Sunday, September 23, 2012

George Washington and the General's Dog by Frank Murphy

George Washington and the General's Dog by Frank Murphy, illustrated by Richard Walz

Rating: 5 stars

Today Lorelei, Ben, Kiefer and I met my family at Mount Vernon, George Washinton's estate.  I've lived in Northern Virginia for ten years (the Army brat in me is shocked at being anywhere for this long) but this was my first trip there.

During the longish drive there, I quizzed the kids on what they knew about George Washington.  Here's what Ben (nearly 4) and Lorelei (5) knew:

  • He was our first President.
  • He chose not to be a king.
  • He was the only President not to live in the White House.
  • He lived in New York City.
  • He admitted to chopping down a cherry tree.
  • He was a soldier, a general, like Grand-Daddy.
  • He loved animals, but especially loved dogs.
  • His favorite dog was named Sweetlips.

I was proud of myself and impressed at their memory.  Once again, I'm amazed at how reading is entertainment and education all wrapped up together.  There are so many times when I'm floored by how much Lorelei has soaked up from books, especially the Magic School Bus series.  She is one smart cookie.

This book is a must-read for EVERYONE!  It is such a good tale about one of the most important characters in our country's history.  But it's also a good story of an act of kindness.  There is so much to know about Washington that I feel utterly unqualified to say much, but I will say that he reminds me that individuals matter.  One single man (or woman) can make such a difference in the course of history, in the lives of so many.  I want my kids to know more about him; this book is a perfect introduction.

The story starts off simply enough, and grabs any kid who likes any animal: Washington was an animal-lover, but dogs were his favorite.  (Would I like him as much if he was a cat-lover?  Probably not!)  He had a pack of dogs that amused him and annoyed Martha.  When he went away to fight in the Revolutionary War, he brought along his favorite dog, Sweetlips.  After the Battle of Germantown in 1777, a terrier was found wandering the fields.  Some soldiers in Washington's camp found him and realized that the dog belonged to the enemy, General Howe.  Washington's soldiers suggested he keep the dog as some sort of trophy for winning the battle, but Washington wouldn't hear of it.  A man and his dog must be kept together.

So, under a white flag of truce, Washington's aide returned the dog to Howe.

There are so many lessons in here that I don't know where to start.  I was really moved by the story the first time I read it, proud of our first President for such a simple and decent act.  My kids have such a hard time with losing and are so proud of themselves for winning--though the word "gloat" isn't in their vocabularies, they do it rather well.  But here's a tale of a winner who doesn't gloat, who recognizes the basic needs of his enemy and does the right thing.

I just love the story.  As soon as I read it I bought it and mailed it to my sister for her brood to have--my sister has framed pictures of George and Martha "as every American should have!"--so I knew she had to have it on her shelf.  Today, walking around the beautiful fields of Mount Vernon, appreciating the view on a gorgeous first day of fall, as our seven (seven!) collective kids ran around us, she and I talked about this book and how great an introduction it is to such an important figure.

We'll be back to Mount Vernon to add to the small but solid understanding Lorelei and Ben (and, soon enough, Kiefer!) have about one very important man.

The Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

The Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Rating: 4 stars

I am normally in a good mood.  I am a smiley individual, and I look for reasons to laugh.  But last Monday night, I was in a poopy mood and needed a reason to laugh.  I was simultaneously gulping down tears and the reality that I might not be able to run a super fast marathon next month.  All because I had stubbed the bajeezus out of my toe by trying to prevent Kiefer from stopping the washing machine.  What a moron!

I was looking for something to lighten my leaden mood and remembered that I hadn't read this book yet, despite the fact that a wonderful retired-principal-friend had recommended we check it out.  She said that she observed a class during which the teacher had read this book and the whole class was in stitches.  I didn't want stitches, but did need a laugh so...during dinner I grabbed this book.

Here's the story: Grandpa chicken wants to read a book to his grand-chicken but, after the first paragraph of each classic tale, the little hen blurts out the ending in order to warn the characters of what is coming.  Gramps chides him each time, no avail.  The little guy is just TOO EXCITED and can't keep his mouth shut.  I'm sure you know of someone like this in your family.  Gramps is frustrated because the books are causing excitement, not sleepiness.

