Friday, November 30, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - In November by Cynthia Rylant

This is it -- Day 30 of Picture Book Month. Have you had as much fun as we have? It's been wonderful to share some of our favorite books with you, books old and new. Many of these titles are ones we return to again and again -- we hope you've found some books among our picks that will be the same for you and yours.

I hope you've been following along not only with our little project, but also with the great things happening at the Picture Book Month site. So many amazing posts about picture books, how their art and words and their very spirit can change the lives of kids and adults alike. I think author/illustrator Joyce Wan said it best, in her November 29 post on the importance of picture books: "Picture books empower the underprivileged and give hope to the voiceless. They have the power to capture your heart and transform your soul. They are the first interaction we have with books and that initial connection creates a ripple effect that lasts a lifetime and for generations to come."

Today's pick is Cynthia Rylant's In November. This is often read at Thanksgiving, and that fits because of course the Thanksgiving feast is mentioned prominently. But it's also so much about the wrapping up of the world for winter, the way the birds take flight and the animals become lazier, and how the bite to the air becomes sharper. This is a book to read by the firelight, snuggled down with a blanket and the comforts of home to keep you.

This is one that I've been saving all month long, because it seems to sum up not only the spirit of this month, but also because it represents so much of what is best about picture books today. Its storyline is spare and tight, words dropped like jewels into place so that phrase each shines with a unique beauty. Its illustrations, beautifully done by Jill Kastner, are evocative, snapshots of the way the world looks at this time of year, with the light sifting through the clouds and the closeness of dark coming ever near. Of all the books written about fall, this is the one that for me best symbolizes the transition from autumn to winter, and celebrates that time as perfect for all it is.

I hope that through this past 30 days, you've encountered some books that will crack open the whole wide world for your children. When you read picture books to your children, you give them so much: laughter and knowledge, closeness and exploration, silliness and introspectiveness, dreams and honesty. You teach them and you learn from them, watching their experience with the words on the page and the pictures they lose themselves in. I've never read books in the same way as I have now that I read them to Sprout, even when I read them to other children, because I see each title as I se the world - much differently through his eyes.

As for us? We'll still be right here, a stack of books by our side, and many more where these came from.

In November by Cynthia Rylant, published by Harcourt

Thursday, November 29, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham

It's Day 29 of Picture Book Month, and the theme of our choice for today is community. Books in general, and picture books in particular, are a major means of teaching cultural norms, which is a critical part of socialization. Young children learn how to work together, how to share, how to be part of society not only through the behaviors they see modeled, but also through more passive channels.

And so armed with that knowledge, I think it's vital to read books that show what we want our kiddos to become. For us, it's important that Sprout become the kind of kid who cares about others and is inspired to contribute as a citizen of the world as well as of his community. So we read books that build social consciousness, books about amazing people like Wangari Maathai and Pura Belpre, and then we read books about communities coming together.

The most amazing community-themed book I've read in recent months, and one that Sprout has asked for again and again, is Bob Graham's A Bus Called Heaven. I've written about Bob Graham's books before, but I must say again that I find his work so very incredible. He hits the nail right on the head when it comes to books that kids will love but which carry deeper messages - about love and acceptance, and in this case about working together. His illustrations are spot on for his target audience, with plenty of small details that kids love to pore over and realism and idealism melded together. Simply fantastic, every one.

In A Bus Called Heaven, Graham gives us another neighborhood story, this time of a group of people who turn an abandoned bus into a de facto community center. Nobody's sure where the bus, labelled with a sign that reads "Heaven", came from. But acting on an idea from shy little Stella, the neighbors rally and convert it into their own place. It's not just for the kids, but for everyone, with movie nights, foosball, a lending library, a gathering spot. Sooner or later, though, the bureaucrats get involved and the bus has to move -- unless quiet Stella's plan to save their bus can somehow be successful.

Here you have the most inclusive backgrounds I've seen in picture books, as Graham peoples his books with elderly and infants, tattooed biker types and glasses-wearing rabbis, moms and dads, multiracial families, and people of all colors and creeds. (Nothing annoys me more than books set in urban areas where there's zero diversity.) Graham gets it right in his message too: that some things are bigger than just one person, that we all need "third places" to connect and involved and be together. The last spread shows the whole point best - at the center of the gray city night is the bus called Heaven -- alive with color and light, festive and drawing together a community, with grass "danced flat".

The bus may be called Heaven - but this book, for us, is too.

A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham, published by Candlewick Press

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Roly Poly Pangolin by Anna Dewdney

It's Day 28 of Picture Book Month! Today I'm thinking about fears. This might seem like an odd topic when it relates to picture books, but some of the best picture books have really scary bits in them, and that's handled to various degrees by the kids who read them. Honestly, I find it's usually parents who have more issues with creepy parts of kids books, because they aren't sure how their little darling is going to handle it (and often kids are more okay with it than their parents are.)

But that's not really what I mean - in this instance I'm talking less about monsters and more about the kind of fear that's more intimidation, a fear of things or places that others are just fine with. Children's lit is full of examples where protagonists confronted something they were daunted by, and found a way to deal with it. While that might seem repetitious, it's important that kids see plenty of examples of friends, even fictional ones, who face their fears head on. That way we give them tools and strategies when they face their own trepidations, which they're bound to do.

Today's pick is one Sprout chose, and I think he likes it because the character is scared of new things, which Sprout himself tends to be. You're probably familiar with Anna Dewdney from her Llama Llama books (we find them deeply adorable), and that's why we initially checked out Roly Poly Pangolin, which Dewdney wrote and illustrated. A pangolin, if you don't know it, is an oddball little critter found in Africa and parts of Asia. Pangolins are covered in scales, which they use as a defense when they are scared - they roll into a ball so whatever threatens them is faced by their armor. Between that and the fact that they eat bugs (they have no teeth), Sprout finds them "weird and cool".

Dewdney cleverly turns the pangolin's defense system into a plot point. Our little friend Roly Poly doesn't like new things. He doesn't want to eat yucky bugs, he doesn't want to play with a friendly monkey, and he definitely doesn't want to find out what's making that scary noise in the forest. In running away from the noise, Roly Poly trips and stumbles into a ball, where he's most comfortable. But then Roly Poly decides to open his eyes just a bit, and what he finds is someone who's just like him!

As always, Dewdney's text is readable and relatable for even the youngest listeners, who will identify with Roly Poly's reluctance to try new things. And her art makes these strange little guys seem so appealing. Now we want to meet one in person! I can see a report on the pangolin coming up somewhere in our academic future. . . but in the meantime, we're thrilled to see yet another strong literary example of a character confronting his fears and coming out much the better for it.

Roly Poly Pangolin by Anna Dewdney, published by Viking

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell

It's Day 27 of Picture Book Month. Today I have a confession: I am not a crafty mom. I wish I was, because one of the things Sprout really loves is making all kinds of art, using different materials and really getting creative. But sadly, I'm more than a bit challenged in this area. I don't sew, don't knit, don't draw, and can't for the life of me seem to finish our wedding scrapbook (or, um, start it, I mean).

But I do really admire the creative impulse, and we try to nurture it in Sprout. One of my goals for next year is to try to incorporate some more crafting time into our family activities, because I think it's important for kids to flex their imaginations. After all, childhood is the time for flights of fancy, not hunching over a screen like you're toiling away in a cubicle all day, right?

