Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The baby who needed a mommy

Bye Bye Baby:
A Sad Story with a Happy Ending

Janet and Allan Ahlberg

1989, Little Brown and Company

I try not to write about books that are out of print. But I have such a tender spot for this one, I'll make an exception, especially since so many libraries seem to stock it.

First a disclaimer: The story's pretty weird. It follows the journey of a baby -- well, more like a 14-month-old -- who lives alone in a little house, feeding and bathing himself, even changing his own diapers. (The little sketch of that last one is alone worth whatever hassle it may take to locate "Bye Bye Baby").

Eventually, the baby sets out into the big wide world in search of a mommy, making inquiries of a friendly cat, a teddy bear, a wind-up hen and an old uncle. As the subtitle suggests, his search meets a satisfying conclusion.

To me, the book's strangeness is what makes it so great -- it's charming, but not saccharine. It couples comforting repetition with unexpected moments. And best of all, it allows little ones to imagine the world as a good place, full of people who may want to help them be warm, comfortable and happy.

Then, one night, when the baby was putting
himself to bed he thought, "I am too young
to be doing this. I need a mommy!"

So, early the next morning, the baby left his little
house -- Bye-bye baby! -- and set off down the road
to find a mommy. The baby could not walk
far without resting. He could not walk fast
falling over.

But he kept going just the same...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A manual for making glorious messes

Growing up to be an artist

by Lois Ehlert

1997, Harcourt Children's Books

If you spend your evenings reading with a toddler, chances are you've come across at least one Lois Ehlert book already.

Her signature is bright, color-punched collage, sometimes punctuated with flaps or cutouts. Many of Ehlert's titles have impressed my 2-year-old -- "Snowballs," especially, and "Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf" -- but none more so than "Hands," which we borrowed from the library a few weeks ago.

In short, clear sentences, Ehlert evokes the inspiration of her own childhood, in a home where someone is always making something. She helps her father in his woodshop, her mother in her flower garden, and eventually is granted her own folding table alongside her mother's sewing machine, where she can keep her projects spread out indefinitely.

Half the magic here are the clean images of hammers, pencils, paintbrushes that seem just waiting to be picked up.

After the first reading, Rosie dubbed this "the painting book" and began asking for it at bedtime. A few renditions later, she wanted a paintbrush of her own. Now that she's enjoyed a few afternoons dabbing herself and everything around her with purple, yellow and red pigment, we may have to invest in our own copy.

I don't mind. For two nights in a row now, when we turn to the story's final pages, my daughter has offered this pleasing observation: "I want to be an artist, Mommy."

When our flowers bloom,
I'm going to paint
a picture of them.
I'll use every color

in my paint box.

Until then, I'll be

working at my table,

because I know,

when I grow up,

I want to be an artist...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

(Insert Palin joke here)

Danny and the Dinosaur
Story and Pictures by Syd Hoff

1958, Harper & Row

It's hard to imagine a simpler book than "Danny and the Dinosaur."

The rough pen and ink drawings in my second-hand edition are lightly shaded with what appears to be colored pencil. The sentences are short and direct, designed to engage early readers. And the story itself doesn't stray far from its title: Danny, who visits a museum, befriends a dinosaur, who was on exhibit but without explanation comes to life.

I read this book a bunch of times as a kid. The drawings still feel comforting, especially a few parts where the color doesn't match up right. My slightly musty copy even smells like childhood to me. (Sadly, newer editions are defaced by cartoony colorization -- but millions of older copies were sold, and can still be found at thrift stores and libraries).

When I started reading "Danny and the Dinosaur" to my daughter, I was dismayed to realize that the story now reminds me of "Night at the Museum," that comedy where Ben Stiller is the night guard at the Museum of Natural History and all the exhibits come to life.

Subtlety doesn't run up box office receipts, so the movie's plotline is much broader and flashier. And that stokes a frequent worry of mine: That smart marketers with access to great special effects are stealing the best parts of childhood.

"Night at the Museum" is not terrible. In fact, it's kind of fun to watch. But in no way does it inspire the sense of wonder I found, so long ago, when paging through "Danny and Dinosaur."

So until Rosie discovers that computer-generated imagery is an option, I'll be reading this story as often as she'll let me, hoping her imagination will take flight in its wide-open spaces:

Danny loved dinosaurs. He wished he had one.

"I'm sorry they are not real," said Danny. "It would be nice to play with a dinosaur."

"And I think it would be nice to play with you," said a voice.

"Can you?" said Danny.

"Yes," said the dinosaur.

"Oh, good," said Danny. "What can we do?"

"I can take you for a ride," said the dinosaur.

He put his head down so Danny could get on him...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Chimps who charm

Cha Cha Chimps
By Julia Durango

Illustrated by Eleanor Taylor

2006, Simon and Schuster

The little one can't read yet, of course, which means her father and I serve as her sole portal to literary enrichment.

Left to her own devices, she would probably only choose books with Muppets or bits of faux fur on the cover. But since we're the ones who have to actually recite this stuff aloud, I don't think it's wrong to hide "Sparkly Touchy Feely Fairies" behind the diaper pail, and stock the bedtime rotation with more rewarding fare.

Which, ahem, does not mean our choices are always quite grown-up, either.

