Monthly Archives: June 2016

Day 139 – In Enzo’s Splendid Gardens

So far this year, books by Patricia Polacco have appeared twice on our reading list (“Fiona’s Lace” and “The Keeping Quilt”), and her tale “An Orange for Frankie” will absolutely be on the December list as it has been one of our favorite Christmas tales for several years running. In each of these books we found a heart-felt tale inspired by Ms. Polacco’s family history. Today’s story, another from Ms. Polacco’s vast literary canon, also draws on family for inspiration – and while it takes a different tack from her other books we have read, it is no less entertaining. “In Enzo’s Splendid Garden” takes the reader on an entertaining and increasingly chaotic ride. It is a rollicking and rhyming good time, and a delightful book for read-aloud.

enzo“In Enzo’s Splending Garden” introduces us to Ms. Polacco’s husband, Enzo, and the story takes place at his Italian restaurant in Oakland. The book begins with a little bee buzzing past the patrons in Enzo’s splendid garden. This is all fine and dandy until a boy, fascinated with bees, turns to look at the bee and drops his book. First a waiter trips on the book, then he flings a drink from his tray onto a “matron all dressed in pink”, and, well, things deteriorate quickly from there. At one point, Enzo’s cat Lettie takes off running up a palm tree wearing a pot full of spaghetti! On every page, the rhyming text builds, tossing a new “wrench” into the mix and building to complete pandemonium…until firemen arrive to rescue Lettie from her perch in the palm tree, and someone thinks to ask “how did this happen?”

This book was a lot of fun to read. It was almost like a game to see if I could read the ever-longer passages with only one breath…although that approach seemed to be a stressful experience for some listeners, so I had to let up. Ms. Polacco’s helter-skelter watercolor illustrations were a perfect complement, adding to the sense of disarray conveyed by the text. The emotive expressions on the faces of the patrons added to the humor. I think it’s safe to say that this departure from our typical Patricia Polacco experience was a very fun – and funny – detour. Now I want some spaghetti!


Day 138 – Did a Dinosaur Drink This Water?

In keeping with our seasonal theme, tonight it was water cycle time again. This evening’s book, “Did a Dinosaur Drink This Water?” by Robert E. Wells, was another great example of Storybook Year “info-tainment”: an engaging and accessible picture book that sheds a little more light on how the world really works. Laid out much more like a comic book than a science text, Mr. Wells’ book grabs your attention with an intriguing premise and then imparts a lot of great information about the water cycle and about conservation. It’s a message that would have fit quite well with Earth Day just two days ago, but we enjoyed it just as much today nevertheless.dino water

Now, I’m a sucker for a good (or even a mediocre) dinosaur storybook – but this particular volume isn’t really about dinosaurs. In truth, Mr Wells spends about one page talking about my favorite prehistoric creatures – but the book was entertaining enough that the dearth of dino-discussion didn’t bother me. The question on the cover actually refers to the fact that the Earth recycles water – meaning that the same water molecules we have today have been on the planet for millions and millions of years. It’s a fascinating concept to ponder.

The book follows two children who I presume are a brother and sister, travelling around the globe in what looks like an oversized, glass-domed drone. They stop along the way and learn about the water cycle, the way the earth recycles and cleans water (evaporation, running over rocks in streams, seeping through the soil to underground aquifers), the way that people use the movement of water from river to sea to help generate electricity, and plenty of other great facts. The message about conservation comes right at the end and is presented as a set of common-sense suggestions for using water mindfully.

With pages full of colorful and active illustrations, plenty of great knowledge about the real world, and a flow to the pictures that draws your eye around each page, this is a great book to read aloud or to have laying around for aspiring readers to pick up and peruse on their own.


Day 137 – Roxaboxen

“Marian called it Roxaboxen (she always knew the name of everything.) There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill – nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo – but it was a special place.” Indeed, it is a special place – and the story of “Roxaboxen” by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney is a very special book. It is a lovely tribute to the joy of unstructured outdoor play and to the power of a child’s imagination to create elaborate, magical worlds of adventure out of a pile of sticks, stones, and old discarded boxes.roxaboxen

Although Marian names the place, she shares it with her sisters and their neighbors – and around this group of children an entire city eventually appears, built on the foundation of their cumulative imaginations. There is a mayor (Marian, naturally), streets are marked off with rocks, houses built out of old boxes, and little Frances marks her fence with desert glass. There is buried treasure everywhere in the form of pebbles(!) – the currency which fuels the economy of Roxaboxen. There is even a bakery next to two(!) ice cream parlors, and everyone keeps trying both kinds of ice cream, because in Roxaboxen you can eat all the ice cream you want.

