Monday, September 30, 2013

Fletcher and the Falling Leaves by Julia Rawlinson

Oh, fall. I knew you were coming, but somehow you still managed to sneak up on me, with your windy weather and your ever-so-rainy days. Last week Hubs and I scrambled in vain to get a backyard project finished, one we've been working on for most of the summer, but alas, we didn't quite make it before the blustery weather roared in. (Holding out hope for a respite in the rain later this week.)

In all honesty, though, fall is my favorite season. I'm an October baby, and that's probably why I love most of the aspects of this time of year: crisp fall days, soup simmering on the stove, visits to the pumpkin patch, baking pie with juicy fresh-picked apples. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I don't really even mind the rainy days, because those give me one more excuse to snuggle inside on the couch with a good book -- like I need one more excuse. :)

We have a lot of favorite fall titles around here, but we're always looking for another to add to our roster. This year we rounded up an older title, Julia Rawlinson's Fletcher and the Falling Leaves. This one was new to Sprout, though it's a title I'd read before. Honestly the first time I read it, I wasn't that impressed - but I can say that reading this with my own kiddo gave me a fresh perspective, and I realized I'd misjudged it somehow. (Hey, it happens, and I'm okay with admitting when I'm wrong.)

Sprout thoroughly enjoyed this story of a little fox named Fletcher and the changes that come to his favorite tree. Fletcher notices that something's up when the leaves of the tree starting turning colors and getting crinkly, but it's when the leaves begin to fall to the ground that Fletcher gets really worried. He looks for solutions to put the leaves back on the tree, but Fletcher's ingenuity is no match for the strong autumn winds. Try as he might, Fletcher can't save his friend's leaves - but he discovers that, for a tree, losing leaves is not only inevitable, it also might bring something even better.

Rawlinson's story is a gentle introduction into the topic of change and dealing with loss, something that I think is important for all kids. This is an excellent way to begin discussing these subjects, along with the notion that sometimes the changes we fear turn out for the best after all. The illustrations by Tiphanie Beeke are one of the best parts of Fletcher's story - awash with light and subtle color, Beeke's spreads set off the smudgy fox and his friends to good effect. It's clear that Beeke spent some time studying nature before she did these pictures, as those color choices reflect a knowledge of what trees really look like, for example. And of course the final spread is full of wow factor, which you know if you've read this one (if you haven't, I'm not spoiling it for you!).

I'm quite glad I gave this one a second chance. The combination of Rawlinson's sensitive story and Beeke's pictures make this a real winner for any autumn bookshelf. Grab a cup of tea, a warm blanket and Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, for a cozy fall read-aloud session that you and your kiddos will love!

Fletcher and the Falling Leaves by Julia Rawlinson, published by Greenwillow Books
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
Sample: "The world was changing. Each morning, when Fletcher bounded out of the den, everything seemed just a little bit different. The rich green of the forest was turning to a dusty gold, and the soft, swiching sound of summer was fading to a crinkly whisper. Fletcher's favorite tree looked dull, dry, and brown. Fletcher was beginning to get worried."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thanking the Moon by Grace Lin

Today's a pretty awesome day - the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. I didn't know a whole lot about this festival before I read today's selection, but it's a very cool holiday. The specific date day varies from year to year, but generally it is the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, means it can fall during either September or October. The holiday is generally observed by Chinese families, but some other Asian peoples also take part, and the observation of this day began as a way to honor the completion of the harvest and the preparation for a new season. And the moon is a very central part of the whole holiday, since it is celebrated after the moon rises in the evening.

Sprout and I learned about this holiday by reading today's selection, Thanking the Moon by Grace Lin. We first read this book a couple of years ago, stumbling on it at the library and checking it out because, well, it's Grace Lin, and I'd read the phone book if she wrote (and illustrated) it. Sprout was quite taken, then and now, with the illustrations, which isn't a surprise if you've seen any of Lin's books. Her characters have an openness and an honesty about them that draws young children in. There's plenty of depth in her deceptively simple scenes, most of which center on some aspect of family life, making them a great choice for sharing with toddlers and preschoolers.

I love that Lin always honors domesticity and tradition in her books, and Thanking the Moon is similar in that regard. Being that it follows one family's observation of the Moon Festival, we learn a lot about how they prepare for the celebration - driving to the park at night, setting up a picnic of special food (mooncakes and pears, yum!), mounting the lanterns, pouring the tea. Oh, how much Sprout wants to climb into that picnic illustration where the family is gathered around eating mooncakes in the soft light of the golden lanterns. We both love the way the family thanks the moon for all its blessings, tangible and intangible alike. Lin's author note explains that the moon's fullness during the festival symbolizes wholeness and harmony - she drives that point home with a lovely spread at the end showing all the families who have come to observe the festival in the same fashion.

