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Monthly Archives: February 2016
If you have ever had a relative or friend knit you a sweater or scarf that was
tacky inconsistent with your particular style, uncomfortable, and unfit to be worn in public, then you will understand Little Owl’s dilemma. The star of “Little Owl’s Orange Scarf” by Tatyana Feeney is saddled with a knit scarf that is too long, too scratchy, and far too ORANGE. Despite his best attempts to rid himself of this figurative millstone literally hanging about his neck (re-gifting the scarf, mailing it to Peru), his mother always retrieves it and tells Little Owl, “You need to wear your new scarf…it will keep you nice and warm.”
Then one day, Owl wears his scarf on a field trip to the zoo. He returns home with stories of all the animals he has seen, but without his scarf. Since no one at the zoo seems to know what has happened to this bane of Little Owl’s existence, his mother says they can make a new one, and “…this time (they) will do it together.” Little Owl travels to the yarn store with his mother where he selects his own skein, and his mother knits him a blue scarf that is “soft…just long enough,” and, crucially, not orange! He closes the book by showing us how much he loves wearing his new scarf to the zoo…where, while not called out in the text, the giraffe is seen wearing a strangely familiar orange neck warmer.
Ms. Feeney has created a fun and funny little story, no less appealing for the sparseness of the text or the simplicity of the orange, blue and gray line drawings that decorate each page. Ms. Feeney succeeds in adding humor to the story with small variations in facial expressions; witness the disgusted look Little Owl gives the reader when his mother reminds him how warm his scarf will keep him (“seriously? are you seeing this?”), or the look of innocent surprise when he returns from the zoo with no scarf (“oh! my scarf? I only now noticed it was gone!”).
We really enjoy this book, enough so that we purchased a copy to have in our permanent collection. However, none of us loves this book so much as our youngest. This evening, engaged in an activity comprised of scissors(!!), mason-jar vases, and a bucket exploding with fresh cut flowers, our youngest dropped everything upon seeing this book. She gasped, asked me to read it, said “please show me the pictures”, and gave me her undivided attention. When I had finished, she announced that mommy was going to read the book to us all again. In fact, at this very moment I am typing my review as quickly as possible so that I can finish before she discovers that I have absconded with her favorite book.
This evening we finished our fourth extended read-aloud book of our storybook year: “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë. I briefly blogged several weeks back about how much we expected to like Jane based upon the brutally honest way in which she verbally filleted her aunt, Mrs. Reed. We did, indeed, end up liking Jane, who, though set upon by trying circumstances and overbearing suitors, remained true to herself throughout the novel.
We also enjoyed the many clever and profound turns of phrase Ms. Brontë worked into her story. She succeeded in speaking simple but insightful truths about human character and emotion in strikingly beautiful words. We also found the denouement quite gratifying – Jane, an independent woman of means, returns to her true love on her own terms to complete her happiness and to create his.
And the verdict on Brontë vs. Brontë? We all enjoyed “Jane Eyre” more than “Wuthering Heights”. Both books deserve their status as classics. However, while we felt there was little to root for in the deeply flawed characters of Emily’s “Wuthering Heights”, we found ourselves quickly invested in Charlotte’s Jane and her happiness, which kept us a little more on the edge of our seats throughout this book.
And now? There are soooo many great books out there we could read next. We had considered Jane Austen, but may actually go for a Brontë triple-play by reading one of Anne’s.
Tune in here later this week, “same bat-time, same bat-channel“!
A fictional story inspired by two real-life polar bears who once lived together at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, “Ida, Always” by Caron Levis and illustrated by Charles Santoso is a profoundly touching and beautiful book about friendship, love, loss, grief, and – ultimately – life. The two polar bears, Gus and Ida, live in the same enclosure at the zoo and spend every day together playing, splashing in the water, and flopping on the rocks to listen the “heartbeat” of the city. Every day is the same, until one day Gus is informed that Ida is dying.
Ms. Levis’ prose is poetic in its simplicity as she manages to approach the complicated feelings leading up to and following the death of a loved one in a deeply moving way, without a single wasted word. The nature of her writing was such that the power of the story she was telling snuck up on me; it built quietly through the course of the book and then washed over me suddenly as I turned the last page, at which point I choked up and had a hard time reading the last sentence aloud. I don’t know that everyone will have the same reaction I did, but when I looked around our room at the end I was not the only one with tears in my eyes.