Everyone in Roxaboxen has a car (all you needed was a round thing for a steering wheel), but beware: if you speed, you must go to jail and stand among the cactus. For some reason, quiet little Anna May is always speeding…as though she likes going to jail. Of course, if you had a horse (a stick and bridle) you could go as fast as you wanted. There are wars on Roxaboxen, and a cemetery in case anyone dies, but the only occupant of the cemetery is a dead lizard. Sometimes, especially in winter, when the weather is bad and the children are in school, Roxaboxen is quiet…but even so, it is always there waiting.

And so it goes, from one season to the next, until one by one the inhabitants of Roxaboxen move away. But none of the children ever forget – and Roxaboxen has not forgotten them. In fact, more than fifty years later, when Frances returns to that magical hill, she sees the white stones still bordering Main Street and the desert glass still marking the location of her house…amethyst, amber and sea green.

This book has quickly become one of our all-time favorites. We love the idea of creating an entire world out of a lonely, deserted hill; it is a perfect example of the magic only children’s imaginations can work. Ms. McLerran’s prose is poetic, and Ms. Cooney’s artwork – as we have come to expect – enhances the joyful and carefree feel of the story as well as the humor. I particularly enjoyed the childlike logic that created a world where cars are subject to speed limits, but anyone with a “horse” is able to speed to their heart’s content…and yet, there is still a resident of Roxaboxen who feels compelled to drive a car and speed anyway. The accompanying picture of little Anna May standing stoically in jail among the cactuses made us all laugh out loud.

We have always enjoyed watching our girls at play in the yard, acting out stories created out of whole cloth inside their own heads and I wish we had the opportunity to see it more. It feels like unstructured play is an increasingly uncommon luxury for children. And yet, I whole heartedly believe that this kind of play is the foundation for both intellectual development and emotional resilience. The author’s note in the back of the book informs the reader that Roxaboxen is a real place (of course it is!). Ms. McLerran wrote the story with the help of her mother’s childhood manuscripts, the memories of relatives, and with letters and maps from the “city’s” former inhabitants.  This book made us all want to head out to the countryside, and let our girls run free to create a brand new magical world all their own.


Day 136 – What Makes it Rain? The Story of a Raindrop

It’s raining, it’s pouring, being stuck inside is boring…unless…you have a good book to read…and we have plenty to suggest! Today, if you haven’t been keeping up with your water cycle studies (or even if you have), we are happy to propose another wonderful learning opportunity: “What Makes it Rain? The Story of a Raindrop” by Keith Brandt, and illustrated by Yoshi Miyake. Part of the “Learn About Nature”, series “What Makes it Rain?” is a remarkably comprehensive and engaging overview of the water cycle complete with gentle watercolor illustrations apropos of the subject matter.

what makes itMr. Brandt manages to cover a lot of ground in this book. He introduces the reader not only the stages of the water cycle, but to the journey that water takes from mountain to sea (and even into your own home!), and the importance of water in sustaining plant and animal life. While there is a lot of text it is not at all cumbersome; the language is accessible for younger listeners, and (for those to whom this matters) there is no heavy-handed lesson on environmentalism. “What Makes it Rain” is straight-up edu-tainment! We found it to be quite an enjoyable read-aloud…and it is a book we are happy to have available in our own collection.


Day 135 – A Seed is Sleepy

As part of our May focus on flowers, seeds, and gardening, today we read a fantastic reality-based picture book by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long: “A Seed is Sleepy”. Like their collaboration on “An Egg is Quiet”, “A Seed is Sleepy” is a true work of art, blending poetic text with vibrant and detailed watercolor illustrations to introduce younger listeners to the world of seeds – where they come from, their many different shapes and sizes, and the remarkable ways in which they ensure that they will grow into the plants they are meant to become.

sleepyAlmost every page of the book ascribes a human characteristic to seeds, and uses that characteristic to help explain a seed’s journey. It’s an engaging and clever approach. A seed is secretive because it does not reveal itself too quickly, a seed is adventurous because it must strike out on its own in search of a less crowded place to put down roots, and a seed is generous because it gives the baby plant a seed coat to keep it warm, etc. The flowing cursive font and the pictures work together to enhance the poetic feeling of the book. On each page you can also find short paragraphs of additional information, in smaller block lettering, placed between the illustrations – and each of the seeds or plants shown are labeled in the same font for easy identification – not unlike a handwritten and lovingly prepared field guide.

