Category Archives: Favorites

Books that made it to our list of favorites

The Gruffalo

A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood.
A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.
“Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.”

A simple stroll through the deep dark wood quickly becomes a perilous journey for a little brown mouse in Julia Donaldson’s outstanding read-aloud classic, The Gruffalo. Not to worry, however! The protagonist of this thoroughly delightful picture book may be small, but he is daring and clever in the face of danger…even when his story takes an unexpected twist.

As he proceeds on his way, the audacious mouse is invited to lunch with a fox in his den, to have tea with an owl in his treetop house, and to a feast with a snake in his cozy log-pile home. Faced with these unattractive alternatives, what can a little brown mouse do to tactfully avoid becoming someone else’s meal? Ms. Donaldson’s protagonist declines each invitation, confessing to a prior engagement with a formidable creature called a Gruffalo who is due to arrive at any moment, and whose description becomes increasingly fearsome with every encounter. As each would-be host flees in terror, the mouse chuckles to himself…don’t they know? There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!

Or is there?

When the mouse is unexpectedly confronted with the living, breathing, real-life version of his imaginary beast (who happens to particularly like the taste of mouse!), our little hero promptly turns the tables one more time, and comes out on top.

With the help of Ms. Donaldson’s rhythmic, rhyming prose and with characters brought so humorously to life by Axel Scheffler’s colorful illustrations, this book instantly became a favorite of reader and listener alike in our home. The cover illustration alone was enough to make our youngest pick this book over a stuffed Paddington bear.

As with several of Ms. Donaldson and Mr. Scheffler’s collaborations, The Gruffalo is available in a Scots “translation” for anyone interested in a challenging but entertaining read-aloud – just be sure to bring your best Scottish brogue.

Also, if you enjoy The Gruffalo as much as we do, we heartily recommend the sequel: The Gruffalo’s Child!

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 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 117 – Bonny’s Big Day

April 26, 2016 was ASPCA National Help a Horse Day 2016. We like horses – they are such beautiful creatures, it’s hard not to – and we would have some for pets ourselves if we had the space, so this evening’s selection seemed like a no-brainer. “Bonny’s Big Day” by James Herriot is a darling story about the bond of love, gratitude, and respect between a hard-working bachelor farmer and his retired plow horses. Like many of the selections from Mr. Herriot’s outstanding Treasury for Children, “Bonny’s Big Day” is full of humor and heart, and it makes us both smile and choke up a bit every time we read it.

bonnys big dayAfter working hard along side their owner, John Skipton, to help build Dale Close Farm, plow horses Bonny and Dolly have been spending the last twelve years of their lives enjoying their retirement. They spend their days cavorting about in their own meadow and splashing in a creek that runs through the farm, and every day John Skipton heaves a bale of hay on his shoulders and walks it down to them. It is on one of these walks that James Herriot joins Mr. Skipton; James has come to examine and treat Dolly’s hoof, into which a rusty old nail has lodged. While visiting with John, it suddenly occurs to James that this hard-working and frugal farmer has been engaged in the rather extravagant pastime of keeping ex-plow horses as…pets…for twelve years! “They’ve earned their retirement” John explains wistfully, and he is incredulous when James suggests that John enter Bonny in the pet show at the local fair. “I’ve never heard anything so silly,” he tells James.

Imagine everyone’s surprise when the normally disheveled farmer appears at the fair the following weekend sporting an old bowler hat, wearing matching (!) socks and leading Bonny – who is decked out in her full show regalia. Despite the initial misgivings of a perturbed show Secretary, Mr. Skipton is allowed to enter Bonny who is awarded first prize by the judge. As James says in his narration, all the other pets may have been cute or charming, “but Bonny was MAGNIFICENT” (emphasis, his). The book closes with James accompanying John back to Dale Close. When Bonny is set loose to run down to her meadow, she and Dolly stop to rub faces together. “Look at that” says John, “Bonny is telling Dolly all about her big day.”

I think my favorite thing about this book is the deep love and gratitude that John clearly feels for these two horses who were irreplaceable in the years when he was trying to build his farm up from nothing. John doesn’t waste time on his own appearance, and he looks to reinvest everything he earns in his farm, but for these two horses he is willing to set aside hard-earned farmland and to make the long walk every day to take them a fresh bale of hay. The horses clearly love him too, running up and nuzzling him…even being sure to push his hat down over his eyes. There are several places where this story chokes me up, such as when John pauses to think about all the hard years he and his horses worked through together, when John walks in with Bonny in her full regalia, when James makes that comment that Bonny looked “Magnificent”, or when the two horses share a quiet moment to share the story of Bonny’s big day.

Ruth Brown’s illustration add to the feel of the book – particularly the humor. The scene where John walks into the show with Bonny wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without her illustration…nor would the humor of John Skipton’s disheveled appearance have been quite as apparent. It’s another feature that helps make “Bonny’s Big Day” one of our favorite animal stories, and my favorite storybook about horses!


Day 58 – Ida, Always

“He listens to (the) city pulsing around him. He remembers that Ida said you don’t have to see it to feel it. The sidewalks tap and the streets hum. Gus’s heart beats…and Ida is there, always.”ida

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!

Day 57 – Flicka, Ricka, Dicka and the Strawberries

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.Strawberries

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.