To that end, I was thrilled to find the book that's our pick today: Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell. Sprout ADORES the first book by Lovell, Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon, and I do too. It's high on my list of books to recommend to all kids, packed with positive messages about being yourself and standing strong even when others try to knock you down. So we were pretty excited to read the next adventure with Molly Lou Melon, and I'm happy to say it does not disappoint.

In this latest outing, Molly Lou Melon is again acting on a lesson from her oh-so-wise grandmother, this time on using your imagination and the tools at your disposal to create your own playthings. Molly Lou's new neighbor, Gertie, has all the most expensive toys and elaborate gadgets around, but she's always bored. And so Molly Lou's showing her how to have fun, by being creative. Molly Lou cracks out some incredible creations, all of which come to life with David Catrow's colorful and whimsical illustrations. (Plus Molly Lou's delightfully droopy-faced dog is back again -- Catrow really draws the most terrific dogs, so perfect that you just want to reach out and scruffle their heads!)

Of this new book, Sprout says, "It's silly again!". He especially loves Molly Lou's cardboard-box race car, which she's painted and fashioned to look like the most amazingly cool paper-airplane ever (betcha that sucker is super fast!). I love that Lovell again sends a message about inclusion -- this time around Molly Lou's friend Gertie uses crutches, but it's not a plot point, just a feature about Gertie like her auburn hair or glasses. And Gertie learns that Molly Lou's way of having fun is so much better than watching TV or playing with a cell phone, so score one for old-school ways of amusing oneself.

Next time your kiddos complain that "there's nothing to do", share Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon with them, and talk about some of the ways you can inject some creativity into the day. With a little imagination (and some spare thingamajigs), you too can have as much fun as Molly Lou!

Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Monday, November 26, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Nightsong by Ari Berk

Down to our last week of Picture Book Month -- sob! We will miss sharing our daily picture book picks with you, dear reader, though I am looking forward to blogging about some chapter books and a few other choice bits we've run across in the past month. And don't forget to check out our Pinterest boards for even more title lists and other bookish fun!

So, our Day 26 pick is a tale of adventure. Picture books, as I've said before, allow readers to try on new personas. All books do this, really, and isn't that why reading is such wonderful fun? Through a book you can be anyone, go anywhere, try anything. For me, as a quite introverted kid, that was the pure magic of reading, and most likely why I love it so. And that's one of the best gifts we can give our kids, I think, the gift of possibility and imagination and worlds without limits.

Today's selection is Nightsong, written by Ari Berk and illustrated by Loren Long. You'll recognize Long as the author/illustrator of our Day 2 pick. Though this is just as much a spectacle visually speaking, it's got a very different tone than Otis. Here, Long makes use of a darker palette to bring to life Berk's tale of a young bat named Chiro, headed out for his very first solo expedition. Being a bat, Chiro is flying out into the darkness; when he expresses his reservations about this to his mother, she tells her child "There are other ways to see. . . other ways to help you make your way in the world."

Night is a character here, a force that imprints Chiro's experience indelibly. At first the little bat is frightened, but soon he realizes that his "good sense", as his mother calls it, can indeed help him to see in new ways. After eating his fill at the pond ("Eeeeewww, he eats bugs!" Sprout shudders gleefully at this bit), Chiro decides to venture a bit further. And here is where the nightsong changes, where Chiro hears and feels and senses in an entirely different fashion than he has known before.

Oh, this is a lovely book, and distinctly different from Stellaluna, Janell Cannon's classic work to which there will be inevitable comparisons. Berk's evocatively written narrative is so much about testing one's wings, about venturing out even as we keep the memory of what is safe nestled close to ourselves, that we might return to that safeness when adventure is done. The whole book is lush and beautiful, the kind of deeply extravagant piece that is an experience unto itself. Even as it casts its own glow, Nightsong reflects the best of children's literature with its enduring themes of exploration and discovery.

As Chiro's mother tells him, "Sense is the song you sing out into the world, and the song the world sings back to you. Sing, and the world will answer. That is how you'll see." Whether you read this with your own kiddos, share with extended family or simply dip into it on your own, Nightsong is a treasure you won't want to miss.

Nightsong by Ari Berk, published by Simon & Schuster

Sunday, November 25, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Abe Lincoln's Dream by Lane Smith

It's Day 25 of Picture Book Month. Today I'm thinking about history. Picture books are a terrific way for us to introduce young children to historical events and people, in a way that is accessible and relatable for them. They are also an important way to make connections between events of the past and our lives now. After all, history influences many parts of our daily interactions, our belief systems, our freedoms to live our daily lives.

Of course nonfiction picture books are one way to introduce kids to history, but there are also loads of fictionalized biographies and imaginative stories that do the same thing. Some of these include made-up scenarios and personas, but lest you reject these titles for those reasons, consider how much we as adults can glean from historical fiction or movie dramatizations. Sure, not every aspect is strictly true, but in the sense that these types of materials bring past events to life and help point out the relevance of history to modern-day existence, they can be enormously valuable when used in specific contexts.

Today's pick is phenomenal not only for its take on one of our greatest Presidents, but also for its imagination and heart. Lane Smith is a legend in kidlit circles, and with his latest effort, Abe Lincoln's Dream, he has once again produced a book that will both delight and inspire. Quincy is a young African American girl who's touring the White House with her class. She stumbles on the figure of a tall man in a black suit and stovepipe hat: Abe Lincoln, of course. It's soon revealed that Lincoln is a ghost, but not a scary sort -- he's hanging around because he wants to know how everything turned out in modern-day America.

The unlikely pair goes on an aerial tour of the nation. Lincoln queries Quincy about various states of the Union ("And equality for all?" Lincoln wants to know; "It's getting better all the time." Quincy replies). At the end of their journey, Quincy takes Lincoln to the moon, where he's astonished to see an American flag. And at last, it seems, the President is able to rest in peace.

Abe Lincoln's Dream is beautifully illustrated, with a bold design component that's stunning. Visually there are so many striking elements: the long-legged President strolling through the White House Rose Garden, Quincy and Lincoln soaring over the Statue of Liberty, and the final spread of Lincoln sailing away on the River Queen. Throughout the narrative, there are lots of significant historical elements, which provide plenty of opportunities to talk and think about these things with young readers. But this is the kind of title that older kids would enjoy as well -- not only is it powerful to look at, it's also a book that functions on many different layers.

This is an imaginative story that's as much a tribute to a beloved President as it is a celebration of all our nation stands for. Lane Smith has once again given us a wholly original, fully realized picture book that all ages will enjoy.

Abe Lincoln's Dream by Lane Smith, published by Roaring Brook Press

Saturday, November 24, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School by Laura Murray

It's Day 24 of Picture Book Month -- betcha didn't think we'd get this far with our one-book-a-day project, didja? We're still going strong though, mostly because we make time to read every day and night, despite the busy-ness of a holiday weekend and all kinds of other things going on. After all, that's how you teach kids what priorities are, by finding pockets of time to include those activities no matter what. And it's not always easy to squeeze in opportunities to read, believe me, but we make it work.

Today's pick is guaranteed to produce some serious laughter from Sprout every time we pull it off the shelf. Books like this one make reading fun, which in turn furthers our goal of having daily family book time. It's interesting that given the chance, Sprout will almost always choose books that represent a wide spectrum of reading moods, from hilarious to introspective and everything in between. That not only injects a good amount of variety into our nightly reading routine, but it makes for plenty of opportunities to reflect on how books, like people, have very different personalities.

