Saturday, March 29, 2014

Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems by J. Patrick Lewis

Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes

Rating: 5 stars

Last month at the SCBWI Winter Conference we conference-goers got to choose two break-out sessions in which we'd learn, in a small group, some specific things about a specific topic.  I chose to attend a nonfiction picture book session and a poetry-writing session with the one and only Jane Yolen.

Me?  Poetry?  Honestly, in high school and college poetry was beyond me.  I felt stupid wading through stanzas trying to figure out the meaning.  I felt as if my whole class was staring at one of those pictures where a design pops out at you if you stare long and hard enough--and they, in unison, appreciated the neat thing that they could easily see through the patterns while I was left just staring.  I could either fake it or admit defeat.

But I love poetry in children's books.  Rhyming makes the books even better, I think.  My kids--and I, too--have always gravitated towards books with a rhythm and a rhyme.  So I thought it was high time to get over my bad self and dive into the world of poetry.  Among other things, Jane Yolen suggested to us scribbling note-takers, writing wanna-bes that we needed to read more poetry if we wanted to write more poetry.

J. Patrick Lewis was at the top of her list of poets to know about and read.  J. Patrick Lewis actually went to Lorelei's school last year, so she feels like she knows him.  We bought World Rat Day around that time, and both Lorelei and Ben have thoroughly enjoyed the silly holidays that he brings to light in short, clever, funny poems.  Honestly, they got into this poetry thing before I did--they'd read World Rat Day a bunch of times, laughing out loud as kids do so easily, before I wandered over and grabbed the book to read.

And holy smokes!  It was so good!  This was poetry I could get and enjoy--a great place for me to start, and I could start enjoying poetry along with my kids.  A win-win situation, for sure.

So I did what I usually do when I find an author I like and Jane Yolen tells me to: I check out every single book I can find by him/her.  I'm an all-or-nothing person, what can I say?  It was in this way that we stumbled across his latest book, Poem-Mobiles: Crazy Car Poems.  They are fantastic, and all three of my kids enjoy it in three very different ways:

Kiefer loves the illustrations by Jeremy Holmes.  There is so much to look at in each of these intricate, silly cars that J. Patrick Lewis has thought up and Homes has drawn up!  The kids fought over this book on the way home from our family trip to West Virginia last week; Kiefer, our youngest, easily won.  He pored over the illustrations slowly and carefully.  The grass taxi that requires mowing is his favorite, by far.
         Grass Taxi
I need to mow the glass,
I should Weedwack the visor,
I'm blanketed in grass.
My wax is fertilizer.
And when my gas tank's low,
I fill up on Weed-B-Gone.
My wormy engine's slow.
Check underneath my lawn.
Kiefer gets the first turn a lot of the time...
Ben does his best to read the poems and can read them literally but doesn't quite get the twists and turns of J. Patrick Lewis's wit.  He loves the wacky illustrations but the poems come alive when I read them to him (like how I patted myself on the back right there?).  By putting an emphasis on this word over that one, and by stopping and explaining what's so funny, he gets the joke and becomes a better reader.

Lorelei gets it all.  One of her fellow first grade classes just did a little performance/explanation of the word and literary concept of "inference."   She's happy for the challenge to infer, to read between the lines, to take the time and figure out the point and the joke.  She's a strong enough reader, curious enough girl, and funny enough kid that she eagerly looks for the jokes in poems like these. And even though cars are traditionally "boy toys," these poems are for either gender, trust me. This one cracks her up:
       Jurassic Park(ing)
You thought the dinosaurs were dead?!
The cars behind our school
Are big Tyrannosaurus wrecks
That run on fossil fuel.

I'm pretty sure that this book and other poetry collections by J. Patrick Lewis will be our gifts of choice at birthdays this year!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell

Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow

Rating: 5 stars

Molly Lou Melon is inspired by her late grandmother to forego fancy dolls and action figures, store-bought dollhouses, and plastic race cars.  Instead, her grandmother used her imagination and the stuff on hand to create toys.  So Molly Lou Melon does just that.  She creates dolls out of the flowers and leaves and twigs in her backyard, she designs a dollhouse with the weeping willow in the yard, and she whips up a turbo race car with a garage full of boxes and paper and wheels and such.

Then one day, she gets a new neighbor, Gertie.  Though there's no mention of it in the text, in the illustrations the reader sees that Gertie always has a crutch by her side.  Quietly, the author and illustrator tell us that Gertie is physically disabled.  Right away after meeting, Gertie complains that she is "bored, bored, BORED!"  So Molly Lou Melon invites her over to play.

At first, Gertie brings over her fancy dolls and action figures, store-bought dollhouses, and plastic race cars.  She is quickly blown away by the hand-made stuff that Molly Lou Melon has dreamed up and created.  After inviting Molly Lou Melon over to watch some shows on her big-screen TV, only to be turned down by Molly Lou Melon because Molly Lou Melon is watching the clouds on her SKY-wide screen, Gertie ditches her electronic and store-bought stuff and joins Molly Lou in the land of imagination, creativity, and make believe.

A sweet story, illustrated by the fantastic David Catrow, about two people who don't seem very compatible but with time and openness and a constant, warm welcome to join them in their world (while respecting the world that the other lives in), a friendship blossoms.  I love how, on the second to last page, Gertie shows up on Molly Lou Melon's doorstep with her own handmade doll with hollyhock skirt and violets for hair.  Now it is Molly Lou Melon's turn to be blown away.

