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...