I love how this book introduces children to all the different things that a seed can be, or the different ways they can behave, in such an artistic and engaging way. I also appreciated the little nuggets of information, including an anecdote about the oldest known seed to actually sprout: a date palm seed found in the remains of an ancient palace in Israel. The book is a wonderful combination of fact and art. There is a bit of a magical quality to it as well – which fits with the magical fact that a single seed has everything necessary to grow into a giant tree, all packed inside a tiny seed coat. While the cursive font may be challenging for some younger readers to follow on their own, they should still have fun picking this book up just to examine Ms. Long’s illustrations – I certainly enjoyed looking back over it again as I was writing this review.


Day 134 – Umbrella

After waiting (not so) patiently for the rain to stop in last night’s book, tonight we read a story about waiting (not so) patiently for the rain to START. “Umbrella” by Taro Yashima is a delightful take on the idea that a watched pot never boils…but give it some time and when opportunity meets preparation, the payoff can be sweet!umbrella

On her third birthday, little Momo (whose name means “peach” in Japanese) is given an umbrella and a pair of red rain boots as a gift. She is so pleased, she wakes up at midnight just to take another look at her new rain gear. Unfortunately for Momo, the weather is not feeling very cooperative. Every morning she asks her mother “Why the rain doesn’t fall?” and her mother replies “Wait, wait; it will come.”

Momo, however, is not content with waiting. One bright morning she suggests that she might need her umbrella to shield her eyes from the harsh sunlight. “You know you can enjoy the sunlight better without your umbrella,” her mother says, “Let’s keep it for a rainy day.” The very next morning, she suggests that she might need the umbrella to shield her eyes from the wind. “The wind might blow your umbrella away,” her mother replies,” Let’s keep it for a rainy day.”

It is not until many, many days later that Momo’s mother wakes her to say “Get up. Get up. What a surprise for you!”…it is raining at last! Terribly excited, Momo dons her rain gear and heads out for her nursery school with her mother. Along the way she reminds herself to walk straight like a “grown-up lady”, and she listens to the wonderful music of the raindrops falling on her umbrella…”pon pollo, pon pollo…” The rain continues to fall all day, and Momo hears the music again on her way home, when her father comes to pick her up. The book ends by telling the reader that Momo is grown now…and the narrator wonders aloud whether Momo remembers that this was the first time that she used her umbrella, and that this was the first time that she walked alone without holding her mother or her father’s hand.

This is a sweet story, and I really enjoyed the vintage feel of the illustrations in this Caldecott Honor book which was first published in 1958. In “Umbrella” Mr. Yashima succeeds at describing how I think a three year old child would react to receiving his or her first umbrella…from the increasingly restless anticipation of that first raindrop to the feeling that using your umbrella for the first time suddenly requires you to behave like a grown-up. I know our youngest continues to be fascinated with umbrellas (and splashing in puddles), and it made me smile imagining her in Momo’s shoes.


Day 133 – Rain

Around these parts it feels as though April showers have carried on…and on…and on. Frankly, I’m surprised our May flowers haven’t floated away by now. How appropriate, then, that today we should be reading “Rain” by Sam Usher – a colorful and wonderfully imaginative storybook that seeks to remind us that the very best things are always worth waiting for!

rainMr Usher’s protagonist is a precocious little red-headed boy, who wakes up one morning to a rainy day. He can’t wait to get outside, but his Grandad says they should stay indoors until the rain ends. “But I LIKE going out in the rain,” our hero pleads. In the rain you can look at things (reflected) upside down, catch raindrops, and splash in puddles. But Grandad is not persuaded, and so they wait.

The little boy reads sea stories, and the rain does not stop. What about a sea voyage with monsters, he suggests. No, better to wait. Sooooo, the little boy reads a book about Venice, and the rain does not stop. How about going out to see the floating city, with acrobats, carnivals, and musical boatmen, he proposes. And granddad, who has finally finished writing a letter, jumps up and says, “Quick…we have to catch the post!”

Time for a voyage at last (and what a voyage it is)! There are upside-down reflections, and chances to catch raindrops in your mouth, and musical boatmen, and sea monsters, and acrobats, and a general riot of activity. Upon returning home from the mailbox and after changing into some dry clothes, the boy and his Grandad sip hot chocolate, and agree: “The very best things are always worth waiting for.”

The message imparted in this book is a classic; so very true, but so very hard to remember in the moment (waiting: a potentially rewarding but infinitely challenging predicament…see here, here, and here for other books we love that have captured this theme). I particularly liked how the author foreshadowed the adventure to come with the little boy’s reading materials, and I loved the scribbly, playful watercolor illustrations, a style that I think adds to the helter-skelter carnival feel of the eventual voyage.

And, the very moment we closed the book, it started raining (again!) at our house…I guess I’ll sit here and wait for MY ship to come in.


