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!



Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The fleeting passions of toddlerhood

By Taro Yashima

1958, Viking Press

Paperback by Puffin Books
A Caldecott Honor book

Lately it's been all about the frog boots. They are, of course, very green. Rubber, like all rain boots. With eyes on the toes and loopy handles on both sides with which to pull them on. A bit too big, quite possibly oozing phthalates, but totally cute.

And Rosie LOVES 'em. With a serious, dogged, unjaded, two-foot-tall love. A love so ardent it hints toward an inner geek, waiting to mature and be redirected toward Tolkien, clarinet or videogames. (Please, let it be clarinet.)

If we did not hide them from her, Rosie would wear her frog boots every day. All day. Over elastic-waist pants. Beneath fancy dresses. To the playground. Daycare. Or just around the house. She's been known pull them on a last time at the end of the evening, clomping down the hallway clad only in a diaper and frog boots, en route to her bedtime bath.

So of course we couldn't resist "Umbrella." The wistful little tale, set amid dreamy illustrations, follows the author's daughter as she waits anxiously for an autumn shower to allow the debut of her 3rd birthday gift, red rubber boots and an umbrella. When Momo's wish finally comes true, she treads carefully to and from nursery school, clutching her prized possession.

We read the book four times tonight: First at the neighborhood bookstore, where we found it. Again in the car on the way home. The third time snuggled together in the big brown chair in the living room. And one last time before bed.

And each time I choked up in the final pages, which so beautifully explain why Yashima has chosen to highlight this particular moment of his daughter's life:

Momo is a big girl now,
and this is a story
she does not remember at all

Does she remember or not,

it was not only the first day of her life

that she used an umbrella,

it was also the first day in her life
that she walked alone,
without holding either

her mother's or her father's hand...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Um, yes, I have heard of rabies....

by Janell Cannon
1993, Harcourt Children's Books

Paperback by Scholastic

I missed storytime three nights in a row, thanks to a business trip to the East Coast, then returned home to a heatwave that left the house unbearable.

So Rosie and I spent this evening out back in the kiddie pool -- she immersed in the hose-cold water that she happily poured from cup to bucket; me dipping my feet from the edge of a lounge chair, sipping chilled chardonnay and making up for lost time admiring my daughter: her small hands, the lovely curve of her neck.

To absolve for my recent absence, I allowed for extra bedtime reading, and didn't protest when Rosie added "Stellaluna" to tonight's book pile. I knew her focus would drift during its 46 pages -- to lock in on this one, she'll need to be either a little older or a lot less sleepy.

Still, Rosie enjoys repeating the title, and the story fit my own mood. I can't help feeling a protective surge on behalf of the vulnerable heroine, an earnest baby bat who struggles to fit in with a nest of birds.

And I relate fiercely to her mother's devotion:

"In a warm and sultry forest far, far away, there once lived
a mother fruit bat and her new baby.

Oh, how Mother Bat loved her soft tiny baby. "I'll

name you Stellaluna," she crooned.

Each night, Mother Bat would carry Stellaluna

clutched to her breast as she flew out in search for food....

Monday, September 1, 2008

A lizard who lets his freak flag fly...

A Color of His Own
by Leo Lionni
1975, Random House

2000, Knopf board edition

When Rosie was younger, her passion for turning pages grew so fierce we dared bring nothing but board books into our home.

Sadly, much of the storytelling offered in sturdy editions is distinctly lacking -- suitable for chewing, yes, but unlikely to spark a lifelong appetite for literature.

So I was thrilled to find this infant-proof version of a Leo Lionni classic.

Born in Holland, Lionni was well-known as an artist and graphic designer before he created his first children's book, at age 49. He went on to write dozens of books, four of them Caldecott Honor winners. He's known for his bold collages and poignant storylines.

I have yet to meet a Lionni book I don't love, but I'm particularly fond of "A Color of His Own."

Its big, simple pictures appeal to even the youngest audiences, and spare sentences gave parents a fighting chance to keep pace when chubby fingers long to flip ahead. Still, the story's gentle lessons on acceptance and belonging allow it to hold up through years of reading.

