Category Archives: Children’s

The Journey of English – Donna Brook

Donna Brook’s The Journey of English states that the English language contains over a billion words, more than any other language, although we commonly use only about 200,000 of them. Judging from most conversations I hear, we use far fewer than that and I couldn’t begin to quantify how many of those 200,000 I may have encountered this year. Etymology is endlessly fascinating to me and this simple book is a good introduction to the evolution of English from the steppes of Siberia to the fast-food outlets in Guatemala City. It’s interesting to note that English is only about 5,000 years old–and most of that time the language existed in forms unrecognizable to us today. Chinese is approximately 5,000 years old as well but China’s isolation allowed Mandarin to develop in a much more homogenous way.

English is a ragtag vagabond, lurching from central Europe to the British Isles and picking up Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and French coloring through wars and migrations, raids and intermarrying, from Celtic stronghold to Roman Empire to Saxon and Angle conquests. Tracking the words and how they appeared where they did is better brain candy than a crossword puzzle. Old English gave us the days of the week and the words eat and sleep, as well as the great legends that are the basis for many of our defining stories. The imposition of Latinate Christianity gave us angel, purple, silk and school. The Normans handed off French influence in the guise of parliament, liberty, crown, treaty and tax. The Renaissance with its recovered classics infused English with more Latin and some Greek–most English reflects those two languages although the words we use for the lion’s share of our communication, the plainspoken short serviceable words, are from the Old English.

It’s possible to get lost in the origins of English, in the sources for scientific terms and the flourishes of the preserved manuscripts hand-copied by monks and the impressive vocabulary of one William Shakespeare–30,000 words–and the King James Bible. Between the British Empire and the rampant spread of American consumer culture and the web–English can be found everywhere. It travels well and leaves traces behind wherever it goes. We’ve planted a bit of English on the moon. Maybe intelligent beings picking up transmissions from earth in some distant galaxy already speak passable English–there’s a scary thought. But, although I wish I spoke other languages far better than I do, I’m glad I have English to write in and to read aloud. Whether you’re cussing or declaiming poetry, English is a very satisfying language to speak and hear–and read, of course. Just lose yourself in Dylan Thomas or shout out a little Mos Def, grab some Jane Austen. Toni Morrison or Bob Stone. It’s all good. Good–from Old English: “virtuous; desirable; valid; considerable; having the right or desirable quality…”

The Journey of English   Donna Brook | Clarion Books   1998

Squids Will Be Squids – Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are like those bad boys at the magazine I once worked for who nearly always included jokes about Uruguay and boogers in their copy that you knew were coming but that made you snigger anyway. (I’m talking about you, Dave Barry.)  Squids Will Be Squids is a mad take on Aesop’s Fables that even manages to make fun of poor old Aesop. It’s kind of funny, though.

The art is wonderfully wacky, as it always is in Scieszka/Lane collaborations, and so is the text. Every double spread has a page of instructive parable in multi-sized fonts about creatures like elephants, ants, pigeons, termites, rabbits, duckbilled platypuses (Yes, that is the correct plural. I looked it up.), blowfish, echidnae, pieces of toast, Froot Loops–all the usual protagonists in a fable. There is a cogent moral to sum up each tale. An excellent and cautionary moral, if you are of the feathered persuasion, is: Whatever looks like a pigeon and acts like a pigeon usually makes good pigeon pie. (The particulars of that fable are too appalling to repeat.) Another really pithy reminder is: You should always tell the truth. But if your mom is out having the hair taken off her lip, you might want to forget a few of the details.

One moral involving a beefsnakstick and the aforementioned platypus has a conclusion especially relevant in our carcinogenic consumer culture: Just because you have a lot of stuff, don’t think you’re so special. Not your thing? How about: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Or: It takes one to know one?  I thought there was a moment of undeniable truth in the fable about Skunk, Musk Ox and Cabbage: He who smelt it, dealt it. You can imagine how that story went.

There were a couple of chuckles in Squids Will Be Squids and maybe a hilarity-fest for a small boy who likes fart jokes. Or a grown boy who likes booger humor. Or anyone who just enjoys the very mildly outrageous and slightly goofy and is willing to enter the Scieszka/Lane crazyverse for a while. If  you read this with some kids who think you are stuffy, hopelessly boring and humorless, they will get a marginally better opinion of you. Could be worth it.