The book of the day, The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School by Laura Murray, is a clever twist on a classic story. We love it because of that and also because of its theme (Sprout's nuts for any book set in a school). As the story goes, a class project results in the mixing of dough and baking of a gingerbread man. Gingie comes to life, but just then the class is called out to recess, leaving their poor Gingerbread Man behind. Undaunted, the Gingerbread Man heads out to find his friends. The route he takes gives him face time with teachers and even the principal. There are some dead funny moments here -- Sprout especially likes it when the Gingerbread Man ends up in the art teacher's lunch!

As Sprout's daddy is a big comic book fan, he appreciates illustrator Mike Lowery's technique of telling the story in panel form (anything to introduce Sprout to the mechanics of reading comics!). The illustrations are cute but not saccharine, with realistic backgrounds that give a peek into the world of elementary school. And the story is told in such a way that even the younger set will have no trouble following it, though you may have to explain who the various teachers are. Best of all, the resolution is satisfyingly funny, with the Gingerbread Man finding his place among the school children.

This would be a fun book to share at back-to-school time, particularly for kids just heading into kindergarten. We read it with an eye toward holiday baking time, and now Sprout cannot wait to make gingerbread men of our very own!

The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School by Laura Murray, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Friday, November 23, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Too Tall Houses by Gianna Marino

It's Day 23 of Picture Book Month, and also happens to be the Day after Thanksgiving here in the States. That means crazy shopping marathons for lots of people, as the stores go nuts competing for who can over-work their retail employees the most. I do find it somewhat ironic that Thanksgiving is a day for being grateful, and the day after is a day for dropping loads of money on stuff. . .

So on the heels of that, it seemed like a great day to feature today's pick, which is all about competition and what it can do to a friendship. Picture books are perfect for sharing lessons about values, as they provide lots of interesting scenarios against which kids can judge right from wrong. Picture book characters often act in outrageous ways, in order to make the moral lesson most obvious for little ones. What in just a few years' time is taught best with subtlety is at Sprout's age best communicated through narratives that have big neon arrows pointing out the message the author is driving at. But still, it has to be done in a fun way, free of didacticism or preachiness.

Today's selection is the fabulous Too Tall Houses by author/illustrator Gianna Marino. Marino is a new author for me, but after this outing I'm anxious to check out her previous picture book Meet Me at the Moon. In Too Tall Houses, we have a tale with an Aesop-esque quality that I just love. Rabbit and Owl are happy neighbors, living side-by-side in two houses that are each the right size. Rabbit is a gardener and his veggies need sunlight, while Owl is more introspective and loves a forest view. But suddenly Rabbit's garden is obscuring Owl's line of sight, so Owl builds his house up a bit. Then Rabbit's veggies can't get the sun, so Rabbit adds on to his place. On and on it goes, until the two friends have each built houses of gargantuan proportions (I love the use of exaggeration here). But houses this big can't stand for long -- and what will the neighbors do when their too tall houses are destroyed by the wind?

Fables are an enduring artform for a reason, as they're a great way to teach moral truths, especially to young readers. Owl and Rabbit are perfect archetypes for the lesson here, about being content with what you have and not trying to compete or be better than another. Further, we learn about what it takes to be a good friend. When Owl built his house up and blocked the sunlight, Sprout's instant reaction was, "Now Rabbit will be mad at him!", and that gave us a great opportunity to talk about consideration of others.

Marino's illustrations have an old-school quality about them that effortlessly supports the tone of her story. Illustrations like these are the stuff of a young child's dreams. Small details abound (we like the spread where Owl ends up with a tomato on his head) and those add to the overall delight of this charming tale. A wonderful addition to any library, Too Tall Houses wraps some serious life truths in a most appealing package.

Too Tall Houses by Gianna Marino, published by Viking

Thursday, November 22, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson

Happy Thanksgiving! It's Day 22 of Picture Book Month and we have much to be thankful for around here: family, good friends, a warm home, plenty to eat, and of course loads of books. As we have been the last couple of years, we are extra thankful for the process of adoption, which allowed us to become parents, and to the country of Ethiopia, where our hearts were made full. We hope you are having a wonderful day celebrating with those you love most.

This is the first year that Sprout is really aware of the holiday. He's been doing turkey crafts at preschool (a pinecone turkey!) and talking about things he's thankful for. We've also been talking a lot at home about gratitude, about how fortunate we are to have so much in our lives. Naturally that entails reading books about Thanksgiving. I've shared some already, from multicultural titles to a nonfiction choice, and today's pick features one of our favorite picture book characters.

We first met Karma Wilson's Bear in the now-classic Bear Snores On, and since then we've read a number of Bear's other adventures. Sprout adores Bear, and with each book he studies Jane Chapman's illustrations carefully. In his latest outing, Bear Says Thanks, Bear and his forest friends gather in his cozy cave for a lovely feast. Everyone brings something, from Mouse's huckleberry pie to Badger's catch of the day. But Bear is upset because his own cupboard is empty and he has nothing to add to the dinner spread. Fortunately, his dear friends reassure them that Bear has plenty to share: his wonderful stories! And so the group gathers together to share a meal and some cameraderie.

You can't go wrong with any of these excellent Bear titles. Karma Wilson's stories touch on the kinds of issues that are important to preschoolers, and her writing really lends itself to read-aloud, whether at home or in the classroom. I love that each title gives us more to talk about -- in this case, the importance of sharing what we have with others who do not, as well as the fact that we all have different gifts to contribute. And the illustrations by Jane Chapman are just delightful, with color palettes and cozy details that match the tone of each tale to a T. In one of the last spreads, the friends are gathered around Bear, eating and laughing and having a very enjoyable time; Chapman's homey translation of the scene will make young readers want to join right in!

Stories unite us and help us understand ourselves and our world in ways we could never anticipate. We hope you, dear readers, are as thankful for the gifts of talented authors and illustrators as we are. In the spirit of Bear and his friends, we all say "Thanks!"

Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson, published by Simon & Schuster

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

It's Day 21 of Picture Book Month and today I'm thinking about tradition. Picture books are a great way to bolster traditions and help celebrate new ones. As far as Thanksgiving goes, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade makes the holiday for a lot of people, myself among them. I remember sitting with my dad on the sofa watching the parade on TV, with the smell of turkey wafting through from the kitchen and the promise of family coming later in the day. Those Thanksgiving mornings are indelibly etched on my memory, and I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Sprout's never seen the Macy's Parade -- we don't have cable -- and so I wasn't sure if the pick for today would really speak to him. But I needn't have worried, because he loves parades. Who doesn't, really? The festivity, the color and music and pageantry of it all. When I took Melissa Sweet's Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade off the stack tonight, and told him it was about parades and balloons, that was all it took to pique his interest.

Sweet's book, which she wrote and illustrated and which has garnered a number of awards (including the Sibert Award, given for nonfiction), is many things. It's history and memoir, telling the story of puppeteer Tony Sarg and his quest to bring puppets to the Macy's Parade. It's inspiration, as we follow Tony's efforts, culminating in the unveiling of the amazing balloons that graced the Parade in 1928, and made balloons a centerpiece even of today's parades. And it's art, filled with incredible mixed-media illustrations that tell Tony's story and give even the most faraway readers a hint of the magic of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Balloons Over Broadway is a great example of some of the wonderful nonfiction available for kids, books that are impeccably researched and bursting with life. Teachers and parents who want to use this title to inspire art projects will find ample fodder for discussing invention and creation with kids; I can absolutely see this as a take-off for making puppets inspired by Tony's outstanding artwork (check out the author's website for loads of links related to this and her other titles).