Three cheers for sweet friendships and fewer store-bought toys, and loads of time to create and imagine and just...PLAY with those friends.

P.S.  This is a sequel to Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon which is also really good.  Stand Tall is about how Molly Lou reacts when she gets teased for her small stature.  The two books are ones that are recommended for children with disabilities and/or used to teach empathy for children whose bodies or minds are slightly different from able-bodied kids.  These are definitely some good books to have around and talk about!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

Rating: 5 stars

This should be required reading for first and second grade kids. Obviously girls will be drawn to the book more than boys (for the most part, excuse my sexism) because of the title and cover, the talk of dresses throughout the book, and because the three main characters are all female. But the lesson of being kind to and showing empathy towards others are for everyone--boys and girls, grown ups and kids alike. 

The story starts off with an empty desk.  Young Wanda Petronski is not in school today, and Maggie and her pal Peggy wonder where she is. Together and separately they remember Wanda, and how she wore the same "shabby but clean" dress to school every day. But one day, when all the girls in the class stood together to admire a new dress that belonged to a different classmate, Wanda blurted out, "I have a hundred dresses at home." All eyes turned towards Wanda.  

Wanda repeated her words firmly.
"I got a hundred dresses at home."
She soon became the subject of fascination, and a gentle teasing, a light but constant ribbing--nothing as hideous as the bullying nonsense that, horribly, plagues playgrounds around the country these days. In the end, the girls find out that Wanda's family--recent Polish immigrants--have moved to the big city where their odd name and thick accents will blend in more, stick out less. Her father writes a note to her class explaining the situation. The teacher chides her class, saying that she sure hopes they were kind to these people. 

Peggy and Maggie feel guilty (though this word, interestingly, never appears in the book).  They realize that they were unkind. They know it right away (because they've got these things called consciences, and are humble enough to realize when they've done something wrong).  A drawing contest that Peggy expects to win helps illustrate the point further--all the girls submit one dress for the competition, but Wanda submits 100 brilliant drawings of 100 brilliant dresses.  Everyone, especially the two girls, are impressed.  
There must have been one hundred of them all lined up!

They can't "make it right" by apologizing because Wanda is gone.  Instead, Maddie comes up with a conclusion and makes a pledge: "She was never going to stand by and say nothing again."

The book is great and, despite being written in 1944, is very timely for four reasons:

1. Empathy is learned.  The lesson: "Be kind, always" is so true. Kids need to be taught and adults need to remember that we never know what someone else is going through--from just a bad day or perhaps their parent is dying from cancer. 

2. The story is about Polish immigrants, and all my ancestors are from Poland.  That fact only enhances my love for this book!  I love that Lorelei (third generation) understands a little the teasing that some of her ancestors endured when they first arrived. 

3. The language in this book is wonderful--there are huge words that even chapter-book-inhaling Lorelei doesn't know. Exquisite. Admiration. Stolid. Exaggerated politeness. I get the sense that we're expecting less of our children's vocabulary these days...and so I appreciate the word choice in this book.

4. Maggie and Peggy have to sit with the uncomfortable feeling that they did something wrong and can't apologize for it, can't make it right. That's just the worst feeling ever: to have ended something abruptly or horribly and not be able to go back and make things right.  What a good lesson in doing things well the first time.

I loved this book--it is my favorite book I've read with Lorelei so far.  It is wonderful for 5-10 year olds. Or 37 year olds, like me.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Squirrels on Skis by J. Hamilton Ray

Squirrels on Skis by J. Hamilton Ray, illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre

Rating: 5 stars

I admit I am surprised to announce: We're a skiing family.  Thanks to the pushing encouragement of my husband, our big trip at the start of this very long, very cold, very miserable winter (that keeps on coming! Snow is in the forecast next week, in the first full week of Spring!) involved ski school for Lorelei and Ben.  I actually had some anxiety over them in ski school, even though "anxiety" is rarely a word I use when describing my own feelings about motherhood.  I was nervous, for lots of reasons.

But they totally and completely floored me--floored us, I should say.  Jonathan and I watched in amazement as, after two days of ski school, they came swooshing down a big Colorado mountain last November with big, proud grins on their faces.

What's a proud father to do?  Quickly keep the interest of skiing alive and go a handful of other times this snowy winter.  And what's a proud mother to do?  Promptly look to see what children's book exists on skiing!  (Duh!  Of course!)
Kiefer's skiing name: Skiefer.

Turns out, there aren't many.  But there is this one, and it is good, and I think we've had it the majority of the winter.  We check it out almost every other time we go to the library, so I've read this book out loud at least a dozen times, if not more.  But I still don't understand when Kiefer requests it, as his adorable toddler mouth has trouble pronouncing "squirrels on skis."  Luckily Lorelei and Ben are there to help me interpret.

It is a very good book, though it's 4-6 pages longer than I'd like.  It is one of those books that, when chosen at bedtime when you're battle-weary from the day, you have to fake excitement about because you are looking forward to the saying good-night part of bedtime.  Know what I mean?  But it is a well-paced book with a good plot and plenty of suspense thrown in to make the reader and even a tired parent stay interested.