In the end, the little chicken writes his own book about his grandpa, who is fast asleep by the last pages of the book.  It's a cute ending to a cute book.

I needed a laugh more than the kids last week, and the book provided a much-needed chuckle.  I can definitely see how you can get a crowd of 4 year olds worked up over this book, even if you've got a throbbing toe and a preoccupied brain.  Children's books are great for this reason--they often take my mind off of the big picture and bring me back to the present, to this little moment of laughing with my kids.

Thanks, Ann, for the recommendation!

P.S. After a trip to the doctor and a few x-rays of my little piggies, I escaped real damage and suffered only a tiny, hairline fracture in one of my toes.  One week off and then it's back to marathon training for me.  No break from Crossfit, I'm happy to say!

Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton

 Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton, illustrated by Eric Puybaret

Rating: 4 stars

"You bought our kids a stoner book?!" my husband said when he saw this book.

"It has such a sad ending!" my mother said when I told her I bought it.

This book sure has a bad reputation!  I guess that's exactly why I hadn't even thought to read it to Lorelei or Ben.  Until, that is, my cousin Stephanie suggested that I put it on my mother's shelf for all her grandkids to read.  I thought it was worth checking out.  So I did.  Literally.

I got the big book from the library, a book full of fantasy-filled illustrations, done by the talented Eric Puybaret.  The book was big--an oversized hardback--but the pictures on the pages made the book seem even bigger.  I won't quit my (unpaid) day job to sing, but I admit I can carry a tune just fine.  My kids like to hear me sing, so they were spellbound when I sang the book to them, and turned the pages of this beautiful book as the verses floated around them.

The song made the book a different experience for them, and Lorelei has been humming the tune a lot, looking for the book to fill in the blanks when she forgets the words.  ("I don't want to sing it like you do, Mommy: 'Little Jackie Paper, something something something..."  She is so right.  I always forget the words to songs!)

Puff, the magic dragon, / lived by the sea,
And frolicked in the autumn mist / in a land called Honalee.
I don't really get why this children's book is linked to some illegal substance, but my mom is right--this book definitely does have a sad twist.  After Puff and Jackie Paper frolic and imagine and play in a way only a child and his imaginary friend can, Jackie Paper grows up.  He goes away, never to return again, and Puff is lonely.

But illustrator Eric Puybaret saves the day and keeps Grammy's tears at bay.  In the last two pages, he paints in a young girl who clearly replaces the turned-into-a-muggle Jackie.  Puff is happy again with his new playmate, new adventures, new cycle of childhood.

I think that Steph is right, this is a great addition to your shelf, especially if you can carry a tune and can sing it to your children.  Pick up the board book version at your local Wegmans while grocery shopping, just like I did yesterday.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf by Judy Sierra

 Tell the Truth, B.B. Wolf by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Jotto Seibold

Rating: 4 stars

When I was a kid, my dad always chose the bad guys as his favorite characters.  He'd root for Captain Hook and the Wicked Witch of the West.  He'd cheer for anyone dressed in black, anyone walking around sneakily, looking suspect.  Now, it is really amusing to watch him stick up for bad guys in front of my kids.  Conversations (mini-Platonic dialogues to my philosopher father) go something like this:

GRAND-Dad: That Captain Hook isn't such a bad guy!
Lorelei: No, he is, Grand-Dad.  He always tries to steal stuff and do bad things.
GRAND-Dad: So what?  Why can't I do bad things?
Lorelei: (thinking) Because you're supposed to make good choices!  And he makes bad ones.
GRAND-Dad: I like him.  And look at his cool hat, too.

One of his favorite villains is the big, bad wolf.  I remember him clearly telling me many times that the big, bad wolf "got a bad rap."  Yeah, all that huffing and puffing stuff was totally misunderstood, Dad...  But my Dad would be a fan of this book by the fantastic Judy Sierra. The big, bad wolf finally gets the spotlight!  "It's about time," my Dad would say.