For his part, Sprout was very intrigued by the notion of marionettes, which I realized that he'd never seen either, so we'll be hunting down an opportunity to watch some in action. And I wish I'd had a camera at the ready as we were reading the book the first time -- when I flipped to the page where Tony's first balloon takes flight over the street below, his jaw dropped wide open in complete amazement.

So as you watch the parade tomorrow, give a thought to Tony Sarg, whose vision and talented team of assistants brought the balloons to Broadway. Rest in peace, Mr. Sarg; our holidays are all the more magical because you were here.

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade by Melissa Sweet, published by Houghton Mifflin

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis

Today is Day 20 of Picture Book Month. I'm beginning to realize that there's no way I can possibly share all the fantastic picture books I want to share this month -- which actually is a pretty great problem to have, since that means we have been reading some stellar stuff in preparation for this project. More riches to come in the days ahead, I promise!

Tonight I'm reminded of the importance of being different. Lots of picture books talk about difference and the various aspects of it -- how it's okay to be yourself, how unique points of view are a gift to all of us. And some books, like today's pick, help us understand how vital it can be to follow your own instincts, even when the crowd around you is going the opposite way. One of the things we really want for Sprout is that he have a strong sense of self, a sense that he maintains throughout the turbulent tween and teen years. So far so good, in that he doesn't mind swimming against the tide. Still, we want to strengthen that tendency in him, and we do that (how else!) by reading him loads of picture books that reinforce the message that different is pretty darn awesome.

Our pick for today is Antoinette Portis's A Penguin Story. It's an apt choice for this time of year, when all thoughts turn to snow and winter. We first read this one last summer, when Sprout saw it at the library and pounced. It's the kind of book I have a soft spot for, one about someone who's misunderstood by all her friends but ultimately vindicated in the end. Hmmm, maybe some childhood issues coming out there. . .

In this case, our someone is a penguin named Edna. Edna, like the rest of the penguins, knows three colors: white of snow and ice, black of nighttime, blue of sea and sky. But Edna feels, deep in her bones, that there's "something else", and while all the other penguins are doing various penguin-y activities, Edna is looking. The other penguins don't get her, and they constantly invite her to take part in what they're doing. But Edna won't stop looking -- and one day, her looking pays off.

Now here's where Portis could take the easy way out. Edna's found something, hooray! End of story. But no. Edna, bolstered by her find, can't stop there, and in the last spread we see her gazing out to the horizon, in search of even more "something else". But this time, she's not alone.

Oh, how I just want to scoop up every little one and thrust this book into their hands! This is a terrific story, simply told, with a powerful message about standing out and being genuine, even when doubters surround you. Young kiddos especially can benefit from this message, and here it is, complete with carefully considered narration and a character we can really root for. And the art is the stuff of preschool dreams: vibrant and full of geometric compositions that are endearingly smudged by falling snow. We are nearly as dazzled as Edna when she realizes that the something she seeks is truly there -- and that's no small feat for an artist to pull off. Kudo, Ms. Portis, kudos.

Penguins may not be the first critters that come to mind when we think about standing out from the crowd. But Edna, and her Penguin Story, prove that iconoclasts come in all shapes and sizes.

A Penguin Story by Antoinette Portis, published by HarperCollins

Monday, November 19, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

Happy Monday! It's Day 19 of Picture Book Month. Today I'm reminded that picture books, and children's stories as a whole, are not always wrapped in sunshine and rainbows. Lest we forget, the storytelling tradition has its roots in tales like those by the Brothers Grimm and we all know that those boys didn't skimp on the tough love, with lessons taught through some gruesome details. Sure, nowadays we like to protect our little darlings from the more graphic aspects of those old tales -- seriously, some of that stuff scares even me -- but it can't all be pure happiness, can it?

If you don't mind a little edge to your picture books, today's pick is going to be right up your alley. Of all the books we've read together as a family, this is easily my husband's favorite, but Sprout and I also find it wickedly funny. I must say that we don't find this book scary in any way, but it is a slice of the subversive, so be ye warned, okay?

So, on to the catch of the day (fish humor! you'll get it in a minute): Jon Klassen's slyly funny This is Not My Hat. First off, this is not a followup to his smash hit I Want My Hat Back, though if you're familiar with that story this is in a very similar vein. No, this time we have at the center of the tale a fish who has just committed a crime. He's stolen a rather jaunty bowler hat from a slumbering whale who's about 1000 times his size. No problem, though, as our narrator is pretty sure he's going to get away with the theft. After all the big fish won't wake up and he'll never figure out who took the hat. . .

Talk about your unreliable narrators -- our little fish friend is just about the king of them. Preschoolers on up will love the disconnect between what our narrator tells us and what we see going on in the illustrations. Klassen's the master of few words, saying more with his slight narrative and expressively moody illustrations than some authors say with entire series. He's also got a gift for dark humor, which we particularly love. Don't be too put off by that though, as you can talk through with your kids what they think happens at the end. In fact I think this title, as well as its companion, provide a great opportunity to teach our kids that words and actions don't always match up, or to put it another way, you can't always believe what you read. Plus then there's also that little bit about how you rarely get away with things, even when you're sure you will. Life lessons, people, life lessons.

When you want something with a tad more edge than the usual picture book fare, check out This is Not My Hat and its predecessor, I Want My Hat Back. But don't say we didn't warn you.

This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, published by Candlewick Press (they believe in picture books!)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey

It's Day 18 of Picture Book Month. Tonight I let Sprout pick the book I would write about for today, and honestly his pick kind of surprised me. Not that it's not a great book -- it unquestionably is -- but of the choices I pulled off the shelf it certainly was the more mellow choice, which he doesn't always go in for. (He tends to be a humor or action sort of fellow.)

And I think that's one of the things that picture books give to us, is the ability to suit our mood absolutely. Of course all books do, but picture books, with their interdependence on both pictures and words to tell a story, give us mood right from the cover. Look at a Richard Scarry title, for instance, and you don't even have to know that his world is called Busytown - you've got hustle and bustle from the get go. Flip through a Jerry Pinkney book and you're in for nostalgia, classic timelessness. Slide a volume of Ian Falconer's off the shelf and you can be sure there's going to be humor, and not the cutesy kind, either, thank you very much.

With tonight's pick, Dav Pilkey's The Paperboy, readers definitely have a sense of the spirit of this book just from the cover image. The story follows a young African American boy on his newspaper route, starting out as the papers are dropped off at his house in the wee hours and continuing as the boy rises in the pre-dawn dark. He and his Corgi get dressed, head downstairs, and eat breakfast without waking the rest of the family, then fold the papers and set out to deliver them. "All the world is asleep except for the paperboy and his dog." Pilkey tells us. "And this is the time when they are the happiest."

The Paperboy is as richly developed in story as it is in its stirring, Caldecott-Honor illustrations. Pilkey uses a palette that's perfectly suited for the instrospective tone of the work, all purples and blues and emeralds until the brilliant sunburst of the dawn breaks the sky. The first time we read this together, when we closed the book Sprout sighed and said, "I like that one." And that's the kind of story this is -- one that makes you, dear reader, feel that all is as it should be, a rhythm of rightness that follows the paperboy's route.