Squids Will Be Squids (Picture Puffins)   Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith | Viking  1998

I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato – Lauren Child

Lauren Child is a wicked spirit from a world in which no grown-ups are allowed. She records the exploits of clever children in paintbox-bright collages of drawings, photographs, patterned paper maybe? and what looks like oil paint crayons. Her books and pint-sized characters are delicious–Clarice Bean is among my favorite utterly self-assured little bad girls. I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato, a Charlie and Lola book, is a triumph of art and imagination over picky eaters everywhere.

Charlie has this little sister Lola who crosses her arms over her chest and looks at him sideways. You can tell by the look she is one big NO. Lola is a “very fussy eater,” which is a challenge for Charlie when his parents ask him to give her dinner. (We assume the parents are too exhausted to parent the mini-dynamo. Or maybe they have power-player Wall St. jobs and don’t ever make it home before bedtime.) Charlie, though, has a few tricks up his sleeve to deal with an immovable object who only opens her mouth at the table to declare what she will not eat: carrots (for rabbits), peas (too green), potatoes, mushrooms, spaghetti, eggs, sausages, cauliflower, cabbage, baked beans, bananas, oranges, apples, rice, cheese, fish sticks–and NEVER tomatoes. Tough customer.

Ah, but Charlie is undaunted. He agrees she should never touch a single one of those things, even as he puts a bowl of carrots on the table. Lola calls him on it, just before he patiently explains that they aren’t carrots–they are orange twiglets from the planet Jupiter. The peas are incredibly rare green drops from Greenland that fall from the sky. The mashed potatoes are cloud fluff from the top of Mount Fuji. The fish sticks are mermaid snacks from the supermarket under the sea. And, according to Lola, those round red things she would like Charlie to pass to her are moonsquirters. Well, naturally. What did you think they were? Tomatoes?

You are very unsophisticated. Charlie is a genius. And Lola is practically a vegan by the end of the book–except for the fish sticks. It’s yummy. It could simplify melodramatic meals at your house, too. Serve it up right before a big salad with a side of whimsy and see what happens. Then go out and collect every loopy book of Lauren Child’s that you can find. She’s really really good. So are moonsquirters.

I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (Charlie and Lola)   Lauren Child | Candlewick Press   2000

Gawain and the Green Knight – Mark Shannon and David Shannon

I’m familiar with David Shannon’s hilarious, evil “David” books. No David! is the first of those and they star a bad little boy whose exuberance keeps him in hot water and his mother on repeat admonishing “No!” It’s so easy to see how this kid goes off the rails every time he moves that it is perfectly safe to read and enjoy the books with a kid–David is such a mess that even children can laugh at the trouble he gets himself into. So, I was curious to read a different sort of Shannon book, a collaboration between David Shannon, artist, and his brother Mark, writer, on one of King Arthur’s tales. Gawain and the Green Knight is for a slightly older but still unsophisticated crowd. The story of Gawain, the youngest of the Knights of the Round Table–and something of a kid brother–simplifies the rich world of Celtic myth and legend into a one-note quest that proves steadfastness and courage.

The illustrations are rich but rather dark. I liked the touch of ending a white text page with a small woven tapestry (painted) that depicts another visual element of the words on that page. Gawain is hesitant and tongue-tied until he impulsively takes the challenge of a mysterious Green Knight who appears in the midst of Arthur’s warriors. The knight is enormous and wagers that a man brave enough to strike him with an ax will not prevail. Being knights, only honor is at stake–the challenge is just yuletide sport. Being males, pointless violent stunts are irresistible, so the wager is on. Naturally, there is a catch. Gawain chops off the knight’s head and the knight picks it up and booms out the penalty. Gawain will have to travel to his Green Chapel and allow the knight his counter blow.

Complications, in the form of a fair lady who embroiders Gawain a protective sash and a magical couple and castle where Gawain spends the night before riding to the Green Chapel, allow Gawain to show his true mettle. It’s very high-minded with almost no blood and the good guys triumph in the end. Arthurian stories are marvelous and I would never hesitate to put one in front of a kid but I don’t know how much this one would captivate. I found it a little flat–possibly a chivalrous small boy would think it was exciting and cool.  Not a hapless mini-disaster-area like David Shannon’s anti-hero David, though. Put Gawain and the Green Knight in front of him and he’d probably spill purple grape juice all over it.

Gawain and Green Knight   Mark Shannon & David Shannon | G. P. Putnam’s Sons   1994

Green – Laura Vaccaro Seeger

One of the most empowering gifts you can give to a child is the skill of paying attention, of noticing. A child’s context explodes when she notices the life around her deeply. Simple enjoyment of very small and enormously significant things multiplies exponentially. People who are aware are smarter, cope better, appreciate what is real and live richer lives. That’s why the paint box is better when it contains many hues, not just primary and secondary colors. Several shades of green, for instance.

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s beautiful picture book Green is spare on language but overflowing with so many permutations of green that you will be fascinated and return to examine it again and again. Green contains 33 words (I counted) but you could spend hours lost in them, exploring the circumstances in each gorgeous picture that cause the green, that alter the shade, that contribute to the intensity. Green is characterized, embodied in a slow inch worm, incongruous on a zebra and wholly absent in the landscape around a snowman. Observation leads to discussion–which improves vocabulary, understanding of basic science, mastery of abstract concepts like fierce and faded, acknowledgement of complexity–how can green be khaki, which is almost brown, and lime, which is very yellow? There is a whole world in green–and in this book.

Clever cut-outs add to the magic by revealing butterflies and moths, inchworms,  a nightlight, a flower, and even adjectives made of reeds and splotches that, isolated in the cutout, form words. Give a kid something brilliant to contemplate and you honor the brilliance that is in that child. Green does that. It will wake up your half-dead imagination, too. I wish all books for children were this amazing and rewarding.

Green   Laura Vaccaro Seeger | Roaring Book Press   2012

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories – Dr. Seuss

When I saw this book in the children’s section of the St. Agnes library, I thought the title said, The Bipolar Seed by Dr. Seuss. Life can be pretty bizarre in Manhattan but the idea of a picture book for kids about bipolar seeds seemed waaay over the top. Until I looked closer and read, The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. Oh. Not nearly so interesting. But believable. So I checked it out.

It’s a very sweet book. A Seuss scholar, Dr. Charles D. Cohen, assembled this collection of early Seuss stories that were published in magazines and pretty much lost. Once he had tracked down seven tales, he restored the art and published them as a collection so they would be preserved–and read again. They are charming. “The Bippolo Seed” tells what happens when a duck finds a magic wishing seed and begins by asking for a week’s worth of duck food but is then persuaded to ask for the moon and about 9,000 other things he doesn’t need. Greedy duck gets his comeuppance. “The Rabbit, the Bear and the Zinniga-Zanniga” shows how cleverness can outsmart brawn–and escape being dinner. “Steak for Supper” introduces a wacky bestiary of imaginary creatures only Seuss could have created.

That signature rhyme lets you sing-song your way through a read-aloud and the sum of the parts adds up to wild make-believe that seems perfectly real. “Gustav the Goldfish” is an exploding disaster contained by the freaked out kid who caused it in the first place. “The Great Henry McBride” extols the virtues of dreaming large. I like the common sense and the good cheer of Dr. Seuss. He is as matter-of-fact and off-the-rails as the children he writes for. This rescued collection is a small gift of a little extra Seuss to dip into after your 357th reading of The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who!

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (Classic Seuss)   Dr. Seuss |  Random House   2011

Rainy Morning – Daniel Pinkwater

Rainy Morning, written by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Jill Pinkwater, is wonderful. It’s hilarious, wacky, welcoming, improbable and stuffed with stuff to give a parent reading it a grin or two. The art is very Matisse-like–swatches of bright colors, patterns and swirly designs, windows with vistas, checkerboards, stripes.  It’s fun to look at and even more fun to read. The text is repetitious in exactly the right sing-songy way for chiming in on the punchlines.

Mr. and Mrs. Submarine are sitting at breakfast–the third breakfast of the morning–on a very rainy day when Mrs. Submarine sees the poor half-drowned cat sitting soggily in the window. So she opens the door and in he walks, dripping. Already we have an outrageous amount of breakfast being consumed and water all over the floor–not allowed in real life. But it’s just the beginning. Mrs. Submarine gives the cat, who is drying out by the stove, a corn muffin. Doubtless it is one of the few Mr. Submarine hasn’t eaten yet. And then Mr. Submarine hears the dog scratching at the door. The dog is followed by a horse, a murder of crows, a wild coyote and the chickens from across the street. Mrs. Submarine is very busy making corn muffins. Still raining. Mr. Submarine decides to bring in the car.

Soon enough there is a wildebeest and then Ludwig van Beethoven (Mrs. Submarine’s favorite composer–speaks German, likes corn muffins), the United States Marine Band, a small European circus–and some serious dripping. You should end up reading this book with a sharp little kid with absolute glee. It’s raining here today and I wish I had some corn muffins. But even having to make do with homemade cranberry scones, Rainy Morning cheered me up. Why aren’t books for grown-ups this much fun?