And each of them balanced
on two little skis,
wearing muffs on their ears
and pads on their knees.
In this snowy village, squirrels start skiing for some inexplicable reason.  First one, then two, then hundreds.  Thousands!  The townspeople don't know what to do.  They think about "disposing" them, but some villagers think that's mean, so these nice guys have one day to figure out the problem and fix it before mean Mr. Powers comes in with his new vacuum device to get rid of the varmints.  Young Sally Sue Breeze points out that the squirrels are so complete in their quest to ski that they've stopped eating and might die (I could think of worse things, but...)!  Single-handedly she figures out that a crafty rabbit is turning a profit.  At the run-down ACME Popsicle Stick factory, he's selling popsicle sticks for skis and toothpicks for poles--at a rate of ten acorns a piece.

Within the nice rhyme, Sally Sue Breeze chides the rabbit for selling what's not his, and for swiping food from the squirrels.  She makes him take part in her plan to get the squirrels to stop and eat, and to provide a nice ski chalet for them (the old factory) where they can ski in an organized fashion, away from the town.

This is a great beginner book--for those beginning to read and beginning to ski!

Friday, March 21, 2014

It's Monday, Mrs. Jolly Bones! by Warren Hanson

It's Monday, Mrs. Jolly Bones! by Warren Hanson, illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Rating: 5 stars

Heaps of people have told me the same thing: "Kate, you think too much."  It's true.  I'm always wondering and analyzing and planning and trying to maximize whatever it is I'm doing.  When Lorelei was born with a furrowed brow of concentration, I worried she inherited the think-too-much gene.  She is so very thoughtful, so content to sit with a book for hours, so happy to concentrate on anything and everything.

Luckily, we girls have Ben and Kiefer in our lives.  They are little kings of silly.  They keep us laughing, like it or not!  Take yesterday: Their nightly ritual of racing around a loop within our house (every house with small children has to have some circular pattern) somehow happened sans clothes.  They first took their shirts off, and then Kiefer wanted to take everything off.  Ben followed his lead.  So, for 15 minutes, I laughed until I cried at the sight of noody-loody joy blurring past me every few seconds.  Hilarious!

What does this parade of skin have to do with books?  Well, I'll tell you!

I'm always up for maximizing time spent reading.  If I'm going to read, either for pleasure myself or with my children, I want to learn something, too!  I'm all for nonfiction, fact-filled books or thought-provoking, lesson-packed books.

But sometimes, it's good to just laugh.  Take a break from all that seriousness and be in the moment and appreciate something that is downright silly (like two little boys running around naked in my house).  It's Monday, Mrs. Jolly Bones! hits that need-for-funny nail right on the head.  Warren Hanson simply gets it RIGHT.  He knows what is funny to kids (and this mom) and he delivers, page after page, with a pattern: normal-suspense-then-funny, normal-suspense-then-funny.

Mrs. Jolly Bones is a woman who, like Hanson's mom, has a set pattern on how she does her housework.  Monday is laundry, Tuesday is weeding, Wednesday is cleaning the house, Thursday is grocery shopping, Friday is baking.  After introducing each new task, Warren explains how she does it in two rhyming lines, and then in the final line of that day's stanza he throws an unexpected flip of silly into the mix, and Mrs. Jones does something hilarious with her housework.  For example:
It's Wednesday, Mrs. Jolly Bones.  It's time to clean the house.
So wear your worn-out overalls.  Put on your oldest blouse.
Sweep all the floors, shake all the rugs, and shine the sing and tub.
Then step into the toilet bowl and give yourself a scrub!
See what I mean?  It's cute and normal but then WHAM she's taking a bath in the toilet (ewwwww!  grosss!)!  The illustrations by Tricia Tusa are fantastic, delightful, and spot-on.
I have to share Saturday; it's my favorite:
It's Saturday, a day for Mrs. Jolly Bones to play.
The food and clothes and tools and brooms have all been put away.
Invite the ladies over.  Share gossip and some tea.
Then clear away the furniture...and wrestle recklessly!
Lorelei especially loved the idea of me inviting my mom-friends over to have tea and then, still in our necklaces and fancy shoes and hats, wrestle!

A delightful book that is a delightful reminder of the healing aspects of a good laugh!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The M&M's Addition Book by Barbara Barbieri McGrath

The M&M's Addition Book by Barbara Barbieri McGrath

Rating: 4 stars

I should probably wait until summer to post a book that has so much potential for math, but...I'm not known for my patience!  So today it is.

Ben has found his brave (must have previously leaked through a hole in his pocket or something) and now writes lists of books he wants to get at the library, then goes up to the information desk to ask the librarians where these books can be found.  He walks up with his big notebook with carefully written, creatively spelled words and asks, "I'm lookin' for books on _____.  Can you help me find them, please?"

So cute.
Kiefer makes rows of tens...

Our librarians are so, so gracious and so, so patient as they figure out a) what exactly he's talking about and b) if they have any books on the subject.  (Two days ago he asked if they have any Crossfit books, and I had a funny, five-minute conversation with an elderly female librarian about Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, and metabolic conditioning.  She said, "Oh! Really?" a lot.  Turns out that there are, in fact, no Crossfit books in the system, but she did chuckle when she admitted that when she put in "Cross" and "fit" separately that something about cross-dressing came up, and she correctly assumed that's not what 5 year old Ben was looking for.)