Day 132 – Planting a Rainbow

If you have been following us you may have noticed that we are running a little bit behind on our book reviews…but bear with us – we have plenty of reviews yet to post and we will eventually get caught up…some time before the end of the summer! So – where was I? Ah, here we go…
In keeping with our “May Flowers” theme, on May 11 we read “Planting a Rainbow” by Lois Ehlert, a simple but charming book about growing flowers in every color of the rainbow. Before reading, however, you should be prepared: vibrantly illustrated with Ms. Ehlert’s trademark collages, “Planting a Rainbow” is an inspiring introduction to gardening for little listeners who may start making plans for you to help them create their own rainbow.rainbow
From the opening line (“Every year Mom and I plant a rainbow”) I expect little ones will be hooked; planting your very own rainbow?!? Awesome! Ms. Ehlert then walks readers through the year-long process. There are bulbs to be planted in the fall…including tulips, tigerlily, hyacinth, and crocus. There are seeds to be ordered during the winter and sown in spring…including zinnia, aster, morning glory, and cornflower. And, while you wait for those to sprout, there are seedlings to be purchased at the nursery to be transplanted in your garden…including poppy, delphinium, roses, and carnations. With sunshine and proper care, eventually you earn the payoff: all summer long, there are flowers to be picked to make rainbow after rainbow!
We had fun reading this book together. I particularly enjoyed reading out some of the more interesting flower names (delphinium…hyachinth…zinnia…I’m easily entertained). If you are not familiar with the pronunciations, you may be able to find a video dramatization online – we were able to access one through our local library’s Web site.
“Planting a Rainbow” can be a quick read, but it’s exactly the kind of book that little ones will want to pick up later and read to themselves if it’s left within reach!

Day 131 – Jo MacDonald Had a Garden

With Mothers’ Day in the rear-view mirror today, we got back to our themes of flowers, gardens, and growing with “Jo MacDonald Had a Garden” by Mary Quattlebaum and illustrated by Laura Bryant. Like the other books in Ms. Quattlebaum’s Jo MacDonald series, “Jo MacDonald Had a Garden” plays on a familiar tune that helps grab the reader’s attention for a story that focuses on children getting outside and experiencing nature first hand. It’s a theme we especially love, all bundled up with some playful watercolor illustrations in a fun and engaging read-aloud package.macdonald

In the book, Jo and her cousin Mike set out to create a garden – with a bit of a twist: they plan not only to only grow plants that feed people (tomatoes, squash, etc.), but to create an environment that will attract and help sustain wild animals as well. To this end, Jo plants sunflowers for cardinals, coneflowers for bees, and even lays out a flat rock for butterflies to rest. The back of the book provides additional information about some of the plants and animals in Jo’s garden community, and there are some suggested indoor and outdoor activities – including some questions about specific details you may have missed in Ms. Bryant’s artwork the first time through the book!

Upon further research, I discovered that Ms. Quattlebaum actually grew up on a farm, and that her own father served as inspiration for Jo’s grandfather in the book (Old MacDonald). After listening to her talk about her work, I appreciated this book that much more. It was a truly delightful read…and so I’ll sign off with a book, book here…and a book, book there…here a book…there a book…everywhere a picture book…e-i-e-i-o…


Day 130 – Planting the Wild Garden

In keeping with our May theme of flowers and pollinators this evening, we read “Planting the Wild Garden” by Kathryn O. Galbraith and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. It’s really quite a good story about all the ways in which wild seeds are spread about the “wild meadow garden” of the world around us, including several of, what were for me, revelations about some of the ways in which seeds might be spread. It was one more beautifully illustrated example of natural world “info-tainment” for our Storybook Year.

wildThe book begins with a farmer and her son planting seeds in the garden, but reminds us that “many seeds (in the wild meadow) are planted too, but not by farmers’ hands.” There is, of course, the wind blowing seeds far from home (“oooooo-whishhh”), and goldfinches (“per–chik-o-ree!”) who knock seeds from plants when they land…or eat them and poop them out later. The Scotch broom pops seeds into the air from pods, rain knocks seeds loose, streams carry them, squirrels bury acorns – some of which are lost and grow into great oaks, and several different kinds of animals may carry them in their fur as they amble or skitter through the meadow. And then, of course, there are people who (“stomp stomp”) pick up seeds on their boots and sweaters or simply blow them free while making wishes on dandelions. Everyone – animal and human alike – work together to keep the wild meadow garden flourishing.

Ms. Galbraith’s language in the book is simple and accessible, and the repeated use of onomatopoeia adds entertainment value to the read-aloud experience. We also really enjoyed the illustrations which are laid out almost like a collage or gallery on several pages – showing various stages of the process described in the writing. My favorite picture was the rabbit gnawing on some tall grass…as a fox watches in the background. This was a lot of fun to read and share, and the book fit perfectly with our May themes.