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On April 23, 1616 William Shakespeare died at the ripe old age of 52, after establishing himself as perhaps the greatest writer in the English language. We celebrated his life on the 23rd – since no one is quite sure of his birthday – by reading “William Shakespeare and the Globe” by Aliki. The book provides an entertaining high-level look at Shakespeare’s life, and the efforts long after his death to restore his famous theater to its former glory. With colorful illustrations and informative insets that fill the margins of every page, Aliki’s book is an engaging and accessible introduction to the “Bard of Avon” for younger listeners.
Although the pages of the book are sprinkled with quotations from Shakespeare’s works, Aliki does not go into great detail regarding the content of Shakespeare’s writing. She focuses instead on the timeline of Shakespeare’s life and the historical context within which he penned and staged his many plays. Readers are introduced to important historical figures from Shakespeare’s England, and to key rivals like Christopher Marlowe and his acting troupe – the Admiral’s Men. For younger listeners I think this approach is appropriate, providing just enough information to pique curiosity without confusing things by trying to delve into the intricacies of Shakespearean prose.
The book is not just about old Bill Shakespeare, though. Roughly a third of the story is about American stage actor Sam Wanamaker and his tireless work (and infectious dream) to see The Globe Theater reborn so that Shakespeare’s plays could be “performed as they once were”. Aliki succeeds at conveying just how involved and difficult a task Mr. Wanamaker took on – and just how much help and luck he needed to make his dream come true. The only disappointing thing about what is otherwise an inspiring tale is that Mr. Wanamaker didn’t live to see his work completed. Ahh, well… I guess all’s well that ends well (sorry, I had to). As Aliki reminds us at the end of her book, just like Mr. Shakespeare lives on through his plays, Mr. Wanamaker lives on through the reconstructed and active Globe Theater.
We really enjoyed this book, and it certainly whet our appetites to read some Shakespeare together as a family. I think we may still be a year or two away from being able to do so, but this book almost had me thinking we could give it a try tomorrow.
Did you know that April 8th was “Draw a Bird Day”? Neither did we until just recently – but it sounded like a neat unofficial holiday with a sweet story behind it, and we always enjoy fitting another special day into our Storybook Year reading list. So, in honor of DaB Day 2016 and in further celebration of National Poetry Month, we read “How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird” by Caldecott Medal winner Mordecai Gerstein. Full of playful and colorful illustrations, the book is a humorous and joyful interpretation of a poem by French surrealist Jacques Prévert.
How do you paint the portrait of a bird? Well, apparently it’s not so much about painting the bird itself. A truly great painting of a bird requires you to first draw a cage on your canvas that is attractive enough to entice a bird to land. Then you must erase the cage and replace it with a scene that is beautiful enough to inspire the bird to sing. Sometimes you must wait a very long time for the bird to arrive – perhaps years – and even if you eventually attract a bird, it may not ever sing. If it doesn’t sing, no worries – you will still know that you did your best. HOWEVER, if it does sing, it is a sign that you have a painting which is worthy of your signature. Either way, tomorrow you can always paint another one.
The poem itself, which is apparently very well known in French-speaking parts of the world, is wonderfully inventive and entertaining and there were several things about it that we enjoyed. We appreciated the instruction that you must immediately erase the cage once you have “captured” your bird. It is perhaps a metaphor for opening your mind, but on a more literal level, we loved the idea that the bird must be free; once you have his attention, it is up to the artist to create a scene beautiful enough to inspire the bird to stay and sing. I liked the reminder in the poem that sometimes it takes a very long time, a lot of patience, and perseverance to create a great work of art – it’s a universal lesson that is applicable not only to painting but to other artistic pursuits, like writing. The comment at the end – that tomorrow you can paint another one – is a charmingly optimistic post-script, reminding us that a new day brings another chance to make the bird sing (if you didn’t succeed today) or to create a picture with a completely different song (if you did succeed)…the possibilities are endless.