The central elements of Thanking the Moon are the kind I wish to deeply imbed in my son - peacefulness and harmony, gratefulness and calm. Reading this book together again this year reemphasized for me what a great thing it can be to introduce new cultural traditions into our lives, to make them that much richer. Tonight, with the blessing of clear skies, I think we'll be letting Sprout stay up just a little longer, that we might gaze up at the clear brightness of the moon together and rejoice in all the goodness we've been given, and all that's yet to come.

Thanking the Moon by Grace Lin, published by Alfred A. Knopf
Ages 3-6
Source: Library
Sample: "The mid-autumn moon glows in the sky. We go into the night to admire it."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rainbow Stew by Cathryn Falwell

Two posts in one week?!? Could it be that I'm getting my blogging mojo back?? I hope so. It's been an odd summer, mostly because having finally finished grad school, I had a real sense of wanting to step away from (most) non-work, non-family commitments. I wish I could say that I read a ton of novels during that time, or that I organized my kitchen cabinets. Not so much, though - mostly there was just playing with Sprout, spending time with my husband, getting a few household projects done and even catching up on TV watching (gasp!).

So now there's a backlog of AWESOME titles that we read together as a family, which I've got to somehow translate into blog posts -- since, after all, you cannot peek into my oh-so-cluttered brain and discern which were the best of all the many books we checked out this summer. Hope you've got your library list at the ready, dear reader, 'cause there's some good stuff coming your way!

First up is a new title by one of Sprout's favorite author/illustrators. We've reviewed a couple of Cathryn Falwell's books here on the blog -- Christmas for 10 is one, Butterflies for Kiri another. We were waiting for her newest title, Rainbow Stew, very anxiously, and I'm pleased to say it's just as excellent as the other books by her that we've read and loved. Most fun of all, it takes place on a rainy summer day, something we as Northwesterners definitely have our fair share of, so Sprout could totally relate. :)

The story follows three kiddos who are visiting their Grandpa, and who are more than a little disappointed to discover the aforementioned showery weather when they make their plans for the day. But Grandpa has another suggestion: suit up in rain gear and venture out to his garden, where they pick all the ingredients for a tummy-warming bowl of rainbow stew. The kids have a great time harvesting -- and playing -- in the rain, getting all kinds of muddy and loving every second. (Side note: this is *exactly* what Sprout would do, given the same opportunity. Falwell completely gets little ones.) Then it's inside to dry off (newspapers on the floor = Grandpa's one smart cookie), change clothes, and prep the veggies. While the stew cooks, there's time for a little reading and resting, and then everyone gets to enjoy the fruits of their labor -- just in time for a rainbow to peek through!

Where to start with all the things I love about this cheerful, vibrant book? Falwell's illustrations are of course terrific, featuring just the right balance of details to make each scene come to life. Of course I love that there's teamwork going on here. Everyone helps out in harvesting, prep work and eating the delicious lunch, which naturally means the whole process is that much more fun. (If you want to make your own rainbow stew, the recipe's helpfully included right at the end.) I also really dig that we have Grandpa in the main role here, performing many tasks usually left up to moms or grandmas. It's so nice to see a male figure given domestic duties, from making breakfast to helping the kids tidy up after playing in the mud. In the day and age of so much pink- and blue-gender specificity, having Grandpa be the main caregiver was a very nice touch.

Make it a point to seek out Rainbow Stew on your next trip to the library or bookstore. And if your chosen branch doesn't have it, this would be a great purchase suggestion to make to the manager or children's librarian. A colorful book about food and fun, written with a catchy rhyme? It's every bit as yummy as Grandpa's Rainbow Stew!

Rainbow Stew by Cathryn Falwell, published by Lee & Low Books
Ages 2-5
Source: Library
Sample: "We jump around like grasshoppers and buzz about like bees. / We creep along like ladybugs, and all get muddy knees."
Highly recommended

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Baby Says by John Steptoe

It's pretty clear if you've read my blog for long that multicultural books are a passion of mine. I'm not alone in this, fortunately - there are tons of great resources out there for folks who are looking to add some diversity to their library list. A while back I wrote about "50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know", a list compiled by the incredible group at the CCBC of University of Wisconsin-Madison. We're trying to work through the list with Sprout, which has been a fun project thus far. Especially great is fact that we're discovering some older titles that we might never have run across in another way.