Mr. Santoso’s illustrations add to the beauty and appeal of the story and do so much to help convey the feelings of the characters. He fills many pages with lush and occasionally gauzy panoramic views of broad skies, towering city skylines, and the polar bears’ verdant habitat. These images are punctuated with more intimate portraits of the bears snuggling, or of Gus struggling with his grief. Birds, flying overhead or sitting quietly near the two polar bears, are also a common element. He manages to convey very human emotions through Gus and Ida’s expressions, and embodies their thoughts and conversations with images in the clouds overhead.
This is an amazing book. Only recently released (February 23), “Ida, Always” is already an all-time favorite in our home. Everyone should have a copy on the shelf. A word of caution, however: do not begin reading without a box of tissues handy.
Update: I failed to mention that February 27th was International Polar Bear Day! An especially fun aspect of A Storybook Year so far has been all the national and international “holidays” and other dedicated days that we have discovered. Any additional excuse to celebrate is welcome!
In honor of National Strawberry Day tomorrow, this evening we read “Flicka, Ricka, Dicka and the Strawberries” by Maj Lindman. We have blogged here before about how much we love the old-time charm of Ms. Lindman’s illustrations and stories, in our Day 30 post and on our Favorites page.
In “Strawberries”, the Swedish triplets of the title are excited at the possibility of earning some money of their very own by picking wild strawberries with which their mother can fill the empty jars in the kitchen. The girls take off on a grand adventure, pick heaping baskets of strawberries, and enjoy a picnic lunch. Unfortunately, they get lost on the way home and are forced to seek assistance from a young girl, Mary, who lives with her mother and little brother in a modest house in the forest. Mary’s mother is unable to spare any milk for the girls, but she does give them some water and lends them the services of Mary, who is able to lead them to the edge of the forest and put them back on their path home.
Upon returning with their delicious strawberry cargo, the girl’s collect their hard-earned silver pieces from their grateful mother. However, rather than making plans for how to spend the money on themselves, the girls decide they must use their money to express their gratitude to Mary and her mother – by buying Mary a new dress and her brother a soft, brown teddy bear. Bearing these gifts, and a basket of homemade strawberry jam, the girls set off to Mary’s house. After bestowing their gifts, the girls end the story by heading out into the forest to play with their new-found friend.
“Flicka, Ricka, Dicka and the Strawberries” is a story very much like Ms. Lindman’s “Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Yellow Sled”. Our heroines are compensated for their hard work, and then decide to give away their rewards to a child who is less fortunate. As with “The Yellow Sled”, “Strawberries” is a story that might otherwise seem overly syrupy but it feels just right delivered in Ms. Lindman’s quaint, charming, vintage style. We are big fans.
Not that we needed more encouragement to carry on with our family reading adventure and daily read-aloud, but we came across an article today that provided some further validation for us. Maybe it will for you too.
The article, from July 2015, highlights a University of Santa Cruz study which provides further evidence that reading aloud is “…the best way to help children develop word mastery and grammatical understanding, which form the basis for learning how to read.” A key reason is that in the process of writing a book an author typically makes use of many more uncommon or interesting vocabulary words than even highly educated parents would use in everyday conversation with each other or with their children. It seems the need to communicate quickly and efficiently in everyday conversation causes us to pass over some of the more interesting words in our vocabularies.
This contrast between written word and everyday conversation holds true even if you are only reading storybooks aloud. The study’s author, Dominic Massaro who is a professor emeritus in psychology, considered a database of 112 popular picture books and compared the number of “uncommon” words used in those books and found that “…picture books are two to three times as likely as parent-child conversations to include a word that isn’t among the 5,000 most common English words.”
These findings certainly resonate with us. I believe that reading aloud at a young age did wonders for our oldest, who continues to impress us with her command of vocabulary, her flair for writing, and her interesting turns of phrase. I must admit, by forcing me to read words and expressions I don’t normally use in conversation, our time spent reading aloud has helped my vocabulary and writing as well.
You can find the article here.
And you can find the research paper referenced in the article here.
Our read-aloud book this evening, “Dig!” by husband-and-wife team Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemensha, is a great book for beginning readers. The book stars Mr. Rally, his backhoe, and his dog, Lightning. Mr. Rally and Lightning love to dig – which is a good thing, because that’s their job. They start off the day with five big jobs to do: a bridge on a ridge, a drain for the rain, a load on the road, a pool for the school, and a zoo all brand new – and end the day by continuing to dig…in their own garden at home.