Mr. Gerstein’s artwork adds further humor and life to Mr. Prévert’s composition – particularly in the expressions and body language of the young artist in the poem. His looks of concentration or anticipation are amusing, but my favorite picture by far was the unbridled explosion of joy when the bird does sing. Overall, this is a beautiful production, small enough to be attractive for little hands with a bold picture of a bluebird on the cover that immediately caught my attention. This book will leave you with a big smile on your face; it’s a great choice for National Poetry Month, Draw a Bird Day, or any day, really.
“A Sick Day for Angus McGee” by the husband-and-wife team of Phillip C. Stead (author) and Erin E. Stead (illustrator) is a true treasure. The story is sweet, funny and comforting, and the charming pencil and woodblock illustrations, which won the Caldecott Medal for 2011, make me grin every time I look at them.
Amos McGee is a sweet old man living in a tiny wood-panel house nestled in between taller downtown apartment buildings. Every morning he wakes early, packs a lunch, and rides the bus to work at the zoo, where he spends the day with his animal friends. He plays chess with the elephant (who thinks carefully about each move), races the tortoise (who always wins), sits quietly with the penguin (who is very shy), lends a handkerchief to the rhino (who always has a runny nose), and at sunset he reads to the owl (who is afraid of the dark). One day, however, Amos wakes up with a bad cold and can’t go to work. His animal friends miss him and make the trip to his house by bus to spend the day catering to Amos’ needs as he always caters to theirs.
I just adore this book. The idea of spending your days in such a simple but fulfilling way is so compelling – it’s a little escape just to read the story. I also love the way in which Amos is so considerate of each friend’s unique needs, and how his thoughtfulness and selflessness are repaid in kind. Then there are the illustrations, which augment the humor and heart of the story with their little details. Amos himself has such a friendly face, and his clothes and accommodations lend to the comforting old-fashioned feel of the book. The expressions and posture of the animals give insight to their personalities: the look of satisfaction on the face of the tortoise as he wins his race with Amos for the nth time, the crossed feet and sideways glance of the shy penguin, or the elephant’s contemplative pose as he carefully arranges chess pieces in a row while waiting on his friend. In fact, my favorite part of the book was actually wordless, as we saw the animals walking to the bus, waiting on the bus, and riding the bus to Amos’ apartment…I could almost hear the “intermission” muzak playing in my head as I flipped from one page to the next, waiting along with the animals for their story to “start up” again when they reach Amos.
I think we will need to track down some more of Ms. Stead’s books. We thoroughly enjoyed her work on “and then it’s spring” as well. Our oldest actually liked the illustrations in that book even better than those in Amos McGee, but I think that’s splitting hairs. Oh, and one more thing: we couldn’t help but appreciate the fact that Amos’ friends come in a group of five (a key foundational math concept for little ones), and that the grouping is underscored by the number “5” on the side of the bus as the friends all ride to see Amos. We have confessed to our dorkiness previously – as you will see here.
It’s a beautiful spring morning in Brambly Hedge where busy mouse families have made their homes for generations. While the mice are hard workers, they also make time for fun, and they welcome any opportunity to celebrate. All year long the mice “mark the seasons with feasts and festivities,” and this fine spring morning Mr. Apple has found another excuse to organize a soiree: little Wilfred Toadflax is celebrating a birthday today! What else is there to do but work together to plan a surprise birthday picnic for little Wilfred? It’s a capital idea, and it all comes together perfectly in “Spring Story” by Jill Barklem.
Thanks to behind-the-scenes planning led by Mr. Apple and Lord Woodmouse, Wilfred is given an enormous basket to cart to the picnic. After much arduous “heaving and pulling, wheeling and hauling” he is rewarded for his hard work upon discovering that the basket is packed with presents and an enormous cake! At last, following a full day of preparing for the picnic, enjoying tea, napping under the bluebells (for adults), and playing hide-and-seek in the primroses (for the young mice), the mouse families return home and fall fast asleep. Sounds like a lovely day to me (especially the napping part).