And now that Rosie can chime in, I realized that Lionni's work has been slyly teaching her colors all along:

One day a chameleon
who was sitting

on a tiger's tail

said to himself,

"If I remain on a leaf,

I shall be green forever,

and so I too will have
a color of my own."

With this thought he cheerfully climbed

onto the greenest leaf.

But in autumn the leaf turned yellow
-- and so did the chameleon...

Friday, August 29, 2008

And now for something extra loud

Do Like a Duck Does
By Judy Hindley

Illustrated by Ivan Bates

2002, Candlewick Press

A happy accident brought this super-fun book into our lives.

Leery of lugging a proper selection of storybooks on a cross-country flight, we asked Grandpa Ed to keep an eye out for kids' titles on his normal thrift-store rounds.

He arrived for our shared vacation with, bless his heart, a hefty cardboard box that Rosie happily plundered for most of the week. She enjoys any new book, but it quickly became clear that "Do Like a Duck Does" stood bill and tail feathers above the rest.

This book is a joy to read aloud, combining perfectly paced rhyme with a comic storyline just right for toddlers (one so exciting, in fact, that you may choose to reserve it for non-bedtime readings). Rosie screams in delight as an ill-intentioned fox falls in with a line of ducklings, trying to convince their skeptical mother that he too has wings and waddles.

Bate's illustrations add oodles of character -- softening the fox's menace with buffoonery, and gracing crafty Mama Duck with considerable pluck:

"Look!" says Mama.
"What a lovely patch of muck!
Jump in the puddle, dear.
Show you're a duck!

Lots of bugs and beetles
swimming in the scum.

Open up your beak, dear.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Making friends with books

"Blueberries for Sal"
by Robert McCloskey
1948, the Viking Press

Paperback by Puffin Books

A Caldecott Honor book

Beloved picture books tend to present writing so spare that a child's imagination must swell to fill them. These stories aren't lectures, they're friendships, requiring willing participation from the second party. And that means that some also prove acquired tastes, pushed aside in repeated disinterest until the moment some mysterious sea change prompts favored status.

We brought home a copy of "Blueberries for Sal" a few weeks ago, and I was charmed to page through its quiet meanderings, laid out in restrained pen-and-ink drawings. Still, the book didn't do much for Rosie, who made clear her disdain through a sudden display of fascination with her toenails.

A week in Maine changed everything.

Maybe it was the extra story time during lazy afternoons at the coastal cabin where we shared with her grandparents. Or perhaps the blueberry-rich banana bread that stained our teeth all week. Either way, the deal must have been cemented that last clear morning, as we lounged in Adirondack chairs watching diamonds bounce off the Sheepscot River, and Rosie's grandmother helped her pluck two small orbs from a last, lonely blueberry plant. Both were instantly stuffed into her mouth.

What could be sweeter?

Little Sal hurried ahead and dropped a blueberry in
her mother's pail. It didn't sound kuplink! because the
bottom of the pail was already covered with berries. She
reached down inside to get her berry back. Though she
really didn't mean to, she pulled out a large handful,
because there were so many blueberries right up close to
the one she had put in...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Urban birds in love

Fly High, Fly Low
by Don Freeman
1957, Viking Books

(Puffin paperback, 2007)
A Caldecott Honor book

I've long had a thing for pigeons -- stoic commuters who seem to inhabit a world of their own, just below the scope of our ordinary notice. People don't bother with these urban birds much, and they return the favor, barely bothering to glance over their feathered shoulders as they dodge looming cars or passing joggers.

People? Whatever. Pigeons have things to do, places to go.

My daughter admires them too, exclaiming "Oh, birdie!" at each sighting, as awed as if she had spotted some rare egret. Given an expanse of grass she will run at them till they grow concerned enough to take flight -- which for a pigeon is quite concerned indeed, equivalent to at least an orange alert. Even then, they don't go far and Rosie waits happily for them to touch back down.