What picture books suit your various moods?  Are there some you return to at certain times, or when you just need something that's going to match your emotional state? For us there definitely are, and The Paperboy is without question one that's evocative, pitch-perfect at day's end.

The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey, published by Scholastic

Saturday, November 17, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems

Today is Day 17 of Picture Book Month, and today I'm thinking about time. As most parents do, we are constantly looking back on the years and months gone by since Sprout joined our family, and wondering where it all went. It seems like just an eyeblink since this little boy was only a whisper, and then a picture, and then a chubby pair of hands clinging fiercely to mine as we boarded an airplane to his new home. And now he is 3 1/2, a "big boy" preschooler with his own set of friends and experiences that make up his day, both with and without us.

It makes me smile, and yet it's a little sad too -- I'm sure you can relate.

Change is inevitable as time passes, and that's something that's as tough for little ones to grasp as it is for us as parents. We look at pictures together and Sprout cocks his head, amused by the sight of himself not walking but crawling, buckled into his high chair and smacking a spoon on his tray. "What happened to the baby me?" he asked me the other night. "You got bigger," I told him, and as he snuggled into my lap for a story, I thought how much bigger still he will eventually be. All the more reason to savor each moment.

Lots of picture books speak to the passage of time, and there are as many takes on this subject as there are authors to write about it. One that captures the particular poignancy of love and friendship, and loss, is City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems. Most of us know Willems for his hilarious titles starring crazy characters like Pigeon, or Elephant and Piggie. But in this outing, Willems shows his true range as an author, bringing us an introspective story of two friends and the changes that come in their relationship. City Dog and Country Frog meet in Spring, play in Summer, reminisce together in Fall. And then in Winter, things are different for the pair - but Spring, as it always does, comes again, and with it friendship sparks anew.

Jon Muth is the artist responsible for this title's outstanding watercolor illustrations. Honestly, as in so many books, I can't imagine more perfect pictures to bring alive the message of this simple story. Muth portrays the friendship between City Dog and Country Frog, in all its phases -- first acquaintanceship, then playmates, then companions -- and in each set of illustrations the qualities of light and color mirror the relationship's progression. As with Willems's text, the pictures are wistful and yet hopeful, just as we all are when looking back at time gone by.

Sprout's as taken with this heartfelt book as his parents are, and it's given us plenty of opportunity to talk about the way things change, over time. You won't soon forget City Dog or Country Frog. Share this with your little ones and with older ones too -- it'll make you want to hold everyone just a little closer, in this moment.

City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, published by Hyperion Books for Children

Friday, November 16, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Nighttime Ninja by Barbara DaCosta

Happy Friday and Happy Day 16 of Picture Book Month! We love the weekend around here, and we try to squeeze in as much family time -- and as many books -- as we can. For us the weekend often means a trip to the library or bookstore (or both), and we usually come home loaded down with lots of treasures to read together.

On one of our weekend bookstore trips I spied today's choice, and though I didn't get to read it in the store, I was able to find it at the library. Please indulge me in a brief diversion from describing today's pick to extol the virtues of the library. If you don't regularly go to your local library, you absolutely need to start the habit. Today's libraries are nothing like the quiet spaces of old. Nowadays libraries, especially in the children's department, are vibrant, bustling places full of color, activity, programs, and oodles of materials. It's not just books: you can get DVDs, audiobooks, magazines, toys, ebooks and loads of other things from your library collection, at no charge. Where else are you going to find such a bargain? I'm not exaggerating when I say we'd be lost without our library card -- we are addicted and I'd have it no other way!

OK, now on to today's pick, which is Nighttime Ninja by Barbara DaCosta. This book is really a visual stunner, from the cover to the end papers to the vivid, complex picture spreads. If you're not familiar with Ed Young, the Caldecott Medalist who created these illustrations, you're in for a treat. Young uses layouts that at first appear simple, but the more you look at them, the more you see. The spreads are done with mixed media collage, combining papers and fabrics into a rich blend of texture and color.

The story is subtle in this one, but none the less powerful. At night, a ninja quietly wends his way through a sleeping house, with his destination firmly fixed. Then suddenly, the house is ablaze with light -- the ninja has been caught! I won't spoil the surprise of what happens next, but it's probably not what you're expecting. I love the sly wit of DaCosta's narrative, and the simplicity of the story make it a good fit for older toddlers and preschoolers.

Sprout's favorite bit is the cover, as he is completely delighted the sight of the ninja peeking out between layers of clothing and bamboo fronds. If you're a crafty sort (which I'm not, though I do try), this would make the perfect title to pair with an art project - check out this post from Barbara DaCosta's website for inspiration!

Nighttime Ninja by Barbara DaCosta, published by Little, Brown and Company

Thursday, November 15, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - The Quiet Book and The Loud Book by Deborah Underwood

Wow, the month is halfway gone - it's Day 15 of Picture Book Month, if you can believe it! We've had such a great time sharing books with all of you. It's been the perfect excuse for us to bring home stacks and stacks of picture books from the library (not that we really need another reason. . . ). And remember, we'd LOVE to hear what your favorite picture books are - connect with us by leaving a comment here, or visiting us on Facebook or Twitter to share!

Tonight is a two-fer, because you can't really read one of these books without the other. I'm speaking of the phenomal picture books by Deborah Underwood, The Quiet Book and The Loud Book, both illustrated by Renata Liwska.  If you haven't seen these books, I highly recommend that you get your hands on both at one time. It's so much fun to compare the situations that the adorably kid-like woodland creatures get themselves into. This is how you teach opposites, with books that go beyond "up" on one page and "down" on another, and best of all don't take themselves too seriously!

Somehow "quiet" and "loud" never get a fair shake in that sort of book, but here both extremes are given their own space to be just what they are. I love that Underwood has so many ways to illustrate each state of being. She really goes far beyond the basics to help kids understand not only what is loud, but why it might be that way. For that reason, I recommend these titles for preschoolers rather than toddlers. Underwood's complex scenarios might be beyond the scope for littler ones, who aren't likely to understand "spilling your marbles in the library loud", whereas an older child will identify all too well. Really many of the jokes are ones that parents appreciate best (how about "too many bubbles quiet", featuring a bewildered bunny in an overflowing tub).

With Sprout we have fun looking at the pages and guessing why the character might be quiet or loud, as the case may be. Liwska's illustrations just tickle him, mainly because she captures the expressiveness of the characters so convincingly. And really, in these two books, there is the perfect marriage of text and illustrations - both are strong, but together, the artforms make for a pretty wonderful picture book experience.

I just asked Sprout which of these books he likes better. His response? " The Quiet Book for school, 'cause they want you to be quiet there. And The Loud Book at home, 'cause here it's great to be loud!"

The Quiet Book and The Loud Book by Deborah Underwood, published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Machines Go to Work in the City by William Low

Here we are at Day 14 of Picture Book Month. Today I'm thinking about experience. Picture books allow us as readers to go all sorts of places we ordinarily wouldn't go, either because we wouldn't think of it or just because we haven't been yet. Sure, some of these places are fantastic and Narnia-esque, but a lot of picture books help us visit destinations that are quite familiar. Truthfully, I'm hard pressed to say which is more of a thrill for a young child. I know Sprout's far more interested in riding a train than he is in flying on a dragon!