There are several characteristics of “Dig!” that help to engage little listeners. The pages are filled with simple but playful illustrations that have thick, black outlines and a muted earth-tone color scheme in keeping with the subject matter – and within each picture you can have fun trying to spot Lightning, who finds a new bone at each job site. The prose is occasionally rhyming (see the names of each job above), and there is a rhythm and repetition which is great for aspiring readers and for read-aloud narrators alike. And, of course, we can’t forget the undeniable allure of construction equipment for young boys and girls alike! We have two girls, and both have gone through stages where they have been fascinated with construction equipment – a fact which probably contributed to the popularity of this book in our house; there were days with our youngest where we were asked to read this book over and over again.
“Water Can Be…” by Laura Purdie Salas and illustrated by Violeta Dabija is a poetic paean to what may be our most essential natural resource. Ms. Salas’ rhyming prose is sparse but in the flow of the book it is also soothing, and through it she manages to impart quite a bit of information about all the ways in which we use, or see, or benefit from water. As the book moves from season to season, we are shown how water can be a “thirst quencher,” a “kid drencher,” a “cloud fluffer,” and a “fire snuffer,” among other things.
Adding to the comforting feeling of the book are Ms. Dabija’s dreamy illustrations, which fill each page with color and often make the reader feel as though she is viewing the scene through a watery mist. The scenes laid out on each page are wonderful sources for interaction, as you can discuss with younger children how it is that water is playing a role in each picture (why do you think water is a “decorator” in this picture?…a “ship breaker” in this picture?).
As anyone who follows our blog knows, we are fans of picture books that can blend entertainment with information about how the real world around us works. Ms. Salas’ book certainly fits that bill. We especially like the pages at the end of the book (“more about water”) that provide further explanation for each of the illustrations – for example, talking about how the water that forms snow can be a “woodchuck warmer” by providing a soft blanket to cover his burrow and keep out the cold air as he hibernates. There is also a glossary of water-related terms, and some suggested “further reading”.
Ms. Salas actually has quite a few picture books about nature, including “A Leaf Can Be…” and “A Rock Can Be…”. For anyone interested in hearing more about her work from the author herself, we suggest checking out her upcoming online Author Event in March, hosted by Read Aloud Revival. They do a great job with these events, as we have mentioned here before when discussing Jonathan Bean and Anne Ursu.
Have you ever felt a conviction so deeply that you would be willing to walk the plank into a moat full of ravenous alligators rather than act against that conviction? If so, then you have something in common with the hero of “Herb the Vegetarian Dragon” by Jules Bass and Debbie Harter, our read-aloud selection this evening.
Every dragon in the forest of Nogard is a meat-eater, except for Herb. While his fire-breathing brethren eat “all the best boar meat” in the forest and terrorize the people of Castle Dark each night to enjoy “the sweet taste of royal princesses and the crispy crunch of brave knights,” Herb is content to spend his time tending his vegetable garden. Eventually, the brave knights of Castle Dark, led by Bernard the Bold, have had enough and hatch a plan to hunt down all the dragons in the forest and make them walk the plank into the alligator-infested moat. The carnivorous dragons of Nogard – led by the aptly-named Meathook – are forewarned of the danger and go into hiding. Herb, who is blissfully unaware of Bernard’s plan, remains in the open and is eventually captured and chained up at Castle Dark. On the evening before his execution by alligator, Herb receives a visit from a devilish Meathook who offers to spring him from his cell if Herb will prove his loyalty by eating a piece of wild boar meat. Staying true to himself, Herb refuses Meathook’s offer, saying “I’ll take my chances.”
The next day, just as he is about to be pushed into the moat, Herb is saved by the intervention of a little girl who attests to Herb’s gentle nature. However, an eavesdropping Meathook is captured and dragged before the king, who spares his life on the condition that the dragons of Nogard give up eating people forever. Meathook confers with his gang, and after much deliberation they decide that they can learn to survive on boar’s meat and can learn from Herb how to grow their own vegetables in order that they may live in peace with the people of Castle Dark. The book ends with dragons and people – vegetarians and meat-eaters alike – living together in harmony. Kumbaya.