Lately, she has learned to flap her arms as she runs, declaring, "I'm flying."

So the timing was perfect for us to discover this whimsical avian romance, nestled amid the children's paperbacks at an independent bookstore. As a kid I loved "Corduroy," Freeman's beloved tale of a department store bear in search of his missing button. But for some reason I'd never encountered "Fly Low, Fly High" -- perhaps because I grew up in the Midwest?

This San Francisco-centric picture book is a natural for most any child, but especially those in Bay Area, who will enjoy the bird's eye view of familiar landmarks:

By noontime Sid and Midge could be seen sailing high
in the sky, flying into one cloud and out the other.
Side by side the glided over the bay

until they could look down and see the Golden Gate bridge.

Sid would swoop and fly through the open arches just

to show Midge what a good looper he was...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Grrrl engine power!

The Little Engine that Could
Retold by Watty Piper
Illustrated by George & Doris Hauman
1930, Platt & Munk

Being 2, my daughter emerges into actual personhood a bit more each day. Lately I have been irrationally proud of her, to the point where I sometimes get weepy, just remembering some little thing she did or said. Today, it was her response to this beloved classic.

Like most every toddler across America, Rosie is having a train moment. So she warmed to "The Little Engine" before we even cracked the front cover.

"OH!," she pointed. "A TRAIN!"

(Please note: genius in the making.)

Fully supportive of this story and all it represents, I had been excited to find a library copy purporting to be the complete, original edition. But I soon understood why abridged versions abound -- for adults, there's something truly tedious about the pacing, which repeats the exact same, not-so-melodious phrases as various engines arrive and then reject the stranded toys' pleas for help. Worse, their chief spokesman is the "little toy clown," a moniker that doubles as an ugly little tongue twister.

Notice I said "for adults." As every parent knows, kids have a frightening appetite for repetition. If the first round is good, the second time is even better, and the third exponentially so, so that when the fourth iteration arrives, ecstasy ensures.

Having slogged through the middle section of the book, we now arrive at the payoff: One's audience leaning forward, clapping, beaming with delight and ultimately chiming in as the title character (a lady engine, by the way) hitches herself to the stranded train and slowly begins her journey over the mountain:

Puff, puff, chug, chug, went the Little Blue Engine.

"I think I can -- I think I can -- I think I can -- I think I can..."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A lullaby in text

Big Red Barn
By Margaret Wise Brown

Pictures by Felicia Bond

Text copyright 1956

HarperFestival board edition, 1995

The first time I read "Big Red Barn" to my daughter, I fell in love. Each word on each page is chosen perfectly, the resulting story as smooth and comforting as a baby blanket's satin edge, worn from sliding between tiny fingers.

From the pink pig who squeals in the opening pages to the little black bats who flee the barn at sunset, this quiet tale makes an ideal bedtime story. Its lulling rhythms can visibly sedate my pumped-up toddler. And in our board book edition, the illustrations grow progressively dimmer, so that the scarecrow on the final page is lit only by the moonlight that hits his shoulders and hat. (Even now, thumbing through the pages, I keep yawning).

Brown, I learned from her posthumous Web site, at one point had over 100 books in print, most of them for kids. She employed a half-dozen pen names and as many publishing houses, carried scraps of paper everywhere and sometimes awoke in the morning rushing to jot down stories that arrived in her dreams.

Brown is best known for "Goodnight Moon" and "Runaway Bunny," classics that all children should hear many times to awaken their imaginations and sense of wonder. If you would like your little one to also grow up with an ear for the beauty of words, repeat recitations of "Big Red Barn" could only help:

When the sun went down
In the great green field,

The big cow lowed,

The little pig squealed.

The horses stomped in the sweet warm hay,

and the little donkey gave one last bray...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Si se puede!

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type
By Doreen Cronin

Pictures by Betsy Lewin

2000, Simon and Schuster
A Caldecott Honor book

Rosie surprised me tonight by requesting this book by name, pressing its title into service as a verb:

"Mommy, I wanna Click Clack Moo."