“Spring Story” is one of many tales in the Brambly Hedge series by Ms. Barklem. It is a darling little book full of adorable and intricate illustrations. Ms. Barklem reportedly spent five years on research before starting her Brambly Hedge books. Her thoughtful approach and the appreciation she has of her craft comes through on the pages of her books. The drawings in “Spring Story” are carefully rendered in whimsical and vibrant detail. I can easily imagine little hands picking this book up just to pore over the fascinating depiction of the Apple Family tree house. In fact, I wanted to be able to climb inside their house myself! I also took note of the time that Ms. Barklem spends filling in little details of everyday life in the Hedge, including the many wonderful names she introduces for the characters and places (Crabapple Cottage, Store Stump, Wilfred Toadflax, Old Oak Palace, Lady Daisy Woodmouse, Elderberry Lodge, and more!). It all works together to create a complete world inside what is otherwise a fairly simple storyline.
“P. Zonka Lays an Egg” by Julie Paschkis is a delightful and playfully illustrated book that incorporates inspiring themes of staying true to yourself and avoiding mindless conformity. P. Zonka, a name taken from the word for a Ukranian Easter egg (“pysanka”), is a chicken living in a farmyard where the other hens lay eggs regularly. P. Zonka, in contrast, does not. She spends her days wandering about the yard and soaking in the natural beauty that surrounds her, while her yard mates gossip about her indolence. Eventually, when she does decide to give egg-laying a try, P. Zonka produces something spectacular: a single, amazing egg, adorned with all the vibrant colors and patterns she has been “collecting” on her farmyard strolls! From that day forward, P. Zonka continues to wander about the yard and to lay eggs only occasionally, but – as Ms. Paschkis assures us – when she does, they are worth the wait!
Ms. Paschkis’ colorful and exuberant illustrations make it easy to understand P. Zonka’s sense of wonder as she strolls about the farmyard, and the book provides a compelling reminder to readers to take the time to appreciate the everyday beauty in their own lives. We also liked the fact that the gossipy chatter of the other chickens seems to have no impact on P. Zonka, although it does help make this a particularly fun book to read aloud. All-in-all, a great addition to our Easter week reading list.
Category: 365 Read Aloud
“It was time for a little bunny to be on the move. From here to there, a bunny goes where a bunny must.” Will he stop? No – but for a brief nap, this little bunny will not stop – not for pigs, or cows, or fat sheep, or even a sweet little girl who would keep him as a pet. Over hills, through fences, across railroad tracks, this little bunny is not to be deterred – but where is he going?
Peter McCarty’s “Little Bunny on the Move” is a simple and comforting story about a darling little bunny – who looks like a tiny marshmallow puff – moving purposefully across the landscape to make his way back home. While he appears at times to be almost marching across the page, Mr. McCarty’s little bunny is nothing like the frantic White Rabbit of Alice in Wonderland, he is merely determined to rejoin his family.
The book is illustrated in Mr. McCarty’s unique style: a dreamy and lightly tinted combination of pencil and watercolor that creates a lovely softness and augments the gentle feel of the story. There is also an interesting interaction of dark and light in Mr. McCarty’s drawings that creates a certain glow to the illustrations. The overall effect is memorable, so much so that even though we haven’t picked this book up in almost a decade, it still felt familiar.
Oliver the gray tabby cat lives an idyllic life alone in an apartment with Miss Tilly. He is a pampered “only child” who is unaware that the world is full of other animals; the nearest thing to a rabbit that he has ever seen is a “stuffed plush Easter bunny.” All he craves in life – and all he has known – is peace and quiet, and being served his meals on time. Then one day, Miss Tilly brings home something small, white, and furry with tall ears, pink eyes and a wiggly nose…and it is alive! “What do you think of this, Oliver?” Miss Tilly asks, “Its name is Marshmallow.” Well, let me tell you what Oliver thinks – he is appalled, and he is afraid of this alien presence. Concerned about Oliver’s ability to peacefully cohabitate with Marshmallow, Miss Tilly keeps the two pets separate – until one afternoon when Oliver slips into Marshmallow’s room. Just as Oliver is about to pounce, Marshmallow scampers up and kisses him on the nose! From that moment, the two are inseparable, “romping like two kittens” with Marshmallow following “lippity-lippity” at Oliver’s heels wherever he goes.