Take "Cha Cha Chimps."

OK, don't take our copy. Eventually we'll return it to the shelves of our city's public library, so other toddlers can enjoy it too.

But we still have a few days left on the most recent renewal of this jazzy counting rhyme, about a group of chimpanzees who sneak out to a late-night dance club.

And for now we're still smitten -- embarassingly, hopelessly, ridiculously hooked on the indelible rhythm of its refrain, the kind that sometimes escapes accidentally while I'm, say, waiting in a long line at Trader Joes:

Meercat macarenas
to a funky Latin beat.

His body shimmy-shimmies
from his whiskers to his feet.

3 little chimps do the


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Welcome home, Mo!

Knuffle Bunny
By Mo Willems
2004, Hyperion
A Caldecott Honor Book

It always warms my heart when Rosie mentions a book by name -- even more so when the book in question isn't actually at arm's reach at the moment.

In August, when some strangers house-sat for us (long story), "Knuffle Bunny" joined dozens of other favorite books in exile on the sunporch that doubles as Rosie's toy overflow zone. No see, no remember, no read.

Then tonight, I brought home a library copy of "Beegu," Alexis Deacon's curiously existential picture book. Upon her first glimpse of the long-eared, three-eyed alien title character, Rosie reacted as though she'd just bumped into a long-lost friend:

"Knuffle Bunny, Mommy! That's Knuffle Bunny!"

I tried to correct her error: "No sweetie, that's Beegu. Beegu's from outer space. See, she has three eyes?" Meeting only skepticism, I retreated eventually to a compromise position: "Well, OK, maybe that's Knuffle Bunny's cousin."

Hey, it's not like it's going to be on the SAT.

And anyway, we soon enjoyed a happy reunion with the real thing, which emerged from its hibernation just as delightful as the first time we read it:

"Now please don't get fussy,"
said her daddy.

Well, she had no choice....

Trixie bawled.
She went boneless.
She did everything she could
to show how unhappy she was.

Bu the time they got
home, her daddy was
unhappy, too...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Can you trade them in?

Everywhere Babies
By Susan Meyers

Illustrated by Marla Frazee

2001, Harcourt

From start to finish, Rosie's day could only be described as naughty.

She did not care to get out of bed in the first place, and perhaps we should have bowed to her authority on that point. Because from then on, nothing suited her. She did not want a diaper, nor clothes. She absolutely did not want her hair brushed. Nor a jacket, nor to be pried from her stroller, which she had climbed into in a last-minute ploy to avoid leaving the house.

As she arrived, sobbing, at the daycare door, she refused to relinquish her blanket and pacifier. All day, she played mean, refused to share toys and demanded attention. And when I came to pick her up, she gave an older, larger boy one last hard shove, just to make her feelings clear.

By the time we were finally settled in for bedtime reading, both of us glad to be putting the day behind us.

For awhile, Rosie ignored the stories, preferring to amuse herself by stuffing Fisher Price Little People down my bra. But eventually, she snuggled in, pulling the covers to her chin and demanding, "The baby book, mommy. I wanna the baby book."

There's something so soothing, for both of us, about "Everywhere Babies."

I take comfort in the simple narrative, a gentle reminder that millions of other parents endure this same daily struggle. And I adore the drawings, a diverse universe of cheerful, proud, exhausted caregivers, doing their best to meet an infant's demands. (One mommy has clearly dozed off mid-breastfeeding, a book splayed open in her hand -- how's that for real life?)

Rosie, too, finds much to look at among the intricate illustrations. Tonight she leaned forward, one extended finger tracing the images as I read rhymes about little ones learning and growing, making plenty of mistakes along the way.

Today, especially today, we both needed to hear the book's sentimental final stanza:

Every day, everywhere, babies are loved --
for trying so hard,
for traveling so far,

for being so wonderful...

...Just as they are!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Off to Berryland (over and over and over again)

By Bruce Degen

1983, Harper

(Board edition 1995)

Our copy of Jamberry arrived slightly used, part of a box of hand-me-downs a relative sent I was still pregnant. I remember looking at its slightly battered cover and thinking, 'Wow, this one's seen better days. It must have been a real favorite.' But paging through it, I wasn't sure why. Really? Strawberry ponies? A tuba-tooting bunny band? Not to mention the simpering, slightly creepy bear who appears on nearly every page.

Funny how a few years actually feeding, changing and bathing a kid changes your ideas about parenting.

I can't remember why I once thought the book in bad shape -- it's not torn, it bears no sticky juice residue or crayon scribbles. And it's WAY cleaner than most of what we bring home from the library. True, several tooth prints dent the cover, but I can no longer remember whether they were put there by Rosie or the little girls who owned it first.

So yeah, this story's sweeter than Splenda, overly precious, and frankly doesn't make much sense. But Rosie loves this book and so I do too now.

Oh, all right: probably love is too strong a word. But "Jamberry" holds a certain place in my heart, somewhere alongside the certainty that part of what's great about motherhood is that my life is no longer all about what I want.

In the past two years, we've read "Jamberry" a lot. Like, REALLY a lot. So much so that in idle moments I sometimes find the verses chugging through my head, unbidden:


Pick me a blackberry!