Her emerging ability to ask for things has proved a mixed blessing, but in this case I didn't have to feign bafflement. I wanted to Click Clack Moo, too.

Our copy of this subversive picture book arrived before Rosie herself did, via a coworker at my baby shower. I liked it right away, largely for its thinly veiled socialist agenda.

For the uninitiated: A group of milk cows find an old typewriter in the barn, and use it to demand a raise (in the form of electric blankets). When management (Farmer Brown) stonewalls, they go on strike, soon enlisting support from the local Teamsters (the farm's brigade of laying hens) to increase their leverage.

In the end, not only do the workers prevail, but they manage to hand over their typewriter to the farmyard ducks. Tell the whole barn world, this is union territory!

Seriously, I'm surprised this title hasn't already landed atop some think tank's list of "Most Dangerous Story Books in America." Or gotten banned from some school library, thereby cementing its claim to greatness.

Please random outraged person, try to ban this book!

The cows held an emergency
meeting. All the animals gathered

around the barn to snoop, but none
them could understand Moo.

All night long, Farmer

Brown waited for an

Monday, August 11, 2008

An alphabet book that rolls off the tongue

Little Bitty Mousie
By Jim Aylesworth
Illustrations by Michael Hague

2007, Walker Books for Young Readers

Thanks to a low display at the library, Rosie chose this book herself this weekend.

What made her stop and covet? She declined to elaborate, merely repeated, increasingly insistent, "I wanna read this book, Mommy. I wanna read this one. This one." (Alright already, kid. No need to get whiny.)

My own guess: 1. She liked the colorful cover, which practically screams "Yo, little one! Check me out!" 2. She noticed the book was unusually shiny, thanks to the plastic overwrap that marks it as a new addition to the branch's collection. And/or 3. She could reach it.

Luckily, Rosie's impulse grab turned out to be highly enjoyable. Unlike most ABC books, "Little Bitty Mousie" puts plot first, as its title character, clad in a polka-dot pinafore, explores a sleeping household. She discovers shiny Apples, a stick of Butter, a plate of Carrot, and... you get the idea.

Predictable? A little, but neither yak nor zebra make appearance in the final pages.

Hague's whimsical, color-saturated drawings would be enough to sustain any bedtime reader. But Aylesworth, a long-time first-grade teacher, also has a gift for crafting rhythmic stanzas that are a joy to read. And before long, the playful refrain inspired my little one to gleefully chime in:

She ate the "H" from "Happy"
On a chocolate birthday cake.

Her fur got full of Icing

And it wasn't by mistake.

Tip-tip tippy tippy

Went her little mousie toes.

Sniff-sniff sniffy sniffy

Went her little mousie nose...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Negotiation for nice girls

A Bargain for Frances
By Russell Hoban
Pictures by Lillian Hoban

1970, HarperCollins

In my own childhood, this book ranked among the treasured few that escaped exchange at the local used bookstore, remaining available instead for repeat perusal on rainy afternoons or waaaaay after bedtime, when I would push pages up to the orangey glow of my Humpty Dumpty night light, struggling to make out words.

Clearly, the drawings were not what held my attention. Even after reading the book tonight, it took a Google search to find out the Frances is, in fact, supposed to be a badger. (My guess had been chipmunk.)

What sets this story apart is Frances herself, a kind and caring heroine who still has enough cunning to escape a bad business deal. Girls are heavily socialized in the importance of being "nice," with wide-ranging consequences in everything from our adult relationships to the price we pay for a used car. Despite her inherent sweetness, Frances has chutzpah.

I can't help wondering: how might the world change, if we carefully champion such cleverness and self-assurance in all our little girls?

"A Bargain for Frances" does go on -- the story spans 64 pages, albeit in a commanding font. Still, tonight's rendition mostly held my overtired 2-year-old's attention (perhaps because of her passion for her own new tea set).

"Well," said Frances, "this time I do not have to be careful. We are not playing with boomerangs. We are not skating. We are having a tea party, and we are making a mud cake."