"No one is falling for your story," cracked Humpty Dumpty.
In this quirky story, B.B. Wolf, who lives with all the other bad guys of childhood in Villain Villa, is invited to the library to tell the story of how he met the three little pigs.  He is no longer young and mean; he is a bespectacled and respectable old wolf.

Off he trots, and starts to tell the tale a little...differently.  He makes himself a huge hero, explaining that those huffs and puffs were, um, really sneezes and soft blows on a dandelion puff.  The houses just happened to be on the receiving end of those accidental air pockets.

In the audience sit the three little pigs, and they adamantly argue with ole B.B. Wolf.  "Tell the truth!" they call out.  After a few more feeble attempts at a good fib, B.B. Wolf can't take it anymore and begs their forgiveness.

"Well," said the first little pig, "I guess we could forgive you."
"It did happen a long time ago," said the second little pig.
"But your middle name is still Bad," added the third little pig.

But the sage wolf isn't content with the acceptance of his apology.  He goes home and tries to make it right.  He builds the three pigs a new home--a piggyback mansion.

I like this story because it reminds me of my funny dad, but also because B.B. Wolf "makes it right," which is something I try to instill in my little ones.  If Ben happens to shove Lorelei into a coffee table and she erupts into tears, he needs to apologize and "make it right" with a hug or offer to get her something to make her feel better.  I need to make sure they do this, because I'm not going to be able to see all their infractions, within my trio and beyond.  They need to have the empathy to know when they've hurt someone and to at least attempt to make it right.  I hope this skill lasts through adulthood...

But I really appreciate this book, it's a funny way to reinforce a lesson in our home.  Hope you like it, too!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Born To Read by Judy Sierra

Born To Read by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Marc Brown

Rating: 4.5 stars

If there has ever been a kid born to read, it's Kiefer.  Born to a book-loving Mom and two older siblings who are book-obsessed, I'm betting on him reading the soonest, just to catch up with the others.  Already when we dive into the new books in the library bag on the way home, he grunts his desires until someone hands him a book.  And then he squeaks out his own version of the book in a sing-songy way during the drive home.

Pretty adorable, though I'm completely biased.

Anyway, here's a book by the fantastic duo Judy Sierra and Marc Brown, who gave us the fantastic Wild About Books, among other titles I've not yet reviewed.  This book features not Kiefer but Sam, a boy who is confident in his readership.  Books pile up in his crib, he reads in the grocery store, he helps his sister understand notes left by their mom.  My favorite example of the helpfulness of his reading prowess:
Once when Sam was almost four,
His knees turned green, his thumbs got sore,
His cheeks were flecked with yellow spots. 
They rushed him off to Doctor Potts,
Who cried, "It's Martian Mustard-ation.
You will need an operation!" 
Sam asked, "Is that necessary?
Let me see that dictionary.
Here's a better diagnosis:
Harmless Preschool Play-dough-osis."

I love it!

There's a hiccup of sorts towards the end of the book...  I can't figure out how Sam is suddenly battling a baby giant called Grundaloon, who stomps through Sam's town doing things that mean bullies--and, apparently, baby giants--do.  Though no one else dares confront him, young Sam has the moxie to go right up to him, invite him to tea, and read a book or two with him.  This time, books soothe the savage beast, and Grundaloon stops tormenting the town.

Seems a little like two books haphazardly combined into one, but the rhymes are so good and the illustrations so wonderful I have to forgive Judy Sierra and Marc Brown and go with it.

You can't help but love this book that celebrates reading and readers, despite the odd addition of ol' Grundaloon...

Olympig! by Victoria Jamieson

 The Triumphant Story of an Underdog: Olympig! by Victoria Jamieson

Rating: 2.5 stars

I know, I know...the Olympics are completely over.  But they'll be back.

So, let me tell you a story about Boomer the Pig.  Boomer decides that he'll be in the Olympics, and he trains a little before his Olympic debut.  He competes in a wide variety of events--running, weight lifting, wrestling, vaulting, boxing, and hurdles, to name a few.

This pig does not know the term "specialization of labor."  Or of sports.

He stinks at all of them.  I mean, he's really bad.  And after losing horribly at each sport and having a chipper attitude, he finally loses it and throws an oinker of a tantrum.  And then he quits.

