Category Archives: Special Days

books selected for special occasions

Day 125 – The Little Fire Engine

In honor of National Firefighter’s Day on May 4, we read “The Little Fire Engine” by Lois Lenski. Originally published in 1946, this vintage picture book manages to maintain a timeless appeal. With a straightforward story, simple but colorful illustrations, and a fire engine (!), it certainly grabbed the attention of our youngest during story time.engine

Fireman Small is the fire chief of Tiny Town. When the alarm bell rings (“ding-ding! ding-ding-ding!”), he springs into action to save the day! He loads up his pumper truck and races off to the fire (“nang-nang-nang” goes the bell, “ooo-o-WEEE-ooo-oo-o-o” goes the siren). When they arrive at the fire, the firemen unload the hose, and put out the fire…but not before Fireman Small rescues a little girl and her cat from an upstairs window!

It’s a good old-fashioned story, with just the right amount of suspense and heroics to keep little listeners engaged. I love the old-school feel of the illustrations as well. Even for big kids, there’s something compelling about firetrucks and firemen – it’s a can’t-miss combination…and “The Little Fire Engine” was definitely a hit for us!

Day 124 – Miss Rumphius

Another day and another wonderful storybook about wildflowers for National Wildflower Week. Barbara Cooney’s timeless classic, “Miss Rumphius”, is a modern day fable that tells the tale of how fields of lupine came to blanket the coast of Maine. Although the protagonist in Ms. Cooney’s book is fictional, like Lady Bird Johnson in yesterday’s storybook, Alice Rumphius seeks to make the world a more beautiful place through the gift of wildflowers. It is an enchanting and inspiring tale, made even more so by Ms. Cooney’s trademark old-timey illustrations which made us wish we could be inside the book with Miss Rumphius.

rumphiusWhen Alice Rumphius was a little girl, she would sit on her grandfather’s knee as he told her of faraway places, and Alice would tell him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.” “That is all very well,” he would tell her, “but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

When she grew older, Alice (“Miss Rumphius” by now) did travel to faraway places – tropical islands, tall mountains, jungles, and deserts – making friends everywhere she went. And, eventually, when her travels were through, she did settle down in a quaint little house by the sea. However, while two out of three might not be bad for some people, it is not enough for Miss Rumphius: she cannot be completely happy until she has succeeded in making the world more beautiful. She is initially at a loss, since the world is “already pretty nice”, what more can she add? Then, one fine spring day she is surprised to discover a patch of lupines that have sprouted from seeds blown from her garden at home…and inspiration strikes! She hikes along the coast spreading lupine seeds wherever she goes and next spring…there are lupines everywhere! At last she has accomplished the most difficult task of all.

We love this story. I have adored Miss Cooney’s illustrations ever since reading Oxcart Man to our oldest daughter when she was still very little, and they are used to great effect in Miss Rumphius. The charming houses of the fishing village, the tall ships docking at the harbor, the fields full of flowers, even the illustrations of Miss Rumphius’ far-flung travels – they all made us wish we were there…wherever “there” was in each picture. We were also inspired by Miss Cooney’s tale to do some wildflower planting of our own. Knowing that this book was coming up, we placed an order for two big bags of lupine seeds…and while I felt as though I may have gone a bit overboard initially, after reading the book I wish I had even more seeds to spread about. I had better get to work, too, if I want to start making the world a more beautiful place.

Day 123 – Miss Ladybird’s Wildflowers

May 2nd marked the beginning of National Wildflower Week. What better time to read about Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady who brought us the Highway Beautification Act and the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas. “Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers” by Kathi Appelt and illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein is a vibrant and inspiring introduction to this remarkable woman who is still revered in her home state of Texas for the work she did to raise the profile of wildflowers and to help spread their natural beauty along the sides of highways across the country.

Having lived in Texas for over thirty years, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t previously know much about Lady Bird Johnson. I had been told at some point that she was responsible for the bluebonnet patches that blanket the highway medians around the state, and I had the sense that she had somehow achieved saint-like stature…but I really didn’t know any details. So, today’s book was particularly valuable for me if for no other reason than to fill in a woefully lacking gap in my (Texas) cultural literacy!lady bird

Ms. Appelt began by telling us about Lady Bird’s lonely childhood in East Texas, and how she found solace after the death of her mother in the wildflower meadows, piney woods, and dark bayous around her home. As a congressman’s wife in Washington DC many years later, Lady Bird was troubled by the lack of natural beauty she saw around the city, and the idea of children growing up surrounded only by concrete and asphalt. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, in her new role as First Lady she sought to the help the country heal by working to promote the planting of flowers and trees around Washington DC, and by pushing for the passage of the Highway Beautification Act – which cleaned up the sides of highways around the country, replacing billboards and rusted cars with wildflowers. When she turned 70, she helped to establish the National Wildflower Research Center south of Austin, Texas to study uses for wildflowers and to preserve seeds of endangered varieties.