So far in my parenting career, I've learned something very important: machinery of all sorts holds a peculiar sway over a certain subset of boys (and girls). I've often joked that someone should write a field guide to construction vehicles, a Sibley guide to tractors and trucks if you will. And with today's pick, William Low's Machines Go to Work in the City, we have something pretty close, at least for the common types of machinery you see every day in an urban environment.

In this lively title, readers get to experience big rigs and gear up close and personal, thanks to Low's fantastically detailed realistic illustrations. Each page shows a machine and then poses a question, the answer to which comes when you open the flap on the accompanying page. Sprout likes the vacuum truck, a type of rig we'd never seen in action. He loves that he can flip down the big flap and see the construction worker guiding the vacuum tube to pump out the water -- really fascinating stuff for my little engineer. The final spread is a real showstopper: as we watch an airplane take off over the city, we can open up the flaps to have a full-page illustration of the plane soaring into the sunset. Beautiful stuff - and if you look closely, you can pick out the other machines that Low spotlights in the city streets below.

For those of us who don't live in the big city (and probably even some who do) getting a birds' eye view of construction equipment at work is pretty darn exciting. The illustrations here are just incredible, colorful and bursting with life as well as diversity. As we snuggle together on the couch, it's pretty great that Sprout can imagine being an iron worker or a train engineer, all through the pages of this action-packed thrill of a picture book.

Machines Go to Work in the City by William Low, published by Henry Holt and Company

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Old Bear and His Cub by Olivier Dunrea

It's Day 13 of Picture Book Month. If you've missed our previous 12 days of posts, click the tab above for the whole list - or zip on over to Pinterest to see cover art for all our featured titles. There's some good stuff there, you won't want to miss out!

Maybe it's because the time change is catching up to me, maybe it's because today was especially cold and dreary - not exactly sure, but today I'm thinking about coziness. Picture books for me are the ultimate in cozy-making. Few things are better on a cold winter night then snuggling up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, a fuzzy blanket, a warm puppy (or cat, if that's your thing), and a pile of good books. Sprout's very anxious for us to get a big snow, and I think that's largely because he's hoping for some seriously cozy reading time.

Our pick for today is Old Bear and His Cub by Olivier Dunrea. I have a total soft spot for this book because it reminds me so much of the relationship between my husband, who is firm but loving, and Sprout, who is often pushing against what he's told. (I know, unbelievable in a three-year-old, right?!) Old Bear loves his Little Cub, which is why he has to insist that Little Cub do what he's told. When Little Cub doesn't want to eat his breakfast, Old Bear just stares hard, and soon Little Cub is eating. And so it goes through the day, as Little Cub tests all the limits. Then all of a sudden it seems like Old Bear is getting sick -- and even though Little Cub knows what he needs, Old Bear won't listen. But eventually even Old Bear has to give in to a cold, and it's Little Cub's turn to insist, and to take care of his Old Bear, which he does in exactly the right way.

This is a simple and moving tale of love between an adult and child, and it strikes just the right note of cheeky humor. Dunrea's illustrations are as always pitch-perfect, suiting the tone of this simple story with their appealing homeyness. I appreciate that the relationship between Old Bear and Little Cub isn't precisely defined by Dunrea. They could be father and son, uncle and nephew, cousins, friends, you name it. Dunrea doesn't say and it doesn't really matter. What's important is that the two love one another and each cares about the other person's welfare -- as evidenced by the fact that when poor Old Bear succumbs to a cold, his sweet Little Cub is there to make blackberry tea and read aloud all through the night.

If you're looking for a great bedtime story on a blustery winter's night, Old Bear and His Cub is just the thing. We love it with all our hearts.

Old Bear and His Cub by Olivier Dunrea, published by Philomel Books

Monday, November 12, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Thanksgiving Titles

Today is Day 12 of Picture Book Month, and since we're heading into the holiday season, it seems like a good time to share some titles to get you in the festive mood. But I can't quite bring myself to jump right over Thanksgiving, no matter how much the retailers seem to want us to. Thanksgiving is a great time to talk and think about everything we have in our lives that so richly blesses us.

And what could be a better way to be thankful than with some tremendous picture books? As is the case with so many holidays, it's not easy to find multicultural titles for Thanksgiving -- but we managed to find a few that round out the experience by helping us look at the holiday with a fresh perspective.

First up is Gracias the Thanksgiving Turkey by Joy Cowley. I love this book for its humor and heart as well as the colorful illustrations by Joe Cepeda. In the story, Miguel's Papa, a long-haul trucker, sends home a live turkey for the family to fatten up for Thanksgiving dinner. Miguel names the turkey Gracias, and as you might expect, he's reluctant to make her a meal when the time comes around. Still, Miguel's grandfather's all for putting Gracias on the turkey platter - but an unexpected intervention from the parish priest saves Gracias at the last minute. There are lots of great lessons here, including the importance of friendship and responsibility, and plenty to talk and think about.

Next is Giving Thanks by Chief Jake Swamp, illustrated by Erwin Printup Jr. Subtitled A Native American Good Morning Message, this isn't a title that should be restricted to Thanksgiving, but with the spirit of gratitude we all have in our hearts at this time of year, it seems a good fit. The text is clear and simple, filled with appreciation for all the beauty and bounty in the natural world around us. And the illustrations are just breathtaking - vibrant and warm, simple and yet full of emotional depth. Best of all, this title is free of some of the most persistent stereotypical images we find in so many Thanksgiving books, and it reinforces the idea that we all have much to be thankful for.

If pilgrims are on your mind, why not check out Molly's Pilgrim? This is an older title, written by Barbara Cohen and most recently illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy. Though its cover is somewhat subdued (albeit beautiful), the message behind it is a fantastic one. Molly and her parents are from Russia, having come to America for freedom after the Cossacks sacked their village and burned out many other Jewish families. When Molly is assigned a project to make a pilgrim woman for the school Thanksgiving display, Molly's mama makes one that looks just like her. But it doesn't look like the pilgrims in Molly's textbooks. Will the other girls make fun of Molly for this, like they do for so many other things? A tale of inclusion and acceptance, this story speaks volumes, especially to those new to the tradition of American Thanksgiving.

Tradition is what you make it, wouldn't you agree? Still, it's hard when your family doesn't go along with what everyone else does. That's the conflict at the center of Duck for Turkey Day by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kathryn Mitter. Tuyet is excited to be celebrating Thanksgiving with her family, especially her cousins and her grandmother from Viet Nam. But she's a little upset that the family will be having duck for dinner, not turkey, as she's sure everyone else will be having. Tuyet tries to talk the problem over with her mother and grandmother, but they are sticking to their guns - and Tuyet has to admit that the duck with its spicy sauce is pretty tasty. But what will happen when she tells her friends at school that her family didn't have turkey? An unexpected ending to this tale not only reassures but also confirms that there's no one right way to celebrate!

This year, add a little extra flavor to your celebration with one of these great multicultural titles -- and make it a truly American Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - One World, One Day by Barbara Kerley

It's Day 11 of Picture Book Month, and today we're thinking globally. We all know the world's a place of incredible diversity and variety, but what does that mean, really? Well, to me it means that we all do different things, but that the essence of us, our humanness is very much the same, no matter where we live. We all love, laugh, grieve, celebrate, ponder and dream -- while the circumstances surrounding those emotions may differ, the end result, our emotions, are universal.