“Marshmallow” by Clare Turlay Newberry is a darling, endearing little book, like the little rabbit himself. According to the author, “every word of (the book) is true…the bunny was so little and was so convinced that Oliver was his mother, what could Oliver do but be his mother the best way he could?” Ms. Newberry’s amusing descriptions and her delightful charcoal drawings of Oliver’s and Marshmallow’s behavior (which won the book a Caldecott Honor in 1943) are remarkably effective at capturing the interaction between the two animals. Her drawings of Oliver in particular looked familiar to us. Having had both cats and bunnies as pets ourselves, we could picture Oliver watching the twitchy-whiskered invader, “…opening and closing his eyes as if it actually hurt them to look at a rabbit”…or lashing his tail and preparing to spring every time the little rabbit hopped by him. Our favorite part of all, however, was the way that Oliver grew to nurture and love Marshmallow as his own.
If you weren’t convinced before reading “Marshmallow”, by the time you are finished perhaps you will agree with Oliver – as we do – that “a bunny’s a delightful habit, no home’s complete without a rabbit.”
Today, in honor of World Poetry Day and the changing of the seasons, we read a book of poems by renowned Children’s author Margaret Wise Brown: “A Celebration of the Seasons”. Although I am by no means a poetry aficionado (I lean toward Shel Silverstein, “The Raven”, and silly limericks), I think that this book of posthumously published nature poems inspired by Ms. Brown’s childhood on Long Island is a very attractive piece of work. It is a delightful combination of lilting prose and beautiful artwork, even if I didn’t absolutely love all the poems.
Published in late 2015, “A Celebration of the Seasons” is actually the second collection of previously unpublished poems by Ms. Brown. As in the first volume, “Goodnight Songs,” each of the twelve poems in “A Celebration of the Seasons” is illustrated by a different artist, and the results are impressive. We had a hard time picking favorites from this collection. I was particularly fond of “the song of tiny cat” about a diminutive banjo-playing feline who is so small that he uses a ladybug for a pillow. I thought Blanca Gomez’s “handmade collage” fit the mood of the poem perfectly, and her little cat made me smile. Our oldest singled out “Fall of the Year” – mostly because of Leo Espinosa’s joyful picture of a little girl dancing among the falling leaves on an autumn day in New England. In truth, however, nearly every one of the two-page spreads in the book is a treat for the eyes.
I recommend taking time to read the introduction and end notes of the book. The introduction provides a brief biography of Ms. Brown and sheds some light not only on her love of nature, but her love of poetry and music. One observation from the introduction that really struck me was her belief that if she could sing the words to a story or poem she wrote, then she knew it had the right tempo (the book actually comes with a CD of songs to go with the poems, but I have not listened to it in detail). The end notes include blurbs about each of the artists, along with brief descriptions from each of how they went about creating their illustrations. It’s fascinating stuff that makes me appreciate the book that much more – and it’s the kind of thing I probably would not have taken the time to read before embarking on our storybook year.
In honor of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday today we had another “holiday bundle”. (A brief aside: one of my favorite things about A Storybook Year is how many new holidays we have to celebrate. I think I’ve mentioned this fact before, and I apologize ahead of time for the fact that I will doubtless say it again). Our bundle included several entertaining books, and I will attempt to give each its due here.
Our feature selection today was “The Blueberry Pie Elf” by Jane Thayer and illustrated by Seymour Fleishman. It is a darling little book about an elf named Elmer who loves blueberry pie and whose taste for this delicious confection causes him to go to great lengths to make his love known.
