Monthly Archives: July 2016

Day 163 – The Paper Bag Princess

In honor of Robert Munsch’s birthday, today we read our very favorite Munsch picture book: “The Paper Bag Princess” – a delightful and irreverent fairy tale that takes the old damsel-in-distress narrative and flips it right on its head.

The story begins with a beautiful princess, Elizabeth, who lives in a castle and is madly in love with the dashing(?) and aloof Prince Ronald. She is supposed to marry Prince Ronald, but one day a dragon suddenly swoops in, burns the castle and all of Elizabeth’s clothes, and absconds with her fiancee. Determined to retrieve Ronald, Elizabeth pursues the dragon wearing a dress made of the only item in the castle not burned to a crisp: a paper bag. When she finally arrives at the dragon’s lair, Elizabeth plays on the dragon’s weakness – his excessive pride – by cajoling him into ever more impressive displays of power, speed and destruction until he is so exhausted that he doesn’t even respond when she walks up and yells in his ear. Walking triumphantly past the defeated dragon, Elizabeth opens the door to the lair only to be scolded by an ungrateful Prince Ronald: “Elizabeth, you are a mess!” he announces, before she can even speak. “You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled, and you are wearing a dirty paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.” “Ronald,” she replies, “your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” Spoiler alert: they don’t get married after all.paper bag

We absolutely adore this book (our oldest gives it three “loves”…as in “I love, love, love this book!). It has been a favorite in our house for a long time. I am particularly fond of the abrupt and unceremonious way in which Elizabeth cuts bait at the end of the story, although the clever way in which Elizabeth thinks to defeat the dragon is a nice bonus. Michael Martchenko’s expressive and colorful illustrations add to the humor of this very satisfying picture book – a perfect complement to the amusing narrative.

The story conveys what I think is a very important message: it is who you are on the inside and not what you look like on the outside that matters, and if somebody can’t appreciate you for who you are inside, then they are not worth your time…especially if they are self-absorbed, ungrateful pretty boys (that’s what I got out of it, at least).

Day 162 – if you want to see a whale

When you think about heading out to the beach, perhaps you imagine building a sand castle, splashing in the waves, or tossing a Frisbee on the sea breeze. These pursuits all seem fairly straightforward, and I’m not sure you need any special instructions for any of them. However, if you plan to set your sights a little higher, and what you really want to do at the beach is to see a whale…well, we may have found just the book for you! “if you want to see a whale” by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner Erin E. Stead is a whimsical and poetic how-to guide with just the right amount of silly to make it a thoroughly entertaining read aloud experience.

whaleThe book begins with the bare essentials required for whale spotting: a window…and an ocean…and time for wondering…AND time for realizing. You will need a not-so-comfy-chair and a not-too-cozy-blanket, because you can’t watch for whales when you are sleeping (me: good point!). While watching you must make sure NOT to notice certain other things that might be intriguing: the color pink, sweet roses, possible pirates on the horizon, perching pelicans, small inching things…and clouds. You must watch the sea and wait…wait…wait…
Eventually, after much waiting, payoff (in this book, at least)! A whale does appear, and we are left to playfully imagine all the many adventures a child and his dog will have (conversing? exploring? sitting quietly?) with their new-found whale…but this is not a book about what to do with whales – it is strictly a book about what to do if you want to see one.

We love the poetic prose, the childlike observations, and the humorous illustrations of a child and his dog waiting patiently and forgoing all other distractions in pursuit of their singular goal. We also got a kick out of the idea of a child sitting and waiting for something fun to happen…it’s a theme that we saw previously in another Fogliano-Stead collaboration: “and then its spring”…and we enjoyed it just as much here as we did there. As with the prior book, patience is eventually rewarded – but, goodness, that waiting is hard work!

Day 161 – Manfish (a Story of Jacques Cousteau)

June is our month to read about the beach and the ocean, and it also happens to be National Scuba-diving Month. What better time, then, to read a picture book about Jacques Cousteau, the world’s most famous scuba diver, who also happens to have been born in June (June 10, 1910). “Manfish” by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Eric Puybaret is a lovely book, with poetic prose, attractive full-page illustrations, and an inspiring story about the explorer and inventor whose many films (over 115!) introduced the world to the wonders of the ocean.manfish

Ms. Berne introduces us to Jacques as a little boy in France – a little boy fascinated with the ocean who dreams that one day he will be able to “fly” and breathe under water. He is also fascinated with machines and with films – which he begins creating with a small home-movie camera he bought by saving his allowance “penny by penny.”  After finishing school, he travels the world as a member of the French Navy, filming everything he sees. Then, one day, wearing a pair of goggles given to him by a friend, he wades into the ocean and his eyes are opened to the wonders below the surface. Driven by a passion to explore the deep as a “manfish”, Jacques eventually invents the “aqualung” – and for the first time a person is able to swim for an extended time below the surface of the ocean. Success! With his cameras, his new invention, his best friends, and his ship (Calypso), he sets out to explore the oceans and to share the experience through his films. Along the way, he discovers amazing creatures the world has never seen and continues to innovate – improving his diving apparatus and even inventing cages for him and his crew to be able to film sharks without being eaten!