Our most recent choice is a nearly wordless selection from classic author/illustrator John Steptoe - Baby Says. We ran across this title at the library and I remembered it from the list, so of course it was coming home with us. Sprout is a little old for this title, but he enjoyed it anyway, mostly because we're at that stage where he loves reliving any experience connected to babyhood. ("Was I like that, too, Mama?")

The story here is very simple - a baby is trying everything to get his big brother's attention. He uses the usual tricks in a baby's arsenal, throwing toys and knocking over brother's block towers, and of course it works just as planned, because brother has to stop everything and pay attention to the little one. Sprout laughed over the baby's naughtiness, probably because he himself is an only child and hasn't ever had to put up with such foolishness (though he's feeling this a little closer to home, now that he's one of the older kids in his preschool class!).

All in all this is a perfect story for very young children, as a means of introducing narrative and anticipating what's going to happen next in the story. Even babies will be able to recognize the mischievous look in this little one's eyes, as he schemes over how to attract brother's gaze away from the building blocks that he's currently playing with. And slightly older kids will feel the brother's frustration, as he tries to keep the baby from disrupting his project. With a few phrases that repeat over and over, Steptoe's spare story would also be good for new readers, to help build confidence and fluency.

Naturally for us, the best feature is the fact that the character's ethnicity is completely incidental to the story. I'm always on the lookout for books like this, and it's especially nice to find one for the youngest set of readers. Unfortunately this is an older title and not readily available, but it's worth a look at the library or used bookstore, if you want to add this terrific selection to your collection.

Keep checking back as we read our way through the CCBC list - this is a great way to add diversity to your reading list!

Baby Says by John Steptoe, published by Lothrop, Lee and Shepard
Ages 0-3
Source: Library

Check out our Pinterest board to see all the titles from the list we've read so far!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson {Picture Book of the Day}

I'm thrilled to be participating in the Picture Book of the Day project with a host of other awesome kidlit bloggers! This is a very cool meme that is great for building your library list -- each day a different blogger posts his/her picture book choice, which is shared via Facebook (you can also follow the picks on Pinterest). I've shared many of these in the past, and have found some terrific books for Sprout from the daily meme, so I'm especially excited to be part of the project this year!

For my first daily pick, I'm pulling out the big guns: Kadir Nelson's new picture book, Nelson Mandela.

It's hard to imagine how any reader could not just fall in love with Kadir Nelson's work after reading any of his books, but this one in particular seems to prove the benchmark of his talents. Naturally his breathtaking paintings are on full display here -- Sprout's favorite is the cover image, which honestly I could stare at myself for hours as well. But his narrative skills also come into the forefront again, as we read of the background and history of Mandela, from his early days as a barefoot boy playing at fighting, to his years imprisoned for the cause he could not abandon. Each image and its accompanying prose shows a facet of Mandela's life that will build in readers the admiration Kadir Nelson so clearly holds, for a man whose tireless fight at last culminated in a free South Africa.

Explaining to Sprout just what Mandela was fighting for was a little tricky; while he knows that people come in all different colors (and shapes, sizes, ages, abilities, etc.), it was hard for him to understand that some people are benefited by the hue of their skin while others suffer for it. Honestly I didn't force the issue too much, but neither do we sugarcoat these things with Sprout. It will be a feature of his life in this country, where he is bound to bear the weighty history of African Americans and their struggle for equality. So for him, the two spreads that most hit home were the first image of a "whites only" beach, followed by one later in the book where families of all colors enjoy the sand and surf. He lingered on the integrated image, and I can only guess at the message Sprout internalized from that.

My hope is that parents and teachers (and librarians too) will share Nelson Mandela with young readers not just as history lesson or a snippet about a great man. Though Mandela is without question the latter, I believe that the message of his life's work is larger than that - it's one that we need to carry forward into all our interactions of everyday life. Because open or hidden, racism is about fear, and only light will drive out that kind of darkness.

Slip this title into your book basket for bedtime, or for your kiddos to browse in the car. Let your middle schoolers read it, and share it aloud with your preschoolers as well. And read it yourself, for history and memory and celebration of one man, one extraordinary ordinary man, who saw a wrong in his society and never gave up the dream to change it.

Ages 4-8 (and up)
Source: Library
Sample: "Rolihlala played barefooted on the grassy hills of Qunu. He fought boys with sticks and shot birds with slingshots. The smartest Madiba child of thirteen, he was the only one chosen for school. His new teacher would not say his Xhosa name. She called him Nelson instead."
Highly recommended