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.