ANYWAY, he asked Mr. Steven last week to help him find math books.  Mr. Steven showed him the math section, wonderfully far from the children's section, and Ben came back smiling with this book.  It was sort of like hitting the jackpot--he was brave, he got a math book he could read all by himself, AND it involved candy.  SCORE!

...while Ben graphs his M&Ms.
So, last weekend when our family headed to West Virginia for a last-hurrah ski trip, we brought along this book and three bags of M&Ms, and one cold afternoon after skiing we did all of the math problems the book suggested we do--guess how many there are in the bag (about 50, but Ben was overjoyed that his bag had 60), count them all, sort by color, graph them, make fractions by color, then add two colors together until you got three sums, then add the three sums together.

And then the kids had a wonderful time subtracting them right into their mouths.

This is a great little book--and there are others involving M&Ms, some involving Skittles, Gummi Bears, Cheerios, and Goldfish that are worth knowing about and remembering during Spring Break trips and long summer days when you're looking for something fun to do.  Just Google "M&M math worksheets" and you can use teachers' worksheets to help you or you can be like me and make your kids do most of the work!

Either way, enjoy!  (But you have to get your own M&Ms, as your kids will know if you swipe them...)

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz

Rating: 5 stars

Throwback Thursday!

I read this classic for the very first time this morning.  For the first time!  Published in 1972--before I was born!--it has been a classic my whole life.  Yet...I don't remember reading it until this morning.

(Mom, if I'm remembering wrong, please feel free to correct me...yet again.)

I checked it out from our library once before, when Lorelei was about three.  We read the first few pages, but I found some excuse to stop reading it, tuck it back in the library bag, and return it without finishing it.  Why such strange behavior, you ask?  Because Lorelei had--and still does have--the sunniest, warmest personality you'll ever meet.  She didn't know what a bad day was, and I worried that if I introduced the concept of a bad day, she'd start having one.  Or two. Or more!

I'm not saying this was a logical decision, but...  Ben was about 18 months at the time, and all those people I saw at the grocery store were right--I had my hands full.  I desperately NEEDED Lorelei to continue having all the good days she could so I could remain sane and happy myself!  I am so very grateful for her happy demeanor then and now.  But I got the book again--brave me, right?--because I knew she needed--I know she needs--permission to have a bad day every now and then.

I think it's easy for us parents with always-happy children to allow them to have a grumpy morning, a give minute whine-fest, or a completely bad day, like our pal Alexander.  I am guilty of snuffing out Lorelei's poopy moods, for sure.  But about a year ago, when she was in kindergarten and we were both going through growing pains of sorts, I started to realize that I've got to let Lorelei have and show a full range of feelings and moods. Bottling stuff up, which I certainly did as a kid and do as an adult, is not the way to go.  She's seen enough of that in me.

How to change my own behavior, and hers, too?  Well, I full on admit when I'm having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!  Usually, though, I have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad MOMENTS more than full DAYS.

When she has the same and admits in tears that nothing went right today as I tuck her in, I commiserate with her.  I don't try and go back and point out the good in everything right then (like I want to).  I just listen and invite her to pour out all that she experienced, and I'll hold on to that disappointment and frustration and annoyance and anger so that her sweet 6 year old body can fall asleep with only the good stuff.

And so, I checked this out again and we read it.  And this morning Ben and Lorelei and I laughed at Alexander and how everything seemed like such a BIG DEAL.  Ben's dimples deepened as Alexander kept on threatening to go to Australia.  Why Australia?!  he asked, laughing.  So random!  So funny!

And isn't this the whole point of life, of feelings, of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days?  Acknowledging what you're feeling, and then having the humility and the courage and the love of family and friends to laugh at how silly it all seems after it's over.

P.S. Did you know this book will soon be a movie?  To be released this year.  Glad I read the book first, as the book is always better!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

Rating: 3.5 stars

Second to the incredibly wonderful winner Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter BrownNino Wrestles the World recently earned a 2014 Golden Kite Award illustration honor.  I think this award is noteworthy because peers--fellow authors and illustrators--nominate and vote for books.  Familiar with Brown's but not Morales' book, I ordered it up at the library and happily lugged it home with us in our always-heavy book bag.  My trio and I read the book together at some meal--me, standing in the kitchen with the book, pausing to refill milk and get yet another dipping sauce that makes meals tastier and them, sitting at the counter, rocking back and forth on the swivel bar stools while they chomped and listened.

Morales provides some background into lucha libre in an author's note at the end of the book.  He explains that it is "a theatrical, action-packed style of professional wrestling that is popular throughout Mexico and many other Spanish-speaking countries."  They represent mythical figures and ancient heroes and villians.  Many luchadores wear masks to hide their identity--the most famous luchador, El Santo, never revealed his true identity.

Nino makes his Puzzle Muzzle move
and Olmec's mind is blown!
The story: Nino is a lucha libre wrestler whose costume is (as you can see above) underwear and a red mask.  He fearlessly takes on frightful opponents one at a time, and dominates them with silly moves like the tickle tackle or the Popsicle Slick (in which he cleverly uses a melting popsicle to make El Chamuco slip).  Nino's last opponents are his two little sisters, awake from their afternoon nap.  Rather than competing against them, they join forces to become invincible.

This is not your typical story with full sentences and plot development.  It's best read in your best WWF announcer voice (think: "Let's get ready to rummmmmm-ble!") and you better be prepared for some wrestling action afterward, particularly if you have, like me, more than one boy-child in your house.  It is, without a doubt, a lot of fun to see a little boy defeat these huge villians in such clever and creative, kid-appealing ways.