On your marks, get set, GO!
Shortly after quitting, an annoying journalist interviews his mom, expecting her to go on about her embarrassment and shame of her son.  Instead, she lauds him and says how proud she is of him for trying.

So Boomer un-quits and tries again.  One.  Last.  Event.  Gymnastics floor routine!

His comically glittery outfit and horribly spell-binding routine help him earn a spot near the bottom.  But his attitude remains positive.  "I realized something very important today!" he says.  "I realized today has been terrific practice for the Winter Olympics!"

I'm disappointed in this book about the Olympics, about which there are surprisingly few books.  The drawings are the highlight, but the story just leaves me unsatisfied.  I guess Jamieson wants kids to learn that a positive attitude is most important, and to appreciate the people (or pigs) that support you.  But I don't love how clueless Boomer is, how delusional he is about how his talents (or lack thereof) measure up against the rest of the competition.  It makes me think of all those kids out there who receive so much praise that they are shocked--shocked!--when they finally get honest (in their mind, negative) reviews.

I'm a huge fan of the Olympics, mostly because they are the hard-earned reward for individuals who work hard for many years.  This light-hearted approach to the Games rubs me the wrong way, but maybe I'm too competitive a person to appreciate a funny book about a pig who is trying really hard to be just okay.

The Stinky Giant by Ellen Weiss

The Stinky Giant by Ellen Weiss, illustrated by Mel Friedman

Rating: 4.5 stars

Here's a random book for you...  I'm not even sure how it ended up in our library bag (in other words, Ben definitely snuck it in there, as he takes his book hunting skills very seriously).

But it's perfect for both kids.  Lorelei, and therefore Ben, is very much into riddles.  We've played guessing games (for example: "Guess what fruit I'm about to give you.  It's green on the outside and red on this inside....  Right!  A watermelon!") for a long time, so riddles fit right in within our conversations.  Ben, and therefore Lorelei, is very much into anything stinky and gross.  So...The Stinky Giant that hands out a riddle to two kids he might eat?  Count us in!

I didn't expect to like this book so much, but I do because it involves some thinking and some science.  Two very good things.

Urk the giant lives atop a mountain.  Every time he does his laundry, his dirty water floods two innocent kids below.  When they go to Urk to complain, he challenges them to a contest: He'll give them a riddle.  If they get it right, he'll move away.  If they get it wrong, he'll eat them for dinner.  Yikes.

Here's the riddle: "There is something you see every day, and it is one thing but also three things."

After working together to think of the answer and coming up with many of wrong guesses, the kids realize that the answer is water, as it is liquid, vapor, and ice as well as simply water.  Urk has to move away, and the kids live happily ever after.

I like the book because it fosters the whole riddle/word problem mentality.  We're all about word problems here, though from time to time I do throw up the white flag and say, "Not tonight!" when my brain is too tired to think up word problems for little ones...  Okay, maybe it's my patience that goes first.

Either way, it's a good book to read and a great habit to start.  Here are some word problems that we use, to help get you started (besides that whole fruit riddle listed above):

For Lorelei, 5: You are at a birthday party with four friends--two boys and two girls.  Each girl wants two pieces of cake, and each boy wants one piece.  How many pieces are served?

For Ben, 3 1/2: Lorelei, Ben, and Kiefer are running in a race.  Lorelei finishes the race in 5 minutes.  Ben finishes the race in 10 minutes.  Kiefer finishes the race in 12 minutes.  Who wins the race?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Donut Chef by Bob Staake

The Donut Chef by Bob Staake

Rating: 5 stars

My kids don't eat a lot of donuts (see P.S. below), but they still like this book, and if your kids are donut-lovers, this is definitely a book to check out.  And I really like this book--it's too fun to not like.