We really enjoyed learning more about Jacques Cousteau, including the extra details provided in the Author’s Note at the back and the surprise pull-out page. The story is informative without being dry – this is no “laundry list” of events in the life of a famous explorer. This story is about a little boy’s dream that grew into a man’s passion to become a manfish and fly beneath the waves – and how he worked to share that passion with the world. I think Ms. Berne does a wonderful job of conveying the feeling of wonder that the ocean inspired in Jacques, and which he hoped to inspire in everyone else.


Day 160 – How to Hide an Octopus

Ever wondered how to hide an octopus? How about a cuttlefish? Don’t know what a cuttlefish is? Well, have we got the book for you: “How to Hide an Octopus” by Ruth Heller. With rhythmic, rhyming text, it’s an entertaining and informative read-aloud about some very clever, camouflaged sea creatures.

octopusWhile most children will already be familiar with the titular octopus, Ms. Heller adds interest by introducing readers to some less-well-known denizens of the deep. Along with the aforementioned cuttlefish, there is a (spectacular) sea dragon, a (splendid) sargassum fish, and a (deceptive) decorator crab – just to name a few. In the flow of the book, Ms. Heller presents each animal and then hides it insider her colorful illustrations – great for engaging little listeners: can you find where the octopus is hidden? It’s quite fun. My favorite part was the closing page, which hints at a sequel…after summing up why these sea creatures might want to hide themselves, Ms. Heller observes that:

…predators to live must eat,

so also fade and are discreet,

and then their prey on which they sup

can’t see who’s going to eat them up.

If you’ve been wondering about how to hide an octopus and you’re looking for a light and lively read-aloud on the subject, we’ve found it! Eight tentacles up!


Day 159 – Seashore

It’s summer time – time to head to the beach! What better time to read a book called “Seashore” by Alain Greé. “Seashore” is a captivating book with pages packed full of lovely, vintage (60s & 70s) illustrations. It’s a stunning picture book, and the production quality is excellent.

seashoreThe book includes examples of things you might pack to take to the beach, games you might play at the beach, animals you might see there, food you might eat there, and so on. It’s not really a story book, although there is a bit of narrative flow to it. It is a great book for teaching little listeners sea- and beach-related vocabulary. What makes this book so great, though – and what makes me so happy to have it in our collection – is Mr. Greé’s artwork. This is exactly the kind of book that little readers (and parents) want to pick up page through again and again.


Day 158 – Hattie and the Wild Waves

Another month, another theme, and another wonderful Barbara Cooney book we are able to work into our calendar. For June, we have departed (figuratively) for the beach, and today we came across “Hattie and the Wild Waves”, a beautifully written and illustrated story about a free-spirited little girl named Hattie who is inspired by the wild waves on the beaches of Long Island.hattie

Hattie is the youngest child in a German-American family living on Long Island, presumably around the turn of the century. Hattie’s father is a very successful home-builder, and her parents frequently host big parties for all their German friends and relations. There is plenty of food, including potatoes galore (clouds of mashed kartoffeln), followed by a retreat to the parlor where Mama keeps her two greatest treasures: her rosewood piano and a grand painting called “Cleopatra’s Barge”, a masterpiece by Opa Krippendorf…Hattie’s grandfather. Hattie’s brother Vollie is determined to be a successful businessman alongside his father when he grows up, and her sister Pfiffi has plans to become a beautiful bride. However, when Hattie tells her siblings of her wish to become a painter, they burst out laughing “Dummkopf! Little stupid head! Girls don’t paint houses.” but Hattie is not thinking of houses when she says she wants to be a painter. She is thinking of “…the moon in the sky and the wind in the trees and the wild waves of the ocean.”

With her tiny hands, Hattie is not able to excel at piano (her mother says will never get past The Happy Farmer), her needlework is uneven and her french knots are grimy. Standing still to be fitted for dresses, while her sister preens in the mirror, is particularly trying for restless little Hattie. “Trying to be pretty is a lot of work,” she confides to the cook’s daughter, Little Mouse. What she does love is making pictures – especially during the summer, when Hattie and her family go to their beach house in Far Rockaway. While she is at the beach, Hattie can draw, and wonder what it is that the wild waves are saying. One summer, however, Papa buys a new vacation house called The Oaks – larger and grander than Far Rockaway but nowhere near the beach. Hattie’s siblings, Pfiffi and Vollie are both very excited, but Hattie is unsure. The Oaks is nice; Hattie has a tamed macaw who can fetch tennis balls, and she and Little Mouse can walk arm in arm in the deer park and talk about what they will do when they grow up (Little Mouse will teach and Hattie will paint). But The Oaks isn’t Far Rockaway, and Hattie finds herself wondering: what will the wild waves be saying this summer?