Elmer lives in a house with “some people” who don’t know he’s there because, as Ms. Thayer informs us, “no one can see an elf, no one can hear an elf, and no one can feel an elf.” One day, Elmer helps the people pick blueberries and roll dough for a blueberry pie. After the people go to bed that evening, Elmer jumps into the pie dish and eats “till his elfin stomach bulged.” He then cleans his feet out of courtesy to the people, and curls up in a tea cup to sleep. When he wakes, however, he finds to his dismay that the rest of the pie is gone; consumed by the people for breakfast(?!?). Elmer has a new purpose in life: to find more blueberry pie. Since Elmer can’t be seen, heard, or felt, he begins to take care of chores around the house (sweeping, cleaning dishes, making the bed), hoping that his kind deeds for the people will cause them to make another blueberry pie. However, while they appreciate the efforts of this unseen individual, the people have no way of knowing what it is that Elmer wishes them to do in return. Elmer is distraught; he paces, closes his eyes tight, even hides his head under a pillow trying to block out visions of blueberry pie…to no avail. Meanwhile, the people do bake pies – but not the right ones: apple (yuck), pumpkin (he turns up his nose), and cherry (too sour). However, after sampling the cherry pie, he forgets to clean his feet and leaves tiny footprints on the table. Aha! When the people find the footprints later, they realize at last that they have an elf in the house – that is who has been so helpful lately! If only they knew what to do to thank him…suddenly, while admiring his cherry footprints, Elmer has an epiphany! He jumps into the pie dish and uses his cherry-covered feet to write “Blueberry Pie Please”. At long last, Elmer’s wish is answered – the people make him a blueberry pie, and the book ends with a heart-felt “Thank You” spelled out on the table with blueberry pie filling.
We found a lot to appreciate about this book. Mr. Fleishman’s vintage illustrations add a significant amount of charm to this quaint parable, and what parent wouldn’t appreciate Elmer’s attempt to “earn” more blueberry pie by working hard and being helpful. Elmer is not only hard working, but considerate: until his happy mistake with the cherry pie, he is has the good manners to wipe his feet whenever he helps himself to some dessert, and he remembers to use his polite words (“please” and “thank you”). He is the quintessential model of good behavior! I fear this message was lost on our oldest, unfortunately; when we later discovered that some of her oatmeal from breakfast had dribbled down the cabinet drawers onto the kitchen floor, she seemed unperturbed and simply suggested that perhaps Elmer had been enjoying the oatmeal. Oh well, we shall take our own lesson from this book: don’t give up. Elmer wouldn’t.
“How to Make an Apple Pie And See the World” by Marjorie Priceman is an exuberant and silly tale about the great lengths one COULD go to in order to make an apple pie. You see, the recipe is rather simple: “get all the ingredients at the market…mix them well, bake, and serve…unless, of course, the market is closed.” When one door closes, another opens, however – and Ms. Priceman takes us on a humorously extreme alternate route to gathering the necessary ingredients which involves a trip around the world in planes, trains, and automobiles, stowed in a banana boat, plopped unceremoniously in a bicycle basket, carried on the end of an elephant trunk, and dropped from a plane into a Vermot apple orchard before heading back home.
Ms. Priceman’s tale is funny and entertaining, and her trip around the world is also informative. The book actually provides a little geography lesson, not only in terms of where certain countries are around the world, but in terms of the kinds of food you would want to gather there (e.g., semolina wheat from Italy, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, and sugar cane from Jamaica).
“Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pie” by Cindy Newuschwander and illustrated by Wayne Geehan is a mathematical fairy tale decorated with rich pastel drawings and full of all sorts of Pi-related puns. The story centers on Radius, the son of Sir Cumference, who inadvertently turns his father into a dragon when he brings him the wrong remedy for his heartburn. Alerted to the presence of a dragon in the kingdom, knights begin gathering from all across the countryside and Radius is in a race against time to turn his father back to human form before he is slain. There is a remedy, but Radius must be careful to give just the right dose, a dose which is the same as the ratio between the circumference of a circle and the diameter. With some help from his mother (Lady Di of Ameter) and the Metry brothers (Geo and Sym), Radius eventually determines that all circles have the same ratio – and he administers a dose of 3 1/7 spoonfuls to his grateful father who parades his son back into a town for a celebratory helping of pie.
