch of little handkerchiefs. I don't know how Henkes makes Lorelei and me and all the other readers out there fall in love with little Owen within the first few pages, but he sure does. We are BIG fans of this book!

There are two other noteworthy things about this book: First, the illustrations are not just great, but there are a lot of them. They are interesting and chock full of little tidbits that you miss on the first, second, third, fourth....eleventh readings. So each time we read it, Lorelei finds some other little thing we've not seen before. This makes it a great book for her to read and look at on her own.

Second, Henkes obviously spends time thinking about how his books sound when read aloud. This is super important (of course) for this age bracket, and something that green authors usually miss. His great books have that sing-songy quality that have a rhythm and pattern that make them fun and interesting to read aloud. He doesn't have to do this, but it's this added bonus that makes his work--especially Owen--just priceless.

Three cheers for Owen!