Eventually, Pfiffi is married, Vollie becomes a successful business man, and Papa and Mama and Hattie all go to live in a hotel that Papa has built. Sometimes Hattie can draw, but often (too often) her time is taken up with shopping or playing cards with her mother. One night, however, Hattie sees a woman at the hotel sing her heart out on stage and realizes that it is time for her to paint her heart out. The next morning, a stormy day, Hattie goes to the Art Institute and then to Coney Island. The rides are shut down, but the fortune teller booth is open, and Hattie’s fortune card tells her that she will make beautiful pictures…and then the wild waves crashing on the beach tell her the same. When Hattie tells Mama and Papa what she will do, Mama smiles and says “Just like Opa”…but Hattie replies “no, just like me”.

We love this book, both for the beautiful old-timey illustrations we have come to expect from Ms. Cooney, and for the inspiring nature of the story. Not only does the book remind listeners to be true to themselves, but it stresses the importance of family and paints Hattie’s story against the backdrop of an immigrant family reaping the rewards of their hard work and living out the “American Dream.” After studying German for many years in high school and college, I also enjoyed reading aloud all the German words and phrases that Ms. Cooney worked into the text…it’s an acquired taste, but for those of us who have acquired it…it’s fun!

Day 157 – Paddle to the Sea

“The Canadian wilderness was white with snow. From Lake Superior northward the evergreen trees wore hoods and coats of white…There was no sound. Nothing moved.” A young, native American boy sits in a cabin near Lake Nipigon, carving a man in a canoe out of a piece of wood. After painting the canoe and adding some lead for ballast, he inscribes on the bottom: “PLEASE PUT ME BACK IN THE WATER. I AM PADDLE TO THE SEA”. So begins the epic tale of “Paddle-to-the-Sea” by Holling C. Holling, a captivating Caldecott Honor storybook originally published in 1941. This fascinating tale provides a lesson in geography and history through the journey of a little man in a wooden canoe (“Paddle”) who manages to make his way, with a little bit of help, from the side of a snow-covered hill in Ontario, through each of the Great Lakes, up the St. Lawrence River, and all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to France.paddle

In the course of his travels, Paddle spends some time dammed up in a pond with beavers, he narrowly escapes being run through a sawmill, and he sees the great iron freighters being loaded with ore in Duluth, Minnesota. He passes by fishing villages, witnesses a shipwreck in the midst of one of Lake Superior’s legendary storms, and travels the length of Lake Michigan on a freighter, all the way to the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. Making his way back up the coast of Michigan, he watches a forest fire in the Upper Peninsula, and wends his way through Lake Huron, where he is picked up in a motor boat and carried to the entrance of Lake Erie. He passes over Niagara Falls, through Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River and out to the Grand Banks – where he is picked up by a French fishing boat for his journey across the ocean.

Along the way, through twenty-seven one-page chapters and several years, Paddle encounters people who pick him up and help him along his way – staying true to the request carved into the bottom of his hull. In nearly every chapter, there are maps in the margins showing Paddle’s progress, as well as beautiful, intricate, full-page illustrations facing each page of text. Mr. Holling also weaves all kinds of nuggets of information into the text – historical and geographical.

This is an amazing book. It may be a little bit long for a single evening’s read-aloud – it’s certainly a bigger bite to swallow that our typical picture book selection so far this year. It’s worth it, though. You may be able to split it over a couple evenings, although I predict that the story will be too compelling to put down. The idea that you can put a little canoe on a snow drift above a little creek and that he will eventually make it all the way to the ocean is sure to capture the wonderment of young and old alike.

As a bonus, I suggest watching this adaptation from 1966 by the National Film Board of Canada. I remember watching this film when I was in elementary school (not all the way back in 1966, by the way – how old do you think I am?). The story stuck with me in the back of my mind for years because the concept is so fascinating, but I had forgotten that it came from a picture book. When we discovered “Paddle-to-the-Sea” at the library, it clicked and I was thrilled to have rediscovered it! Needless to say, I had to get my own copy, which I am looking at right now.