Day 50 – Harry the Dirty Dog

Tonight’s book – “Harry the Dirty Dog” by Gene Zion – has been a hit with both of our girls; it never seems to get old. The story and illustrations make it easy to engage young listeners as you follow Harry on his escapades: “can you find Harry playing in this picture?”, “what on earth is Harry doing now?”, “what do you think these people are saying to themselves as they watch such a dirty dog pass by?”, “how do you think Harry feels as he walks by the restaurant with the ‘No Dogs’ sign?”. I also think Harry’s plight – having fun getting dirty and not wanting to take a bath – resonates with young listeners.

From our Favorites page:

Originally Harry the Dirty Dogpublished in 1956, Harry the Dirty Dog is about the adventures of a family dog who hides the scrubbing brush and then runs away in order to avoid being given a bath. On his adventure, Harry takes part in a series of increasingly dirty activities, and eventually gets so dirty that he turns from a white dog with black spots into a black dog with white spots. Tired and hungry, Harry decides to return home – but he is so dirty his family doesn’t recognize him! Harry tries all of his old tricks – flip-flopping, flop-flipping, rolling over, playing dead – but his family still doesn’t realize it’s their lost dog Harry. In the end, it’s a brand new “trick” that saves the day for Harry. Dejected and seemingly resigned to his fate, Harry has an epiphany, digs up the scrubbing brush from its hiding place, and asks for a bath! I guess old dogs can learn new tricks.

Aided by the magic of a soapy bath (“It’s Harry! It’s Harry! It’s Harry!”) our canine hero is back home with the family who loves him. However, we’re not sure what lesson Harry has learned as he snuggles in to his bed and dreams of how much fun he had getting dirty. We have enjoyed discussing the ending with our kids, and you may with your kids as well: “why do YOU think the scrubbing brush was hidden under his bed?”

Day 49 – One Morning in Maine

We are big fans of Robert McCloskey. Several of the books on our favorites list are McCloskey books, including tonight’s selection: “One Morning in Maine”One Morning in Maine. In fact, this story about Sal and her loose tooth may be tops on my McCloskey list – not just because of his always-excellent illustrations but for the way in which he lets us in on the inner workings of a little girl’s mind – as we have noted on our Favorites page. Since reading the book tonight, inspired by Sal, our youngest has continued to regale us with questions about which animals do or don’t have teeth (…”do loons have teeth, mama?”…”do seals have teeth?”)

We first discovered this magnificent and magical picture book many years ago when looking for reality-based stories we could read with our first daughter. We have read it countless times since then. Whether you are looking for a reality-based story, a story that conveys a sense of wonder, or simply a book with beautiful artwork, “One Morning in Maine” is an excellent choice, and a book any family with young children should have in their home library.

Day 31 – Tikki Tikki Tembo

Another of our favorites was in the envelope this evening – fitting, since we are celebrating the completion of the first full month in our inaugural 365 project! (insert confetti and party hats here).

“Tikki Tikki Tembo” by Arlene Mosel Tikki Tikki Tembois particularly entertaining for read-aloud, as you get to say the name of the “first and honored son” over and over. Every time we read the full name – “Tikki Tikki Tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo” – our youngest giggled. Those giggles are worth more than gold.

Day 27 – Leonardo and the Flying Boy

Before reading time tonight, we went on a family “outing” to the movies to watch a Fathom Event showing of “Florence and the Ufizzi Gallery”. It was suggested by our oldest’s history teacher, and we were not disappointed. After stocking up on popcorn, we were able to sit back in the movie theater and go on a tour of some of the greatest works of art in Florence, Italy – works by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, etc. Seeing these creations on the big screen was awe-inspiring. While the music was a bit too loud at times, it was well chosen and served to make the event feel even more monumental. There were a couple paintings toward the end that were especially gory and fascinating on that scale: the Medusa shield by Caravaggio, and Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. Overall, a fully worthwhile experience, and our youngest actually made it all the way through (albeit with a little help from an iPad).

Inspired by our virtual tour of Florence, we made a last-minute substitution for tonight’s book to insert a favorite by Lawrence Anholt. Mr. Anholt has a series of picture books drawing on historical accounts to bring together great artists and children.Leonardo “Leonardo and the Flying Boy” introduces us to Leonardo da Vinci and two of his young apprentices: Zoro (short for Zoroaste) and Salai. The book is mostly about Zoro, who is the “Flying Boy” of the book’s title. Alongside Zoro, the reader sees inside Leonardo’s workshop and notebooks, hears about his restless intellect and his countless inventions, and eventually experiences flying…if only briefly…when Zoro takes a nighttime joy ride with one of Leonardo’s many mechanical creations. Anholt’s books are very engaging, telling stories out of history and making famous artists accessible to children. I also highly recommend going on past the end of Anholt’s story to read about the history behind the book.

We were able to make some more headway this evening in Wuthering Heights as well, with some help from our trusty paints. By this time in our reading, we have lost the elder Catherine Linton (nee: Earnshaw), her sister-in-law (Isabella), and her older brother (Hindley). Heathcliff has already wrought significant emotional (and financial) damage on Linton and Earnshaw alike, has turned his nephew Hareton into an uneducated brute, and is well on his way to causing further devastation. It’s a bleak story, but the richness of the writing makes it too entertaining to look away.