One of the things that's important to us as parents is helping Sprout learn to be a global citizen. We want him to identify not just as an American but as a resident of the world. And a key piece of helping him develop that sensibility is making connections between the life we live, the aspects of our daily routine, and that of people around the globe.

Today's pick is a book that facilitates just that mindset, and does it in a simple yet powerful fashion. One World, One Day by Barbara Kerley is published by the National Geographic Society, and as you might expect, it is filled with truly amazing photography. The narrative is straightforward: Kerley breaks a day down into its typical components, such as breakfast, school, afternoon activities, dinner, family time. For each period of time, she incorporates photos taken from various countries, using each photo to illustrate how the same activity might be accomplished in different ways by children in different regions.

The result is absolutely astounding. As most kids do, Sprout really enjoys looking at photos of other children, and these pictures are by turns hilarious and transfixing. One of his favorite spreads shows children on their way home from school; while a little girl in one photo is skipping home, wearing her Hello Kitty backpack, the other photo is of dozens of children packed onto the back of a cart, beaming brightly into the camera. The captions reveal that the first picture is from Portland, Oregon, while the second was taken in New Delhi, India. Quite disparate parts of the world, obviously, and yet the same message is conveyed in each picture - a small child's total joy at the end of the school day!

If your goal is to raise a global citizen, picture books are an important component to the process. Don't miss this book, or the other richly photographed titles by Barbara Kerley. You're bound to find them just as entrancing as your kiddos will!

One World, One Day by Barbara Kerley, published by the National Geographic Society

Saturday, November 10, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Miss Brooks Loves Books! (and I Don't) by Barbara Bottner

Day 10 of Picture Book Month is today! We've had some awesome picture book choices featured here on the Bookshelf, if I do say so myself, and today's is no exception. It's one that both Sprout and I adore, and when he saw it on the shelf at the library again today there was no way he was checking out without this in our book bag.

I love books about books, it's just a personal weakness of mine. One of the benefits of this type of narrative for preschoolers is that it connects the dots. Like other activities that they see modeled in the literature they read, having a book about a character who indulges in literary pursuits just validates what they themselves are doing. There are fantastic titles out there about bookmobiles, about libraries and even bookstores, and then there are books just about the sheer joy and passion of reading itself.

And that's exactly what we have in Miss Brooks Loves Books! (and I Don't) by Barbara Bottner. Our heroine Missy thinks her school librarian, Miss Brooks, is loopy for loving books to utter distraction. The woman adores all kinds of titles, and she wants Missy to love reading too -- but Missy's equally determined that she won't like books, no way no how. But then along comes something "truly terrifying": Book Week. Everyone in the class must choose a favorite book and create a presentation about it, complete with costume. Missy figures she's sunk, because there are no books that tickle her fancy that much. Or are there?

Michael Emberley illustrated this little gem, and I especially love the way he captures the title character. She's a short-skirt-and-boots kind of gal, with hair that's wild and full of flowers and braids. Miss Brooks is the kind of librarian all kids should have, and many lucky ones do, someone who's not afraid to dress up like a turkey and read Thanksgiving books, or become a Wild Thing when they're reading Sendak. Her wacky ways alone don't persuade Missy, but her persistence does -- in one of the innumerable stacks of books Miss Brooks sends home, Missy finds a title that suits her fancy just fine. Proving once again my own personal credo: there's a book for everyone, you just have to keep looking.

Sprout loves all the books this title alludes to (look for Miss Brooks as a Hungry Caterpillar in my personal favorite scene). The only problem is, we often end up checking out even more books when we bring this one home, because as Sprout says, "Miss Brooks loves books and I do too!"

Miss Brooks Loves Books! (and I Don't) by Barbara Bottner, published by Alfred A. Knopf

Friday, November 9, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman

It's Day 9 of Picture Book Month. Today we're thinking about the senses. Picture books are an incredible way to teach kids about the different ways we interact with various stimuli in our environment. Seems a bit strange, though, right? How in the world can we exercise the five senses through picture books? 

It's true that unless you have a touch-and-feel, scratch-and-sniff book you're not going to have those senses engaged while you're reading. But, I would argue, using picture books as a vehicle for experiences with elements in the real world is a powerful means to not only emphasize senses like smell and touch, but also to find ways to yet again connect literacy with life. You can do this through a series of planned activities (like all those awe-inspiring Pinterest moms do), or very simply through thinking and talking about the books you read. Choose books that emphasize certain characteristics, then as you're out running errands or playing on the playground, look for elements that were represented in your storytime choice.

Today's choice is an amazing one for connecting all five senses via the written word. Joyce Sidman's Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors might seem like it's all about visual stimuli, but one read-through will show you how Sidman engages all our senses through her beautiful poetry. Like this snippet, from the section about fall: "Red splashes fall trees, seeps into every vein of every five-fingered leaf. / Red swells on branches bent low. / Red: crisp, juicy, crunch!" Reading this, we can not only see the scene Sidman describes, but we can feel it, hear it, taste it. And if you want to bring this alive with your little one, follow up this reading by a trip to the apple orchard. As you pluck a juicy piece of fruit off the tree, remind your kiddo that red tastes "crisp, juicy, crunch!". Then you can talk about how red sounds, how it smells, how it feels. Suddenly colors are more than just colors, they are phenomena that engage all the senses.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about Pamela Zagarenski's whimsical illustrations that accompany Sidman's poems. Each segment of the book features a season, and Zagarenski adapts her mixed-media paintings to bring the color described to vivid life. She conjures up a summer breeze on the dock for yellow ("Yellow melts everything it touches. . . smells like butter, tastes like salt."). She gives us winter green in frosty evergreens ("Green darkens, shrinks, stiffens into needles."). And in spring, as colors burst forth everywhere, she shows us white highlights ("White can be quiet, too: delicate petals filled with light smell white."). Simply gorgeous imagery, words and pictures alike.

If you want reading to be the more than just a bedtime ritual, help your little one make connections with what you read and what they hear, smell, taste and touch. When we do this, we're building readers whose imagination takes them far beyond the printed words on the page, into pictures of their own devising. And who knows where that influence will stop?

Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman, published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Thursday, November 8, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore

It's Day 8 of Picture Book Month. Today we're thinking about relationships. There's nothing like the act of sharing a book with someone to cement your relationship. Common stories unite all of us, as a people and as smaller units of family and friends. When I read an incredible book, the first thing I want to do is share it with everyone I know -- well, you know that, because that's why you're reading this! And I think it's important to use picture books to build that shared bond with our little ones.

But picture books can also illustrate important aspects about relationships, such as the connections between the generations. Family history is more than just having the same last name. It's a heritage and shared language that is passed down from one generation to another. This is how the knowledge of our families is kept alive, the traditions and ties that link us to our past and to our future.

Food is, for most families, a crucial part of the shared experience. Think back to your childhood and I'll bet you find that there's something like grandma's pies or uncle's barbecue that still makes your mouth water, even as a memory. And that's the case in Cora Cooks Pancit, a picture book by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore that celebrates one family's culinary legacy.

In the book, Cora feels left out when the family cooks because as the youngest, she only gets the little-kid jobs. Then one day her siblings are out of the house and Cora's mama suggests they cook together. As they make a favorite family dish, Mama tells Cora about her Lolo, or grandfather, who cooked for the Filipino farmworkers and shared stories of his youth in the Philippines as he did. Cora loves hearing about Lolo and learning how to make pancit, one of her favorite dishes. Best of all, when her brothers and sisters come home, Cora gets to tell them that she did all the "grown-up" jobs this time around!