Day 156 – The Seasons of Arnold’s Apple Tree

Arnold lives with his parents in a little white farm house out in the country, and sitting alone on top of a hill at the farm is Arnold’s Apple tree. It is in this idyllic setting that Gail Gibbons’ “The Seasons of Arnold’s Apple Tree” takes place, and where Ms. Gibbons – with the help of Arnold and his tree friend – walks readers through the changing seasons in a characteristically engaging manner.

apple treeThe book begins in spring, where we find Arnold lounging in the tree’s branches, enjoying the sweet smelling apple blossoms, and watching the bees collect nectar. In the summer, he builds a tree house to go with the swing he hung in the spring, and he does a juggling act with some of the green apples that have begun to grow large. In the fall, he rakes the falling leaves and gathers the delicious red, ripe apples in a basket to take home – where he and his family make apple pie and apple cider. In the winter, he builds a snow fort around his friend with a snowman sentry. The tree’s branches are bare – at least until Arnold decorates them with strings of popcorn and berries! Of course, after the snow melts…it’s spring again!

Just like most Gail Gibbons books, this book was full of great information and colorful illustrations. There is less information packed into this book than we have found in other Gibbons books, where many pages are filled with insets and callouts. “The Seasons of Arnold’s Apple Tree” has more of a traditional storybook flow. There is an inset about apple blossoms and bees, an apple pie recipe, and a diagram of a cider press – but the focus in this book is clearly on the interaction between Arnold and his tree. It’s a charming book that helps explain the seasons to little listeners, and will make readers long to spend a lazy day around their own apple tree out in the country…at least, that’s how it made me feel!


Day 155 – Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea

I have always enjoyed looking at maps, committing historical charts to memory and covering my bedroom walls as a teenager with political maps swiped from my dad’s National Geographic magazines. I still have a world map covering a wall in my office; I think understanding political borders and geographic proximity helps immensely with understanding what is happening in the world around us. Of course, all of that fascination with maps is focused mostly on land masses, which only cover about 30% of the Earth. What about the over 70% of the world that is covered in water – mostly oceans? With beaches and oceans being our focus for June, what better time to “dive a little deeper” into the subject of mapping the oceans…so tonight we read a book called “Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea” by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Raúl Colón, a fascinating and beautifully decorated biography of Marie Tharp, who was the first person to map the ocean floor.puzzle

When Mary was young, her father was a cartographist, and her love of maps began while watching her father do his work. His job took him and his family all over the country, and by the time she graduated high school, Mary had attended 17(!) different schools. When she went to college, Mary realized that scientists really know very little about the seafloor. When Mary graduated, she was ready to research the ocean, and be a scientist, but science wasn’t ready for Mary (me: c’mon science!). One firm told her they did not need any more file clerks when she tried to apply for a scientific position, and scientists at the Oceans Studies lab at Columbia University in New York told her it was bad luck to have a woman on a ship (so she could not go out on the research ships). Fortunately, Mary was not easily discouraged. She “bit her tongue” and with the help of a friend at Columbia, she decided to try and map the ocean floor anyway. She began to collect data from soundings taken by the lab’s research ships. As she pieced the puzzle together, Mary realized that – yes – there were in fact mountains (and valleys) under the ocean. She also found a deep crack running down the middle of the Atlantic (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge), supporting the theory held by a minority of scientists that the Earth’s surface was covered by a series of interlocking plates (Plate Tectonics). Using different colors for different depths, and engaging the services of a landscape painter from Austria, Mary finally had her masterpiece – the first map of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Mary had always tried to think big, and in the end it paid off: her maps changed the way people looked at the world.

We really enjoyed this book – beautiful artwork, maps, an inspirational life story, maps, and an amazing woman who bucked the status quo to forever change the world for the better. With two girls, that last item is particularly important to us. Our oldest was especially inspired – her soul fired by anger at the closed-mindedness of the scientific establishment when Mary began her quest, and filled with intense admiration at Mary’s perseverance. It really is a wonderful book (whether you have daughters or not). Also – don’t forget to read the passage in the back of the book, which shines more light on Mary’s life.


Day 154 – From Seed to Plant

For June 2, we read another book from that prolific purveyor of “infotainment”: Gail Gibbons. “From Seed to Plant” was actually left over from our May theme of seeds and planting – but better late than never! Today’s selection, in true Gail Gibbons fashion, is full of colorful and informative illustrations that help to explain a real-life subject in an engaging way that pulls little listeners right in.

seed to plantIn “From Seed to Plant”, Ms. Gibbons introduces readers to a wide variety of seeds and to some of the flowers that grow from those seeds. There are informative drawings of plant anatomy and examples of the different and innovative ways in which seeds have adapted in order to travel from their source – such as being carried by squirrels, attaching themselves to someone’s pant leg, or floating on the wind. Aspiring gardeners will be inspired by Ms. Gibbon’s explanation of how seeds sprout into new plants, and her “From Seed to Plant” project for growing your own bean plant.

Once again, we turned to Ms. Gibbons for an entertaining and educational “real-world” picture book, and once again she came through with flying colors! Thank you, Ms. Gibbons.