El Chamuco
This is definitely an out-of-the-box book that will appeal to some, but not to others.  For me, it's just okay--I can appreciate it but I am not crazy about it.  I think I'm missing a cultural link that might make it more special or meaningful, or at least provide more personal context.  The pictures are really cool with out-of-this-world graphics that jump off the page, having the devil in a children's book definitely throws me off a little.  In fact, having to explain who the devil is the devil (ha ha) to Lorelei and Ben while they slurped milk and tried to get away with using their fingers was not what I expected in my evening.

That said, this book has cool appeal I can't deny.  The illustrations are completely award-worthy, the story inspiring and funny, the ending a cute twist on the rest of the book.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Big Guy Took My Ball! By Mo Willems

A Big Guy Took My Ball! By Mo Willems

Rating: 5 stars

Dear Mo Willems,

Here at our house, we love you.  We just LOVE you!  We love the way that you put together such silly little stories packed with great big lessons in a simple conversation between two funny friends.  There is no end to the delight we get from these Elephant and Piggie books!

Please don't stop writing them.  Not ever.

Please don't stop illustrating them.  Not ever.

They.  Are.  Perfection.

What?  Piggie? Melodramatic?  Nah...!
Lorelei & Ben & Kiefer's mom

P.S.  I should add that while some of the books are simply great but not out-of-this-world, A Big Guy Took My Ball! is in the out-of-this-world category.  Elephant tries to rescue a big ball that Piggie found from a Big Guy who swiped it.  He's determined to be her hero, to not let her down, but then he sees that the Big Guy is actually...REALLY BIG.  Even when compared to a pretty big elephant.  He's suddenly a lot less brave.  But then the Big Guy explains that it's his (little) ball and that no one will play with him because he's so big.  So they create a random, inclusive game that they all play happily ever after.

There really is no comparison to this great series of beginner reader books.  If you've got a child tripping along to reading by himself or herself, these books are going to be your best friends.  They are short and funny, they involve very few words, and you and your new reader can each read a "part" in the book.  Like I said--they are perfection!

Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller

Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Rating: 4.5

Sophie is a girl who loves her vegetables.  I mean, she really loves her vegetables, especially a baby-shaped butternut squash that (who?) she finds at the farmer's market, draws a smile on, and plays with.

Her mother is, understandably, taken aback.  To test the relationship between Sophie and Sophie's squash, she looked at Sophie, then at the squash, and tied her apron on (and, in the illustration, you can see a cookbook open to a page with a squash recipe), preparing to make dinner.  Sophie understood what was going on and told her mother, "I call her Bernice." It was clear: the relationship was firm.

"I'll call for a pizza," said her mother.

"I call her Bernice."
"I'll call for pizza."
The kids and I were hooked at this point, giggling along, wondering how a girl and a squash get along these days.  We quickly found out: quite well, actually.  Sophie and Bernice went to storytime together, visited other squashes at the farmer's market, raced each other down hills.  Sophie wouldn't be talked into getting "real" toys; she was happy with Bernice.

Eventually, of course, Bernice starts to age.  I quietly empathized with her as age spots grew and mushy parts appeared.  Sophie's mother quietly counsels that Bernice is going to have to...go.

And so, Sophie buries Bernice in a sad-but-funny sort of ceremony.  (Hmm.  Does this mean I'm a little warped because I think that a burial of any sort is a little funny?  Perhaps, but just take this as a glimpse into my sense of humor...)  Sophie retreats to her house for the winter, looking out at the spot under which Bernice sleeps sadly as she is relegated to dolls and blocks and coloring books as playthings.

"What's that spotty thing?"
"Her name is Bernice.
She's a squash with FRECKLES."
In the Spring, she notices a little bolt of green shooting up from where Bernice lies.  Sophie watches in amazement as this shoot grows to be a plant, and then oh-my-gosh as this plant has two little squashes.

"You look just like your mom!" Sophie declares.  Soon enough, they are big enough to pick, bundle, and love.

This is a clever, clever book by a talented new author with sweet, sweet illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf--it just makes me smile.  And the fact that the story was inspired by a true story (read how Miller's daughter did pick a squash at a farmer's market, take it home with her, and treat it as a baby rather than dinner here...) makes it all the sweeter.  Sophie's Squash recently won the peer-selected Golden Kite Award...  I mean, can you imagine of ALL the children's books that get published in a year, all the authors get together and select YOUR book as the best?  That's big.  And this book is deserving--see for yourself!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Robot Drawing Book by Ralph Masiello

Robot Drawing Book by Ralph Masiello

Rating: 5 stars

This book was on display behind the circulation desk last week.  My kids are so comfortable at the library that Ben saw it and promptly asked the librarian if he could check it out.  Invite us to your library: we'll take your displays apart.  That's how we roll.  (From a different perspective, that display sure worked!  Ben and Lorelei each threw in a couple of art books into our bag.)

And the even neater thing: When we got home, all three kids sat around our kitchen table, fighting for a spot that gave them a good view of this book.  They sat and drew--even little Kiefer!--for 20-25 minutes while I got dinner ready.  I admit that there was a little elbow action as they vied for better positions.  Such is life when you've got three kids who want to look at the same book.
There isn't much to read, so these books
are great for older not-yet-readers, too!