This lovingly told story of a Filipino family sparkles with pictures by illustrator Kristi Valiant. I love the way Valiant takes us right into Cora's perspective, as she looks down on a steaming pot of scrumptious-looking noodles and veggies (don't worry, the recipe's included). And Cora's expressive eyes shine with pride as her whole family settles down to a meal cooked by the youngest, but with ties to generations past.

Gather your kiddos for a reading of this delicious tale of food and family, reminiscent of another favorite, Linda Sue Park's Bee Bim Bop. Gilmore evokes a mood of togetherness and connection in a story that everyone can enjoy.

Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, published by Shen's Books

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - It's a Tiger! by David LaRochelle

It's Day 7 of Picture Book Month, and it seems like the right time to talk about humor. Picture books can be thoughtful, introspective things, or full of insight, but they can also be bursting with silliness. That's one thing I love about this category of kidlit, that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Picture book authors love to play, with format and narrative and even style, and their efforts are usually rewarded with giggles of glee from their young audience. Quite honestly, I don't think we've ever gotten through Bark, George without both Sprout and Mama dissolving into fits of laughter. And what could be better than that?

Today's pick is a recent find and one that Sprout just adores. We first encountered it at the bookstore and I knew it would be a hit almost right away (we read it about five times that first day). Since then we've read it dozens more, to the point where Sprout has huge chunks of it memorized. It's a great pick for storytime or family time, because it's one you just won't get tired of.

Enough suspense -- the book is It's A Tiger! by David LaRochelle, with illustrations by Jeremy Tankard. You may recognize Tankard's style from some of his other books, most notably Grumpy Bird, which we also adore. And his trademark use of vivid color and bold lines fits perfectly with LaRochelle's simple -- and simply perfect -- narrative.

The pictures just about leap off the page, which is, I assure you, so very appropriate. This is the literary equivalent of a three-year-old boy trapped inside on a rainy day, energy just bursting from every quarter. "Are you ready for a story?" an unseen narrator asks of a hapless youngster. And we're off, starting in the jungle, "where the monkeys swing from vine to vine". Except one of those monkey tails looks strangely like. . . (can you guess what it is??). Oh no, I'm not telling -- this is one you have to experience yourself. It's just that delightful!

Kids will love the unexpected ending, but you'd better make time right off for a few repeat readings. 'Cause the best thing about silly books, my friends, is that even when you know the punch line, it's still a whole lot of fun to get there!

It's a Tiger! by David LaRochelle, published by Chronicle Books

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead

It's Day 6 of Picture Book Month, and I must be in an emotional frame of mind because when I reread today's choice in preparation for this post, the first word that popped into my head was love. Love and books are kind of inextricably entwined for me personally - not only do I adore books, as you all know, but the experience of reading has long been linked with love. It's the love of a small child curling up with a beloved adult and listening to a story, or the quiet contemplation of a lazy day reading with a sweetheart. Love and books, love of books: call it what you will, it's magic.

As a mom, I think one of the important vehicles I have to show love to Sprout is by making time for special connections with him. We connect in lots of ways, of course, but I especially adore the end of the night. He's freshly bathed, snuggly in pajamas with his favorite stuffies and blankets. I'm winding down from a manic day and taking a quiet breath to be with my kid. We share news of the day, read stories, and then I sing him to sleep. It's my way of saying, with words and with actions, how much I love him.

You'll probably pick up on the thread of love in this book too -- it's A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead. Amos McGee is a zookeeper, and he's a man of predictability. Same breakfast every day, same route to work, same ways to gently connect with his friends at the zoo (which include a chess-playing elephant and an owl who's scared of the dark). All is right with everyone's world because you can count on Amos. But one day Amos doesn't show up. His animal friends are worried, naturally, so they set out to find out what's wrong. And they end up doing for Amos all the things he does for them, making his day just as perfect as a sick day can be.

I promised myself at the outset of this project that I'd try to emphasize hidden gems. Amos McGee certainly isn't one of these, since illustrator Erin E. Stead won the Caldecott for it. But oh my stars, is it ever a fantastic book! The story is pitch-perfect, not a word wasted or out of place. And the illustrations are impeccably, achingly skillful. Every line of the rhino's brow shows us his character, every fold in Amos's uniform speaks of his dedication. If you love illustrations, you'll want to seek this one out and add it to your home library. It's the kind of volume you never get tired of. (Look for more of Erin Stead's amazing art work in Julie Fogliano's And Then It's Spring.)

Contrary to the sappy homily, if you love something, you don't set it free. You hold it close and nurture it, as do the characters in this elegant tale, and it'll make everyone all the richer.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, published by Roaring Brook Press

Monday, November 5, 2012

30 Days of Picture Books - On Earth by G. Brian Karas

It's Day 5 of Picture Book Month, and it's Nonfiction Monday, so today what's on my mind is information. Facts, if you will. We don't always stop to think how much cold hard data comes at us in the form of the picture books we read as kids, but it's a lot, really. For little ones, a picture book might be their first introduction to dinosaurs, to air travel, to plants and trees. We've certainly read some stellar nonfiction on these topics and many others. In fact, Sprout learned most of the names of fruits and veggies from a terrific picture book on the subject, and to this day, every time we go in the produce section together, he chants, "Broccoli, cauliflower, shout it out!". (Okay, so we get a few looks.)

Lots of times bookstores and libraries keep picture books they deem "nonfiction" in a separate section from your Splat the Cats or your Fancy Nancys. So it requires a bit more looking around to find these kinds of titles, but it's worth it. Sprout pores over a large format book on (what else) trains I brought home, and he's learned so much from it that I swear he can instantly identify each different type he sees.

Today's choice is from the nonfiction shelves -- On Earth by G. Brian Karas. We checked this title out because we'd been having discussions about seasons and time change, and I needed a little backup to explain the whole notion in a simple way. I wanted something that would give an overview of the basic concepts, but not in a dry or boring fashion. The great thing about picture books is you can generally find multiple titles on a topic, selections suited to different age ranges so you can choose what's appropriate.

On Earth fills the bill nicely, as Karas explains the rotation of the Earth and movement around the sun, and how that impacts our seasons. With large format paintings brushed with just a hint of whimsy, he demonstrates how the weather is different according to what time of year it is, and also discusses the passage of time. Best of all, he carefully explains that there's a difference in seasons between the Southern and Northern hemispheres. The page illustrating this just blew Sprout's mind -- "snow up here but sun down there?" -- but it gave us a chance to talk about how his family in Ethiopia experiences different conditions because they are closer to the Equator. I'm always pleased when we can make connections between life here and life in his birth country, an opportunity that comes up frequently when we read together.

"On earth we go for a giant ride in space, spinning like a merry-go-round." This is the first sentence of Karas's excellent picture book, and one that I think represents factual titles quite well. Obviously you'll want more detail if reading to an older child. But the ability of a skilled author to translate complicated concepts into a succinct bit of imagery relatable to a young child is quite impressive.

Next time you're looking for information, don't just head for the computer -- give the picture book shelves a browse, and see how you can help your child learn and connect with books at the same time.

On Earth by G. Brian Karas, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons