Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Water

I know I’m supposed to be blogging about chapter books, or adult books, or something.  But I just had to tell you about this.

I bought this book for my son, Owen, for Christmas.  He’s five.

I thought it would be a good one since he likes sharks and because he’s always interested in non-fiction books.  It’s set up like an encyclopedia, with a one-page entry per animal.  Plus, it was on the bargain table for a mere $5.98 or something, so I thought, Why not? 

The book sat in his room for a while after the holidays – volcano sets and giant Nerf guns and Hexbugs and Lego ninja castles and spy gear being more interesting than a fish encyclopedia, really.  But recently, he remembered it and started leafing through it.  He’s always so earnest and sweet, looking at his books, I love to watch him. 

So a few nights ago, he asked me to read a few pages of it instead of reading stories before bed.  Sure, honey, sounds great.  We snuggle up together, all warm in our jammies with sweet-smelling freshly-shampooed hair, and the first thing I noticed was that EVERY SINGLE SEA CREATURE WANTS TO FREAKING KILL ME AND EAT MY LIVER.  Seriously, can you believe how menacing these drawings are? 

And if the looks on their faces aren’t enough, check out the carnage:

Plus, Sharks and Other Creatures of the Deep serves as a cautionary tale.  You'd better think twice about taking your beloved pet to fetch tennis balls in the surf.  (Is nothing sacred anymore?)

Also?  This fish will eat you EVEN AFTER YOU CHOP ITS HEAD OFF.  So he’s either immortal, or he’s just a badass.  He’s like the Samuel Jackson of ichthyology.

Merry Christmas, sweet Owen.  You’re welcome for the lovely, appropriate gift…and sweet dreams.  (I realize that you’ll be too traumatized ever to swim again, for the rest of your natural life.  Sorry about that.)  Love, Mommy.

(An aside:  He honestly LOVES the book.  He’s a five-year-old boy, so of course he does.  In fact, Sharks and Other Creatures of the Deep recently beat out The Jesus Storybook Bible as his very favorite book.  I think Jesus understands.  He knew about Jonah, after all.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

For the Little Kids – Picture Books

For the first time in a long time, I’m not reading much.  Or as much, I guess.  I still read a little each day, usually at night, right before bed.  I curl up with my glass of wine and my dog in my favorite smooshy chair and disappear for a while between pages.  But all of a sudden, I have a Hobby.

I am not a person who has Hobbies.  Other than reading, of course.  I don’t scrapbook, or play on any teams, or collect anything.  And I’ve never thought of myself as very creative…I’m too type-A/neat-freak/anal-retentive/what-have-you for that.  I spent a lot of years practicing violin and being a musician, and even though I loved music at the time, I realize now that I gave up a lot of other potential interests in order to pursue it.  (Music, if you want to be good at it, takes up most of your time.)  I don’t play much anymore, and I honestly don’t miss it – which seems sad, or unbelievable, since music was such an enormous part of my life for so many years – because now I have the freedom and the time to enjoy other things.  But back to my Hobby.  This past Christmas, Santa brought Eloise, my oldest, a sewing machine – and I. Can’t. Stop. Sewing.  No one is more shocked than me at this turn of events, I assure you.  I thought that this sewing machine purchase would be one of those “good mom” things I would force myself to do, as in, “Okay, honey, let’s make a pillowcase or a doll dress, and then that’s all for today,” check it off the list, QUALITY LEARNING TIME ACCOMPLISHED BLAMMO, but instead, I don’t want to do anything else right now.  I find myself beginning sentences with the phrase, “So if I had a serger…” and spending all my disposable income on swatches.  At night when I sit down, I read a chapter of my book and then find my mind wandering to seam allowances, and fabric combinations, and interfacing weight conundrums…and I’m really not used to this.  This is uncharted territory, people.  I’m finding it hard to concentrate on anything else.

But one thing remains, even though I’ve slowed down on my own reading for the moment (and I’m sure this is a phase and my reading life will return to normal soon, at least once I finish those dresses for the girls, and the pajama pants for Owen, and the teacher gifts, and, and, and…).  But I digress.  We read to the kids every night.  I know all of you do, too, this is nothing especially unique.  But I’ve always loved children’s books, and have had a collection of them since college.  Here are my favorites.  I’m sure I’m forgetting tons of them; these are just the ones I could remember offhand and want to recommend to you for your library.  Let me know the ones I’ve missed!  We’re always looking for the next fabulous addition.

(A note:  Originally, children’s literature was going to be a single post, but now I realize that there is so much to talk about that I need to divide this entry into two – picture books today and chapter books next time.  That’s the plan at this point, at least.)

Baby Faces

I give this book to every expectant mother I know.  It was all three of my kids’ first “favorite” book – the one Eloise asked for over and over again:  “Mo!  Mo!” (translation:  “More!  More!”), the one Iris toddled over to bring to me, clutched tightly in her chubby fingers.  They loved the bright photographs and the simple language, and probably identified in their baby-way with the faces:  they recognized themselves in the pictures.  Or, one would assume.  Anyway, this simple book is a must-have.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

This goes without saying, doesn’t it?  If you have children and don’t have these books already, please rush to the store immediately to buy them.  Make haste.  And tell no one that you didn’t own them previously.  (But skip that horrendous Where the Wild Things Are movie with that revolting feral child.  It is stab-yourself-in-the-eye terrible.)

The Olivia books by Ian Falconer

I love Olivia.  I love the simple drawings and muted color palette, I love her precocious personality.  I love the clever references to high culture:  Maria Callas, Jackson Pollack, Eleanor Roosevelt.  I love how the parents are as relatable to me as Olivia must be to my kids – Ian Falconer writes as much for the adults reading aloud as he does for the children listening.  (Thank you, you thoughtful man.)  They are funny, and so smart. 

Animalia by Graeme Base

This isn’t a perfectly written book; I’d say the writing is just serviceable.  What’s superb about this one is the artwork.  The detail on the pages is simply staggering – pictures within pictures, optical illusions, puzzles, and tricks for the eye, everywhere you look.  It’s an alphabet book, each page devoted to one letter…meaning that every single item drawn on each page begins with the appointed letter.  It’s simply incredible.  I’ve owned this book for about fifteen years and read it to the kids frequently, yet still, every time I open it, I notice something new.

The Frances books by Russell Hoban

I still have my copies of these books from when I was a child, and they are just as relevant today.  Frances is a normal kid (though a hedgehog, yes) learning lessons about how to live.  Her parents are paragons of virtue, supremely patient and always kind.  These are “warm fuzzy” stories, calling for a mug of cocoa and a cozy snuggle under a quilt while reading.  I love Frances’s quirky imperfections, her silly songs, and how she jealously eats the bubble gum she buys for her sister’s birthday present (though she apologizes later, sweet girl).  A fun bonus is that you can tell that Hoban must love food.  Frances’s lunches always sound fabulous:  lobster-salad sandwiches!  Whole fresh tomatoes!  Ice-cold root beer packed in ice!  And always a tiny little cardboard salt-and-pepper shaker set, for seasoning.

Anything by Mo Willems

Mo Willems, he of Knuffle Bunny fame.  Again, exquisite artwork – in the Knuffle Bunny stories, Willems juxtaposes cartoonish, drawn characters atop black-and-white photographs of New York City street scenes.  The overall look of these books is quite mature, yet kids love them.  Plus, he’s hilarious.  Willems also writes the Elephant and Piggy series and the Pigeon stories, but my favorite is probably Edwina: The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, because within its pages we are introduced to the best-named character of all time, wait for it...Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie.  LOVE.

The Max and Ruby series by Rosemary Wells

These always make me laugh, because Max is such a mess.  (Possibly because his parents are chronically absent and he’s being raised by his eight-year-old big sister, but whatevs.)  Wells somehow manages to construct Max’s character as what I would describe as charmingly amoral.  He does what he wants, when he wants, and rarely speaks (“Dragon shirt!  Dragon shirt!” being one of his few utterances in the entire series), but he never annoys me, perhaps because sweet Ruby is always so tolerant of him.  Another great one by Wells is Morris’s Disappearing Bag, in which a little boy receives a mysterious and magical Christmas gift – a bag into which one can climb and completely disappear.  (And this was thought up years before Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, y’all.)  I remember reading this one as a child and imagining the possibilities for hours.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

Steig is perhaps more known for writing Shrek (another example of how the best movies are usually great books first), but I love Sylvester even more.  I recently read a quote from Ian Falconer naming Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as his favorite children’s book of all time.  But just in case that’s not enough of a recommendation, here’s mine.  It is wonderful.  Sylvester, a donkey, finds a magic pebble that grants wishes.  (Who doesn’t love dreaming about that?)  But Sylvester’s wish leads to dire consequences, and it is ultimately a story about family and love and healing.  It even manages sweetness without being saccharine – ultimately a tough task, especially in children’s literature.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch

Thank God for this one.  It is the feminist answer to the alarming glut of princess literature.  (Unfortunately, it might be the only one.  If anyone knows of others, please let me know.)  In it, Princess Elizabeth uses her brains and courage to outwit a fearsome dragon and ultimately save her betrothed, Prince Ronald.  Regrettably for Ronald, he is a douchebag (in the book, the word “bum” is used, of course), and insults Elizabeth upon being saved.  So, Elizabeth decides not to marry him after all.  The End.  Enough said.  Perfect.

The Charlie and Lola series by Lauren Child

Like Max and Ruby, Charlie and Lola seem to raise themselves.  The parents are always off-scene, and Charlie is a very tender caretaker of his little sister.  I like these books because of their essential English-ness.  The language Child uses is just slightly different from American English, and it’s refreshing and a tiny bit foreign, and simply entertaining.  It is almost impossible to read these aloud without affecting a British accent, really.  Plus the illustrations are lovely and teeming with graphic interest; all in all, they are some of the most enjoyable stories we own.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

Again, this is one I remember fondly from childhood.  This is not a book for the very young child – it is long, and it is serious – specifically, its plot relates to death and the afterlife.  I’m sure you’ve read it, but if you haven’t, get ready to cry.  (I won’t say more, because spoiling this tale for those who haven’t read it would be frankly criminal.)  Such a beautiful story, and one that would be helpful in teaching children about loss, when such a lesson is required.

The Hallo-Weiner by Dav Pilkey

I’ve read this book to my kids approximately one million times.  It is one of those stories to which each, in turn, became addicted and requested nightly (if not more often).  But it’s a funny little read, so I don’t mind.  In it, a daschund named Oscar dresses for Halloween night in the costume his mother has lovingly made for him.  Embarrassingly for Oscar, the costume is a hot dog bun, complete with mustard.  His friends laugh at him and leave him behind (it’s hard for poor, dear Oscar to walk in the constricting costume), but not for long: there’s an exciting ending, and Oscar ends up saving the day.  (Sorry for the spoiler, sometimes it can’t be helped.)  The book is full of silly wordplay that makes the kids laugh, but more importantly, it is a story about sacrifice and friendship.

Anything by Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes is a master storyteller and his books are relatable, both to kids and to adults.  His stories follow a predictable pattern (introduction, conflict, solution), but the pattern is always flawlessly executed.  Henkes’ topic usually deals with growing up, and the things the characters learn in each book are taught with gentleness and humor.  My favorite one is probably Owen (though I might be partial to it because of the title alone), in which the parents endeavor to break Owen of his blanket attachment before the school year begins, but they are all charming books filled with important lessons.

The Jesus Storybook Bible – Sally Lloyd-Jones

If you’re looking for a great beginner bible, this is the one for you.  My son recently told me that this was his most favorite book.  (No small thing, coming from a five-year-old boy who is more interested in Legos and Star Wars than anything else at the moment.)  The stories are short and engaging and the illustrations beautiful, and in each story, Lloyd-Jones manages to explain how the tale relates directly to Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection.  I like it when an author is able to make a complicated subject understandable (especially this subject), and when she can do this for children, I’m even more impressed.  It is a wonderful and useful volume.

I’m interested to know what’s in your library.  What do you love to read to your little ones?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Meal Planning 101

I'm guest-blogging this week on something completely different...meal planning!  Check it out over at my friend Jenny's cooking blog -  Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Night Strangers – Chris Bohjalian

I want to like Chris Bohjalian.  Rather, I like him.  I just don’t like his books.  Rather, I liked Midwives, and I liked The Double Bind, and there must have been others…but I’ve been disappointed with him lately, and it makes me sad.  I think he must be a really cool guy – a true intellectual, a Renaissance man hanging out in the mountains, conducting all sorts of background research into all kinds of crazy stuff.  I once read an interview with him, and no, I cannot quote it exactly, but I recall a discussion on how he chooses his subject matter.  It seems that the prevailing wisdom in writing is to write about one’s own experience:  most writers write about what they know.  Conversely, Bohjalian chooses to write about what he wants to know.  So, if he wants to learn about midwifery, or dowsing, or veganism, or transsexuality, or homeopathy, then that’s what he centers his novel around.  I feel like this is a novel (heh) approach to novel writing, and I applaud it, in theory.  (It’s his practice that is the problem.)  Bohjalian charts his own course in his narrative decisions, and I appreciate his rogue approach.  He’s got balls.

However.  And this is a big however.  I’ve been really disappointed with Bohjalian’s last few offerings.  I think he overwrites.  I really don’t care about the etched design on the interior of a bracelet that some background character is wearing.  It’s not crucial to the action, and it does nothing to add to characterization or atmosphere.  I don’t want to read six pages of Emily weighing her options internally when intruders are in her house and her daughters are in danger.  Get upstairs and defend your kids, slowpoke!  (Incidentally, Emily is just annoying.  Let’s hang out with a bunch of old ladies who are obsessed with changing our names via a ceremony, so that we can be in their crazy garden club.  That’s normal.  And yeah, sure, girls, go on over to Geriatric Anise’s house after school every day.  Perfect, sounds great.  Whaaa?).  But I digress.  Anyway, these constant plodding details serve only to slow the plot.  The Night Strangers had so much potential, but was ultimately disappointing.  So many good ingredients – a haunted house!  Witches, twins, and PTSD!  A family, trying to reconnect after tragedy!  But the unnecessary descriptions made. Me. Crazy.  Bohjalian needs to get down to business and tell the story already.

I noticed a lot of passive voice as well.  Frequently, a scene would start midway through, and then one character would recount the previous action (italics mine): “They had been picked up after school by Anise and brought home so they could start setting up their very own greenhouse.  Once more, instead of doing homework or attending a dance class or having a music lesson, the girls were going to be gardening.”  Here’s an example of how a mechanical or grammatical choice truly impedes tone.  Passive voice tends to offset tension (something crucial to a ghost story), thereby weakening the writing.  Again, Bohjalian’s style disrupts the overall story.

Additionally, Bohjalian’s villains came across as hokey.  Silly, like caricatures.  They all had plant names, for goodness sake.  I mean, really – a coven of immortal witches that centers their craft around greenhouses in order to develop an anti-ageing tincture?  A tincture that requires the blood from a child?  And everyone in the coven goes along with this?  (Incidentally, the word “tincture” was overused to the point of absurdity.  It was jarring, I tell you.  Somebody needs to tell Bohjalian about MS Word’s handy “Find and Replace” feature.)  The idea of an entire congregation of murderers running rampant through the White Mountains was just too unbelievable, which prevented any kind of connection with the characters.  So, even though the plant-ladies were obviously sociopathic, and even though Chip was losing his mind and murderous, I just didn’t care.  Bohjalian never really made me nervous, which means the book failed, as Gothic tales go.  A scary book has to be scary.

So there you have it.  The Night Strangers disappoints.  Sad face.

***You know, I don’t like this post much.  I’m having a lot of trouble with it, but I’m putting it out there anyway.  I think my issue is this:  I didn’t like the book, but I didn’t exactly hate it, either…so I guess I find it challenging to have a unique voice about a topic I’m not passionately for or against.  Bloggers/writers out there – what do you do?  Do you love everything you put out there?  Or do you sometimes just quit the agonizing, say “enough, already” and hit POST?  What’s your advice?***