Ben was the most enthralled by the book.  He took the book up to his room at bedtime and sat drawing robots during his quiet reading time.  Robots surrounded him!  And the neat thing about this book is that the robots are all made of lines and shapes--nothing more complicated than that.  There are step-by-step directions and, if you follow them, your robot REALLY looks like the picture!  Anyone attempting any art--whether it's watercolor or a poem or stick figures or a book--would agree that the end result is rarely what you first see in your head.  And I think for kids that's true even more frequently.  Wonderfully, they are not hung up about it as often as we perfectionist adults are.  But Ben was very proud of himself when his robot was a solid twin of the artist-author's robot.

Ralph Masiello has a bunch of these step-by-step drawing books, including Dinosaurs, Halloween, Fairies, Bugs, Dragons, and On the Farm.  I think we're going to have to check them out.  All of them.  So if you're in Fairfax County and you're interested in checking them out of the system, might just want to wait a few weeks.  Or I'll race you for them!
Some of Ben's robots.  Or, his Ben-bots?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dog Parade by Barbara Joosse

Dog Parade by Barbara Joosse, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Rating: 4 stars

This book was a hit with my little trio!  And that says something about Dog Parade already: here's a book that hooks equally a strong reader, an emerging reader, and a reader who can simply but proudly identify "his letter" and builds excitement at each turned page.

There is not much to this book, but there's fun and beauty in the simplicity.  One by one, the reader meets each canine character: Tinkles, a dog that pees a lot.  Delilah the pug that likes to charm humans she meets.  Lovie the mutt so grateful to be rescued that he does lots of things for his person.  Should-be fierce Walter, a big mastiff, cowers behind his owner.  Each two-page spread has a different lovable pooch sure to make one of my trio say "Awww...cute!"

Somewhere on this page is a hint of what's to come.  A clue as to the costume that the dog will wear on the following page.  Tinkles jumps on his back legs in a clown costume.  Delilah puts on a flouncy, fancy dress.  Lovie is Wonder Dog, complete with cape!  Shy Walter hides behind a ghost costume--only his droopy eyes peek out.

The best part: our neighbor's dog, Fritzie the dachshund, is famous!  He's in this book!  By some coincidence (am I missing something?  Is Fritzie a popular name for dachshunds?) there's a barking-orders type barker dachshund that dresses up as (of course) a hot dog.  Pretty cute.

In the end, the dogs parade around happily in their costumes.  As I've never had a dog that wore costumes happily, I'm impressed that not one single pup is gnawing at the clothes wrapped around them. Fun little book, super great (yes, I went to grad school in order to pull out phrases like that..."super great") read-aloud book in case you're looking for one!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Little Mouse by Alison Murray

Little Mouse by Alison Murray

Rating: 5 stars

I usually write before the sun comes up.  I write before my kids wake up.  Therefore, I am often sipping coffee and paging through a children's book all by myself at 5:15 AM before reviewing it.  That's exactly what I'm doing right now--with a snoring dog curled up beside me on the couch, laptop on my lap, Little Mouse over the keyboard, coffee just an arm's length away, balanced on another book on the arm of the couch.

As I page through this beautifully written and illustrated book, I think what a quiet masterpiece it is.

On the first page, a little girl sits nice and close to her mother, reading a book with her.  The words: "Sometimes, when I'm being quiet and cuddly, my mommy calls me her little mouse."

I don't really sound like a little mouse...
Trumpety, trump, trump! Too-wit, too-wit, too-woooot!
Yowly, howly, howl!
But the little girl doesn't feel like a little mouse...  She is TALL! (And we see a giraffe sweetly nibbling at the little girl, who is tall on the top of a staircase.  She is STRONG! (We see her straining to pull a small wagon, in the shadow and in the same pose of a mighty bull.)  She chomps her food like a hungry horse, roars bravely like a lion, makes all sorts of interesting sounds like an elephant, owl, and fox. She stomps like a grumpy bear, makes waves like a whale.

But at bedtime, she's happy to be "quiet and cozy, cuddly and dozy"...  just Mommy's little mouse.

I love how one little girl, in a single day, can be so many different animals in her imagination and through her moods and actions.  Kids are so multifaceted and colorful and creative and BIG in such great ways!  I hope with all my heart that your kids and my kids don't get their colorful-ness and BIG-ness diluted as they figure out the tween and teenage years...I hope they realize they can still be brave like a lion and still want to be quiet and cozy like a little mouse (preferably with their mother).

As I sit in this quiet, the last image definitely pulls at my heart.  My two boys are young and still usually need that last tuck-in to be from their mother.  But Lorelei is old enough that she's more like the other animals, and doesn't need a daily dose of her mother, doesn't need to be curled up in my lap.  She still does fit in my lap, though, and I'm grateful for that and for her wanting to be there a few times each week.  I know I'm supposed to be preparing her (and her brothers) to soar on their own like a bird and march to their own beat proudly like an elephant but...I'll miss the cuddly, mousey days a whole lot.  So I'll savor the mousey moments like crazy now.

Phoebe and Digger by Tricia Springstubb

Phoebe and Digger by Tricia Springstubb, illustrated by Jeff Newman

Rating: 4.5 stars

A digger book!  A digger book with a girl for a main character!  This is already welcome stuff.  Ben was confused, in a great way.  Their definitions of what girls play with/do and what boys play with/do are so chiseled in stone it's great to see a book challenge their stereotypes a little!

And the story is really good: "When Mama got a new baby, Phoebe got a new digger." The baby and Digger made lots of sounds all around Mama, until she says, exhausted from the movement and noise: "It is time to go to the park." Phoebe and Digger have room to play, space for noise, and heaps of real dirt.  Phoebe and Mama are both happy.

Until Phoebe spooks a little boy with a worm, which makes him cry, and that made Mama's baby cry, which "turned out to be a secret baby signal.  Soon every baby in the park was crying."  Phoebe took a time out on the bench.  When she was allowed to play again, a big, mean girl comes in and swipes Digger.  Phoebe turns from a tough cookie to a sad kid in one push of a digger's wheels.  The big, mean girl has Digger.  Phoebe isn't sure she'll ever get Digger back.  Just when she feels like she's about to cry...
When Mama got a new baby,
Phoebe got a new digger.

Mama comes in and rescues her, helps her get Digger back.  After some big hugs and positive interaction between the new siblings for the first time all day, Phoebe gives the baby a turn with Digger while she shares a popsicle with Mama.  It's an ending that makes you feel good.

I am reading children's books through a whole new lens these days.  I came out to the world (okay, really just myself and a few friends on Facebook) as an aspiring author a few weeks ago while packing for my first Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators in New York.  I say "came out" because while I only came out as an author, it did take a dose of bravery to say, out loud, what I've thought of myself for decades.

Anyway, the conference was phenomenal--informative and inspiring and a wonderful immersion into a whole world of kids' literature.  I did my best to scribble down any and all tidbits and suggestions and tips in my notebook, to which I've returned almost daily to get a little dose of motivation.  One of the big takeaways from the conference: a children's book--even one with just 30 or 50 words--needs structure.  I knew I had a lot to learn, but I didn't realize that just reading hundreds (thousands?) of books with my kids didn't teach me what I needed to know about how to write children's books.  The really good ones have a structure behind them that makes them sound better.

And Phoebe and Digger, though there's no rhyming at all in it, has a rhythm to it and a structure to it that makes it read nicely.  For me, there are a lot of similarities between this book and Owen by Kevin Henkes, and a bunch of his other books.  Books that are very well written, and therefore very enjoyable reads...especially, as we do it here, read-alouds.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, illustrated by Mary Shepard

Rating: 3.5 stars

Lorelei and I read Mary Poppins for two reasons: First, it was on a How Many Of These Children's Books Have You Read quiz and I wanted a higher score; second, I haven't seen the movie in nearly 30 years and thought it would be a good one to view.  Reading the book first would make a movie a literary experience, at least in my book, and therefore the extra screen time would not induce any mommy guilt.

I loved the movie as a child but had never read the book.  There's a reason for it: the movie, I think, is better than the book.  The book was just okay.  There were a handful of really wonderful parts, including:

After Mary Poppins first arrives, she takes them to visit her uncle who is unburdened by gravity.  He simply floats on air.  The children and Mary Poppins are lucky enough to share in this magic and they float up towards the ceiling, too, and have a tea party high in the air.  They also have a bit of laughing gas, so they roll around the air, laughing hysterically.  Lorelei and I loved that part, and we talked about what it would be like to go to school or hang out in our house without gravity.

We also liked the chapter "Full Moon."  In it, the children wander to the zoo in the middle of the night, only to find that the humans are behind bars and the animals are walking about, visiting them and feeding them and commenting on how wild the humans are acting.  It's a scene where the switching of humans and zoo animals really has dark implications, but Lorelei didn't pick up on anything but the funny mixed-up-ness.  Why did this happen, you might wonder?  As it turns out, it is Mary Poppins birthday, and this mixed-up zoo happens under the direction of a Snake King once a year to celebrate.

What I didn't like was actually a who.  I didn't like Mary Poppins much at all.  As a child, I loved her character (played by the delightful Julie Andrews, of course); I remember her to be a stern woman who would give a wink on the sly so as to assure you that she wasn't so uptight.  And she would laugh and smile as she sang--I still have a warm feeling thinking about her.  In the book, she's stern without the reassuring, warm wink.  She sniffs (is this a British thing?) to show her displeasure--and she sure sniffs a lot.  There is hardly any warm feeling at all.

Her abrupt departure is odd to me in two ways: First, who leaves children without saying good-bye?  I know that she forewarned the children (and us, the readers) that she would leave--fly away with her magical, posh umbrella--but the end seems abrupt and cold.  Second, the kids are totally distraught, and as a reader I'm surprised by their emotional response to her leaving.  Having a magical nanny does have its perks, but she was so quirky and cold and unpredictable that their attachment to Mary Poppins seems unearned.
Julie Andrews was so delightful as Mary Poppins!

And yet, I'm glad I read this book with Lorelei, because the book's ending, unsatisfying though it was for me, was priceless because of what happened while we read it.

Lorelei and I were lying on her little twin bed, on a quilt bursting in little girl pink and butterflies. I lay flat on my stomach, reading the last chapter.  She lay next to me, on her side, propped up on her left hand, which meant her right hand was free.