The plump donut chef (apparently he likes to taste a few of the donuts from each of the batches he cooks) from the cover opens up a donut shop on a quiet street.
He stacked his pots, he cleaned his pans,
He dusted off the ceiling fans.
He grabbed a spoon, then turned a knob,
And set the stove to do its job! 
That donut chef, he worked so hard
By mixing flour, sugar, lard.
He baked his donuts fresh at dawn,
Then hoped by noon they'd all be gone.
Soon a skinny chef (clearly he doesn't taste enough of his product) saw his success and sought to steal the donut-chomping clientele.  He opened a shop nearby, and the two fought for customers through price points and shop hours.  But that wasn't enough.
They tried new shapes beyond just rings--
Their donuts were such crazy things!
Some were square and some were starry,
Some looked just like calamari!
Some were airy, some were cone-y!
Some resembled macaroni!
The donuts became so bizarre that customers couldn't even recognize them as donuts.  One day, a little girl walked into the shop, stared at the rows and rows of crazy concoctions, and asked why they didn't have her favorite kind: glazed.  Simple, uncomplicated glazed.

Soon, the crowd begins to shout for glazed.  Where've they been? they suddenly wonder.  The plump donut chef realizes his error and cooks up a batch and, when that batch is quickly gobbled up, cooks up another and another.  He realizes that success lies in providing the least frilly flavor of all.

I love the lesson: Go simple, go with the basics. You just can't go wrong.

P.S. I actually don't like donuts.  The super-sweet smell of them just turns my stomach, and when I do ignore my better judgment and eat one, my stomach gives me a hard time later on.  My kids have only had donuts a handful of times in their lives.  I try not to be a complete spoilsport, but their growing bodies need quality nourishment to fuel their crazy pursuits, and...donuts are not exactly what I'd call "quality nourishment."  Yup, that's right: I'm into depriving my kids of sweets, one donut at a time.  I'm okay with that.

The Great Doughnut Parade by Rebecca Bond

The Great Doughnut Parade by Rebecca Bond

Rating: 4 stars

Here's the skinny on this beautifully illustrated book: Little Billy ties a string around a doughnut, and then ties the string around himself.  This little doughnut quickly attracts the attention of a cat, then a dog, then a girl, and then...  Soon the entire town is following Billy and his doughnut.  By the end of the book the parade erupts into joyous dance, though no one is quite sure why they are there.  While everyone dances around, Billy slips off to eat the "crisp and delicious fried ring--the doughnut he'd tied to his belt with a string."

It's a cute book, though I know of some people who'd turn the parade into a riot when doughnuts weren't equitably distributed to the followers.  (These people are actually pint-sized--namely, my twin nieces and nephew.)  The pictures are beautiful, full of people swirling around with bright smiles on their faces.

But really, this blog is just an excuse to tell you how cool my dad is.

Over the weekend, we went to brunch with my dad and step-mother, known as The GRAND-Dad and Grandma Sharon to my kids.  He handed Lorelei and Ben this book, and said, "Now make sure you call me when you get to the end!"  They were too excited to tell him about their brand new lunchboxes to read, so I put the book next to my bag.

...and GRAND-Dad was eating and dreaming too
wanting to have a doughnut with each of you!
We got home, I forgot to take the book out of the car, and it was soon part of the pile of crap that had accumulated during the week.  Oops.  But when I did manage to pull it out from my un-immaculate vehicle, it  soon found its way to Lorelei's eager lap.  She sat there reading it, and as soon as she was done, she snapped it shut and said: "I need to call GRAND-Dad!"  So we did.

Later, I looked through the book myself.  Billy escapes to his solitary doughnut delight on the last page, but my dad had added another page, with another rhyming passage:

"...and GRAND-Dad was eating and dreaming too / wanting to have a doughnut with each of you!"

And he taped in a picture of himself, smiling big, about to bite into a glazed doughnut.

What I love so much is that my dad, an often-serious retired Army general, was playing with his grandkids through books.  He, the consummate booklover himself, a guy who consumes 3 or 4 books a week, a guy who can tell you the page number of certain quotations from a few thick books, a guy who showed me by example how to escape into the pages of a book...  He was speaking my kids' language, especially Lorelei's language, sharing a joke in the pages of another soon-to-become beloved book.

This is yet another way to have fun with books, to not make reading a chore but instead a light-hearted way to share and communicate and love.

Or maybe it was just an excuse for my dad, a big doughnut-lover, to have a few more doughnuts.  My kids' arms don't have to be twisted much.