We love math (see our dorky reason for picking “Waiting” by Kevin Henkes) and I am particularly fond of bad puns – so this book was perfect for us. It’s not just silliness, however. The expression on the face of the dragon that dominates the cover of the book is the only hint that the characters are in on the joke. There is some real math education here in the context of an engaging story; I actually became pretty invested in Radius and was really pulling for him to figure things out.
Albert Einstein’s Birthday
“I am Albert Einstein” by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos was a lot of fun to read. Mr. Meltzer’s books are sized just right to be attractive to little hands, and he presents his subjects in a very accessible way – with a combination of simple text and amusing comic strip vignettes (aided significantly by Mr. Eliopoulos’ expressive and playful style of illustration). We read one of Mr. Meltzer’s other kid-centric biographies for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but I did not read the little comics out loud at that point – which appears to have been a mistake. I did fortunately read the comics out loud in this evening’s Meltzer selection, and the exchanges therein between Albert and other characters from his life were consistently the funniest parts of the book; did you know that Albert Einstein had awesome hair?
The idea that you could be so misunderstood by everyone around you as a child, or even as a young adult, and yet go on to become widely acknowledged as one of the smartest men ever to have lived, is tremendously appealing. Yes, Albert Einstein’s life story is an inspiring one, and Mr. Meltzer’s book is a great introduction to that story for younger kids.
“Terry and the Caterpillars” by Millicent Selsam and illustrated by Arnold Lobel is a charming story of an inquisitive little girl who learns first-hand about the life cycle of caterpillars. Originally published in 1962, this “Science I Can Read Book” is adorned with vintage illustrations from the author of the “Frog and Toad” books, and is a particularly engaging way to introduce young readers (and listeners) to one of the most magical transformations in the natural world.
One day Terry brings home a big, fat, green caterpillar with orange, yellow, and blue bumps. “What are you going to do with it?” her mother asks. “Keep it!” declares Terry…”this is the biggest, fattest, nicest caterpillar I ever saw.” Terry sets up her new pet in a jar complete with a stick and some leaves. However, Terry is not content with just one caterpillar, and eventually she has three tenants in three individual jars in her menagerie – each jar numbered for careful observation. Terry watches with fascination as her first caterpillar stops eating and begins spinning a cocoon. Eventually, she moves three cocoons to a specially prepared terrarium, and one day a beautiful brown and white moth appears. Terry asks ,”Where did this come from?” After further investigation Terry discovers that the moth came from one of the cocoons. She and her parents work together in shifts to make sure that Terry is able to observe one of her remaining two caterpillars emerging from its cocoon – and she does. Finally, after baby caterpillars hatch from eggs laid in the terrarium, Terry sets her friends loose on the apple tree in the yard. Now she understands the full life cycle of the caterpillar, and the book closes with an illustration of our inquisitive protagonist dancing among a cloud of butterflies and moths.
There is a lot to appreciate about this book. A story that is centered on a little girl who is fascinated enough with the natural world to bring home a big, fat, green bug for observation, to conduct her own research, and to ask intelligent questions about is refreshing. It defies an unfortunate stereotype to which we are particularly sensitive as parents of two girls. The story also provides a nice introduction to the scientific method. Terry asks questions and discovers answers (“What will I feed it?”… “Where did you find it?”…”On the apple tree”…”Then put some apple leaves in the jar”). She and her mother do background research at the library about how best to care for the caterpillars while in their cocoons. Terry constructs a hypothesis about where the brown moth came from. She tests her hypothesis by watching the remaining cocoons. She analyzes the data from her observations, and ultimately she pulls all of her observations together and communicates her findings on the final page when she summarizes the entire life cycle.
“Terry and the Caterpillars” is more than a mere picture book; in a way it is an introduction to chapter books, without chapters. It’s a cute story, too. Terry’s progress should keep your younger listeners engaged, and there is some humor. I thought it was amusing that when the family worked together to make sure Terry could see a moth emerge, it was daddy who got the 4 am shift. If you have a little bit more time one evening, it is well worth a read – and may help inspire some young scientists in your own house.