As she listened, she doodled on my arm with her small finger.  She ran her finger up and down my arm, first in circles and then in zig-zags.  She made her pointer and middle finger walk along my arm.  She played with my shirt sleeve, seeing if she could push it up and then down again.  When she had had enough of that she moved on to my hair, which is usually unruly in its current state.  She tried to pull it behind my ear. It flipped back out.  She tried to pull it behind my ear again, then giggled when it flipped back out.  She brushed the hair on my forehead out of my face with her whole hand, just playing with it, maybe wondering what it felt like, and then letting her hand figure out the answer.

I didn't remark on any of this.  I didn't want to break the spell.  Honestly I didn't want the book to end because I loved these sweet gestures.  I loved that Lorelei felt so comfortable she could twirl my hair in her fingers just as easily as she could twirl her own.

We finished the book and talked about the ending a little; I was honest about how I didn't like the last few pages.  It didn't seem like a true ending to me in a few ways, I explained.  I tried to explain why I thought it was unsatisfying--didn't give me that aaaahhhhh sighing-out experience that great books have at the end.  But in my head I knew that the whole experience was very satisfying.  Lorelei's sweet little touchings on my arm and in my hair made the book's ending very memorable to me.

It reminds me that I read books with her and with my boys for literary purposes, sure, but also because sharing a book together can be a sweetly intimate, completely priceless experience.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Fix This Mess! by Tedd Arnold

Fix This Mess! by Tedd Arnold

Rating: 4 stars

I like books about messes.

Growing up, The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room was one of my favorites.  I must have read it a million times.  I loved the idea of taking a really messy place and organizing the bajeezus out of it!  When Mama freaks out and starts throwing EVERYTHING away and Papa hears the shouting from his workshop and comes in to restore calm and order...  Then, Papa listens to the problem and helps the kids work towards a solution that involves well-labeled boxes and a cool peg board and a snazzy toy chest.  All of the illustrations in this book make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!

Note: I loved the IDEA of taking a really messy place and organizing the bajeezus out of it. I still love the IDEA of it.  But...actually doing it is a totally different thing.  One step in any room in my house and you will get exactly what I mean.  (I really, really, REALLY hope that you are nodding an empathetic nod while glancing around YOUR messy house rather than looking down on messy me from your perfectly clean and orderly abode!)

I LOVE this book, these illustrations,
how cheerfully they organized everything!
So this very simple, very funny, very easy-reader-y book was right up my alley.

And all my kids love Tedd Arnold's Fly Guy books with the funny, bug-eyed characters who are wonderfully silly and creative and nice.  So, when we saw this new book on the New Book shelf at the library, one of us grabbed it.  (I can't remember which one of us--we all grab a lot of books.)  We read it over dinner that same day.

Jake receives Robug (a robot that cleans) in the mail.  He turns it on, points to a chair covered with a whole lot of junk, and tells it, "Fix this mess!" Robug replies "I will fix this mess!" as his arms move impressively quickly, smoke clouds around his action.  When he's finished, the chair is clean.  But the TV now has a whole lot of junk--wait a minute, it's the SAME whole lot of junk!!--on it.  Jake repeats his order, Robug repeats his cleaning (which is just moving the mess...ah, this is my kind of cleaning...)  The whole lot of junk moves from room to room: into the bathtub and even onto the roof!  (Enter lots of kid giggles here.)

Finally, Jake himself cleans it all up.

"Jake missed a spot," Robug points out on the last page.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Bippolo Seed by Dr Seuss

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories by Dr Seuss

Rating: 4 stars

Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!

How could I not review one of his many great books on his birthday?  I don't want him turning over in his grave on my account...

The Bippolo Seed is a collection of seven short stories or long poems--I'm not sure how you could categorize them, as Sr. Seuss is pretty great at creating things that are wonderfully uncategorizable.  Just like that word I totally made up.  About two years ago Lorelei went through a Dr. Seuss phase when she would check out all the books by him that our library had, and then that our county had, and then sit on the sofa and laugh at the jokes.  She was just at that wonderful time when she could appreciate the silliness of his rhymes and also understand some of the jokes.

One of the short stories in the book is "Gustav, the Goldfish"--a funny story that is filled with such suspense that my boys were on the edge of their seat when I read it.  Like most of Dr. Seuss's work, these stories are great to read out loud.

A boy feeds his fish just a little too much after the man who sells him the fish warns against this very thing.  Due to his overfeeding, the fish grows and grows and grows.  The boy puts it in a larger container and then a larger container until the fish is as big as a bathtub and then OH NO he won't fit in the boy's bathtub!  With a whoooosh and a sloooosh the boy and his whale-of-a-fish burst through the bathroom door and into the now-flooded cellar.  Suddenly, the man who sold the fish to Gustav appears with magic dust to shrink Gustav back to his original goldfish size.

Does this story sound familiar to you?  If it does, you've probably read A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer.  And Helen Palmer's married name was Helen Palmer Geisel, as in Theodore Geisel's wife.  As in Dr. Seuss's WIFE!  He wrote the poem that is in The Bippolo Seed in 1950 for Redbook magazine.  After it was published, he formally gave his wife permission to turn it into a children's book.  "Change it however your heart desires" were a few of the words included in his formal permission.

It just makes me realize, as I toil my way to writing children's books myself, that perhaps I should have married an already established author, one who had too many ideas for his own good, and I could just nab some of his and rewrite them as my own.  Man!  I really did NOT plan ahead...

This book has some quality, fun stuff though is not my favorite of all Dr Seuss books.  Still, you can't go wrong with him--check it out for yourself!