"Be careful anyhow," said Mother.

"All right," said Frances...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

To each (bull) his own

By Munro Leaf, drawings by Robert Lawson
1936, Viking Juvenile
Paperback editions by Puffin Books

Great children's stories enjoy a remarkable shelf life. And the very best become immortal, permanent fixtures that lurk in our collective unconscious, awaiting the joy of rediscovery when we become parents.

"Ferdinand" is one of those.

Before my daughter was born, a stranger mentioned the story in passing -- I can't remember why, or where. Still, her comment made me want to revisit this old friend, and I wound up reading the whole thing on the bookstore floor, delighted anew.

Some months later I bought a copy for a friend's daughter. And when I saw a used paperback edition on clearance at a local bookshop last year, I snatched it up, even though my own progeny could not yet be trusted in arm's reach of anything less sturdy than a board book.

At 2, she is finally old enough to enjoy "Ferdinand." The larger lessons -- diversity, pacifism, a mother's wisdom -- escape her, and may take years to sink in. In the meantime, she'll simply enjoy the story of a gentle bull's insistence on doing what he enjoys best, smelling flowers in the shade of a cork tree.

A final note: At 66 pages, this book at first heft might seem the kind that makes you groan when tiny hands press it into yours at bedtime. Be not afraid: The test is well-aired among the spare pen and ink drawings, and reciting is through in no time at all.

Well if you were a bumble
bee and a bull sat on you what

would you do? You would
sting him. And that is just what

this bee did to Ferdinand...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

An ambitious squirrel dives into art

By John Lithgow
Illustrated by C.F. Payne
2002, Aladdin Paperbacks

Anyone who sat near my desk during my years as a family and parenting reporter heard more than enough of my thoughts on children's books written by celebrities. I'll spare you the full rant and just summarize: They infuriate me. Vapid, twee, self-absorbed and bestsellers nonetheless, the vast majority stand as clear evidence of the hijacking of American childhood by the uninspired engines of commerce.

OK, um, partial rant.

Still, I feel entirely comfortable making an exception for John Lithgow, who seems less of a celebrity-turned-author, and more of a children's writer who happens to be famous for other stuff too.

A friend sent us "Micawber" for my daughter's second birthday a few days ago, and already she's insisted on several recitations -- last night she even asked to bring the book to bed.

Our edition lists 4-8 as its recommended age range, and Lithgow doesn't dumb down his word choices ("beguiler," "viridian" or "peregrination," anyone?) Still, even much younger kids will love this imaginative tale of an art-loving squirrel, with a comfortable cadence that leaves room to linger over Payne's lush images.

Micawber's dull life, with its tedious toils,
All at once seemed a hundred times duller,
As he straggled a palette and squeezed out some oils
And discovered the wonders of COLOR!...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

An era that's slipping away...

The Paperboy
By Dav Pilkey
1996, Orchard Books
Paperback edition by Scholastic
Winner, 1997 Caldecott Honor Award.

Midway through reading this book to my daughter at bedtime, I choked up. There's nothing particularly sad about the text -- it was more that Pilkey's spare, evocative writing suddenly felt like a eulogy for the business that has shaped most of my adult life, newspaper journalism.

It's been three weeks since I packed up my desk in the newsroom, and nearly each day since has brought another round of bad news for the business. Once central to community life, our daily papers now seem to going the way of the bowling alley. Was it just a dozen years ago that young boys woke before dawn, climbed on their bikes and pedaled the morning edition around their neighborhoods?

In any case, this lovely picture book seemed like a fitting starting point for a project I suddenly have time for, cataloging titles that beg for inclusion in any family's storytime rotation.

Even if you're not a journalist, you'll love the dim, sleepy illustrations in "The Paperboy," and the way the story unfurls like a poem, lingering over the wonderful secret moments that children appreciate best.

The paperboy knows his route by heart,
so he doesn't ever think about

which house to pedal to.

Instead he is thinking about other things.
Big Things.

And small things.

And sometimes he is thinking about

nothing at all.