The book fills in a number of other details of Lady Bird’s life, including her storybook romance with Lyndon Johnson, with accessible language that avoids becoming a “laundry list” of events and accomplishments. Ms. Appelt also sprinkles the story with well-placed quotations from Lady Bird herself – giving some insight into the soul of this champion of wildflowers. Meanwhile, Ms. Hein’s illustrations help the reader to appreciate the beauty that Lady Bird saw in the wildflowers, woods, bayous, and hills of her home state.

“Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers” is a beautiful book and an apt tribute to our 38th First Lady. Next time I pull around a bend in the road and my breath is taken away by a field full of bluebonnets, I’ll remember to thank her.

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 116 – If You Were a Penguin

Although we hardly need an excuse to fit in a book about penguins, April 25th was World Penguin Day…so, what did we do? Read a book about penguins, of course! “If You Were a Penguin” by Wendell and Florence Minor, our choice to help celebrate a day which I believe ought to be a national holiday, is a simple but adorable poem spread over 32 colorfully illustrated pages.penguin

“If You Were a Penguin” is entertainment that also manages to inform – introducing the listener to several different breeds of penguin, some typical penguin behaviors, and the different habitats where penguins may be found. The rhyming prose makes this book a delight to read aloud – and the simplicity of the prose makes it a fairly quick read as well…something that’s nice to have available from time to time. Plus: penguins!

In conclusion, I respectfully submit that the more books about penguins you can add to your read-aloud calendar, the better (100% of fathers writing reviews on this blog agree with me). “If You Were a Penguin” is a great place to start.

Day 115 – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

For April 24, the beginning of National Dance Week, we read a beautiful book about one of the most famous prima ballerinas of all time: “Swan – The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova” by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad. With poetic prose and graceful illustrations, “Swan” is less a traditional biography and more of an enchanting ode to Ms. Pavlova’s love of ballet, and to her burning desire to share that love with the world. Ms. Snyder and Ms. Morstad combine words and pictures to create a true work of art befitting of the book’s subject matter.swan

We are first introduced to Anna as her mother is whisking her off on a snow-covered evening to see the ballet, and that is where we see Anna fall in love. As the dancers perform, Anna’s feet “wake up” and “there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” From that point forward, Anna can not stop dancing. Eventually she begins formal training, and when she finally sets foot on a stage “Anna becomes a glimmer, a grace. Everyone feels it…the room holds its breath.” We are told that Anna shouldn’t be this good, her legs are too long and her feet are all wrong, but “Anna was born for this.”

Anna’s career takes off, she performs for years to adoring crowds, and she is wined and dined by royalty, but there is still something missing. Anna knows that “somewhere, there are people who haven’t heard the music,” so she sets out to “feed (the world) beauty.” She travels the globe performing in venues from bull rings to rickety old dance halls…and “when people throw flowers, Anna tosses them back. It’s enough just to dance.” Sadly, on one of her many trips she is caught out in the snow and catches a chill…”a rattle she can’t shake,”…and try as she might, she can not spin away.
The poetry of Ms. Snyder’s writing paints a beautiful impressionistic picture that hints at specifics of Anna’s life but focuses more on providing a window to her soul. That felt right to us. There is a very helpful Author’s Note at the end that does fill in some of the details, and I highly recommend it. For a Philistine like myself – previously unfamiliar with Ms. Pavlova – it was fascinating to read about how her oddly-shaped feet inspired her to invent her own ballet shoes (shoes which provided the template for the shoes that ballet dancers use today) and how she took what had been an art form strictly to be performed for the wealthy and shared it with everyone, even dancing on the backs of elephants. I also read elsewhere that the title refers to the dance for which she was most known, “The Dying Swan”, which was choreographed just for her in 1905…and then performed by her all around the world.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about Ms. Morstad’s artwork, which is just as important a piece of the puzzle in “Swan” as the writing. We are big fans of Ms. Morstad’s work (see “This is Sadie” and “When Green Becomes Tomatoes”), and her elegant style is tailor-made for Ms. Pavlova’s story. I particularly enjoy how she subtly captures Anna’s awe upon seeing her first ballet, and the graceful, flowing way that she shows Anna moving through every page thereafter.

Day 113 – Listen to Our World

Out of several books we chose to read for Earth Day this year, our favorite by far was “Listen to Our World” by Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Entreating the reader to listen to the sounds of nature, Martin and Samspon introduce children to a wide variety of habitats and their animal inhabitants. With spare text and occasionally inventive onomatopoeia, the book provides a visually appealing and comforting read aloud experience that we thoroughly enjoyed.Listen

Beginning with an urban habitat, where children are just waking up to good morning kisses from mommy, the narrative ranges far and wide across the globe: rain forests (parrots “squawk”), deserts (Gila monsters “hiss”), mountain peaks (eagles “wee-aaa”), bamboo forests (pandas “grrr-grrr”), and many more locations besides. After visiting blue whales under the ocean waves (“wahhh! wahhhh!”), the reader returns to a night-time apartment and a good-night kiss from mommy…”Sweet dreams my little ones.” It’s a soothing journey which manages to provide a lesson in geography – especially if you read the “Facts About Animals In This Book” section at the back, and have a globe or atlas nearby as an added visual aid. The varying layouts from one habitat to the next (some vertical, some horizontal) will keep readers on their toes, and the folk-art illustrations are delightfully colorful and engaging.

Published on March 15, 2016, this book is a charming posthumous addition to the Bill Martin book collection. A wonderful read aloud book for Earth Day or any other day.

Day 106 – Swatch

In a place where colors ran wild, there lived a girl who was wilder still…and “Swatch” by Julia Denos is her story. Swatch is a color tamer – and she LOVES color – from in-between gray to rumble-tumble pink. However, even Swatch must be reminded sometimes that no matter how docile they may seem, colors are wild animals at heart and they must be allowed to fly free if you truly want to create a masterpiece. 

“Swatch” is a joyful and wonderfully creative celebration of color. It is also an inspiring story and a fabulous showcase for Ms. Denos’ artwork.Swatch We first fell in love with her work in Margaret Cardillo’s “Just Being Audrey”, where the drawings conveyed a charm, grace and style that fit the subject perfectly. In “Swatch”, the exuberance, energy, and expressiveness of her illustrations are equally fitting. Swatch dances through the pages of the book with abandon, accompanied by brash strokes of color splashed across every page. The way the brush strokes flow, moving your eye across the pages and through the story with Swatch, is truly masterful! We have been looking forward to reading this book together ever since we saw a picture of the cover on Ms. Denos’ Web site several weeks back. We were not disappointed – the book is just as much fun on the inside as the cover implies it will be. I am delighted to have this one as part of our collection – the artwork alone makes this a book we will want to pick up and page through again and again. It’s eye candy with a charming story thrown in for good measure – a fantastic book that is a perfect fit for World Art Day.

P.S. you can read more about Ms. Denos and her work at her Web site, and you can download a Swatch coloring sheet by clicking here.

Day 101 – A Book for Black-Eyed Susan

Sunday April 10 was National Sibling Day in the U.S., and we marked the occasion with a touching story about family ties and the abiding connection between sisters. “A Book for Black-Eyed Susan” by Judy Young and Doris Ettlinger is a poignant work of historical fiction that manages at once to be heartbreaking and inspirational. The pages are filled with gorgeous watercolor illustrations that capture candid snapshots of pioneer life and panoramic views of the Great Plains.susan

As Ms. Young tells us in her Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, traveling on the Oregon Trail was not easy for the pioneers. Many families faced separation and one in every seventeen people died at some point along the journey west. Ten-year-old Cora must cope with tragedy on the very first page of the story when her mother dies giving birth to her little sister. Cora and her Pa rely on assistance from Cora’s Aunt Alma to care for the little baby, for whom Cora suggests the name Susan – inspired by her little sister’s black eyes and the Black-Eyed Susans which were her mother’s favorite flowers. One stormy day while Cora is inside the wagon taking cover from the rain, she pulls out her mother’s sewing box. Looking through the collection of scraps, Cora is reminded of experiences from her life in Missouri, of her extended family whom they had to leave behind, and of her mom. Realizing Susan will never know these precious memories, Cora decides that she will sew the scraps into a cloth book – a tangible bridge to the past for her little sister to better understand where she came from. When Cora’s Pa explains to her one day that he has asked Aunt Alma and Uncle Lee to raise Susan, Cora is heartbroken; Susan will be heading off to California, while Cora and her father will continue on to Oregon. Suddenly, Cora’s project takes on a new urgency, as she frantically works to complete her book before they reach the fork in the trail that she believes will separate them forever.

We really enjoyed this book. It is a definite favorite for our oldest who has checked it out from the library multiple times. The beautiful story manages to provide a little history lesson (something I particularly appreciate), and it is especially moving for us as parents of two girls. I can’t imagine being faced with the kind of decision that Cora’s father must make, believing that it is in his youngest daughter’s best interest for him to give her up, and separating his girls with no expectation that either will ever see the other again. We appreciated reading about how education was a priority for the pioneers upon reaching Oregon – it certainly was so for Cora. We also noticed an observation in Ms. Ettlinger’s bio on the back flap that really resonated with us, about the importance that people attach to home-made and well-used items and how they help us to stay connected to our history and our family. Most of all, however, I loved the way that all of Cora’s hard work on both her education and on creating Susan’s book pays off in the inspirational ending to the story.