All joking aside, our girls enjoyed this book for its colorful and goofy illustrations – and the text, while lengthy, is fun to read aloud with plenty of opportunities for silly voices and dramatic narration. Another nice thing about the book is the fact that Herb clearly enjoys tending to his vegetable garden, and eating vegetables is important to him. At the same time, the moral of the story – that it is okay to be different and to stand up for what you believe in even in the face of peer pressure – is delivered in a rather ham-handed manner and with some inconsistencies. Parents may also find fault with the (sometimes gory) violence and name-calling in the book. We did.
If these shortcomings do not bother you, we discovered that the book will also be available in Spanish on March 31, 2016.
“I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love” is one of many tremendously popular picture books by author and illustrator Nancy Tillman – books which stress the uniqueness of each individual child and how much each individual child is loved. It is a theme that resonates with parent and child alike – an observation supported by the multitude of positive reviews for her work.
We have read several of Ms. Tillman’s stories ourselves, and I think it is safe to say that “I’d Know You Anywhere…” is our favorite. The rhyming prose is narrated by a mother telling her child that no matter how many different animals he might choose to be, she will always be able to recognize him by some unique characteristic that will give him away (the gleam in his eyes, his grin, the way he moves). The book appeals to children on at least two levels that I can see. First, pretending to be an animal is a well-loved pastime for children everywhere; our oldest went through stages where she wanted to be, variously, a dog, a wolf, a deer, or a dinosaur (specifically a “diplodocus”, as I was just reminded). Second, the book reminds young children of the magical connection between themselves and their mother: no matter where you are or how you are disguised, mommy will always be able to find you and will always love you.
The book tends toward the syrupy, which is not my usual preference. However, this book still works for me – for the reasons discussed above and because of the vibrant and playful illustrations, each of which spans two pages. Ms. Tillman’s renderings include a bear cub riding a bicycle, a raccoon caught in a candid moment playing with his feet, a blue-footed booby dancing on the beach, and a giraffe doling out a kiss – and in each painting you can find mom somewhere sporting a splash of red. The artwork facilitates engagement, as you can ask what each of the animals might be thinking, and where mom might be in the picture. Another potentially valuable conversation that the book invites is a discussion of your child’s unique characteristics – personality traits, behaviors, etc. – by which you would be able to recognize him or her when in disguise…or, conversely, what characteristics do your children think you would recognize? For our oldest, a kind heart and a passionate soul would shine through any disguise, and for our youngest it would be an irresistible affection and a mischievous twinkle in her eye that would give her away.
This afternoon while browsing in the bookstore, we came across a true gem which we felt compelled to add to our reading list for today. “Owl Moon” by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoenherr tells the story of a little girl who ventures out with her father to go owling on a clear and cold winter evening. It is our narrator’s first opportunity to go owling with her Pa, likely because it is a pursuit which requires patience and absolute silence – you must not speak a word as you walk through the woods, except for the occasional owl call (“Whoo -whoo-who-who-who-whooooooo”), and you must be prepared for occasional disappointment (“My brothers all said, sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t”).
Eventually, the narrator’s forbearance and perseverance in the face of the bitter cold evening pay off. She and her father are rewarded with a sighting and even a momentary connection with nature as an owl alights on a high branch; they stare at each other for several minutes before the mysterious bird again takes flight. The little girl heads home full of silent joy (“I knew then I could talk, I could even laugh out loud. But I was a shadow as we walked home”).
“Owl Moon” is a beautiful book, both in terms of the prose and in terms of the rich, watercolor illustrations – which won the book a Caldecott Medal in 1988. Both together serve to instill a sense of peace and awe at the beauty and stillness of a snow-covered winter forest. I think, given the right setting (we were reading it in a noisy restaurant), it can also encourage everyone to lean in closer and to remain especially quiet and attentive in order not to disturb the narrator’s quest. It reminded us of one of our favorite Christmas books, “The Night Tree”, or of being far out in the country and staring up in wonderment at a night sky awash in stars. We enjoyed pointing out some of the woodland animals hidden in the pictures, like a fox wandering along in the snow close by our narrator, or a raccoon hiding in a tree – and found that the owl calls elicited several giggles from our youngest.
While we enjoy being able to “shop” for books to borrow from the library, we are very pleased to have acquired “Owl Moon” for our permanent collection at home; I have no doubt we will be reading it again and again.