Rainy Morning   Daniel Pinkwater | Atheneum   1998

Min Yo and the Moon Dragon – Elizabeth Hillman

Elizabeth Hillman has written a magical story and John Wallner’s illustrations are gorgeous. Min Yo and the Moon Dragon is charming and mesmerizing. When the moon slips closer and closer to the earth, the emperor’s realm is threatened with disaster. In China, in the time before there were stars, when only the moon, the earth and the sun spun and circled in the dark sky, no one could think of a way to reverse the falling moon. The call went out all over the land but no wise men had the answer. One day a sage from the wild mountain came into the city to buy a hen and he heard the buzz in the marketplace. In his mountains there was a cobwebby, ancient staircase to the moon, sagging and in disrepair. But it once was a busy bridge for people to visit the dragon who lives on the moon and the sage thought the dragon might have an idea.

Only a featherweight with great courage could attempt to climb the tattered ladder of moon webs–and there were few takers for the offer of great heroism and rewards.  One very small girl, weaving a fine silk rope for her family’s faltering business, seemed like the perfect candidate and as she was game and gutsy, she was prepared for the journey. She practiced climbing her silk rope to approximate scrambling up the fragile moonbeams. What happened to Min Yo and what she found in the dragon’s cave on the moon is a tale sprinkled with fairy dust. She’s a very cool kid and her conversations with the dragon are funny and smart. The two of them cook up an experiment, after she shares her veggie snack with him and tastes some of his boiled moonflowers–mouthful of cotton.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the lovely magic with too much revelation. Suffice to say it is never a good idea to allow a dragon to go unvisited for over 100 years. And, if you should plan a drop-by, it would be very thoughtful to bring some fresh vegetables, the brighter the better.  Also, if you thought you knew something mathematical and stuffy about the formation of the universe, think again. Where do you suppose stars came from? Min Yo could tell you–she helped to put them there.

Min Yo and the Moon Dragon is richly imaginative and full of eye-catching art and a gentle but unmistakable story of female empowerment. This tiny girl knows what has to be done and just does it. And she is phenomenally successful. Plus, she now personally knows a fan-boy dragon. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Min-Yo and the Moon Dragon   Elizabeth Hillman | Harcourt Brace Jovanovich   1992

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge – Hildegarde H. Swift & Lynd Ward

Ninety-one years ago a small cast iron and steel lighthouse sent its beams of light and tolling bell into the fog and dark on the Hudson River. The lighthouse was painted red and sat on a rocky projection on the edge of the treacherous river currents. By the time The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge was published in 1942, the lighthouse had been decommissioned for a decade, made redundant by the completion of the George Washington Bridge. But the children’s classic is a romantic tale of a plucky little lighthouse that owns the river and beams out confidently, saving steamers, tugs and all the river traffic from a disastrous end on the rocks.

And then, one day, a bridge begins to rise on the banks of the river, a monstrous gray edifice that dwarfs the small lighthouse. What happens next is delightful fantasy and very satisfying for small children who love to root for the underdog. There is just enough threat, loss, peril and redemption to be exciting without being too scary. And the book has a few facts about rivers and what they carry–added to the history, you could call it educational. In fact, should you really want to cement the lessons, and should you live or visit anywhere near the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you could stop by the side of the road and walk down to check out the real Little Red Lighthouse. The city restored it on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the massive bridge that spans the Hudson and dwarfs the tiny structure. If you contact the park rangers, you could arrange for a tour, climb the winding stairs and look over the river from the catwalk.

The lens no longer beams out its warning on the night river and the lighthouse is almost hidden by the gray bridge towers. But it’s charming, a reminder of simpler times when ferries, not spans clogged with cars and trucks, transported travelers from New York to New Jersey, and something as small as a red lighthouse on a rocky promontory could play a big role in river traffic.

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge: Restored Edition   Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward

Leaf Man – Lois Ehlert

It’s fall and a few leaves are turning in the park. I picked up a bright yellow maple the other day on the old bridle trail and stashed it in my bag. Today it was a crumpled brown mess. But Lois Ehlert figured out how to collect leaves that fade too soon. She color copies them as soon as she gets home–her copier must be amazing because the leaves that are the images in her picture book, Leaf Man, are brilliant and detailed. Leaf Man is charming and very educational. The book is crammed with points of interest and magical things to discover. It’s very large, for starters, and the pages are serrated at the top in graduated leaf edges. There are layers of color like piles of autumn leaves at the top of every page.

Leaf Man has grabbed a random wind out of the yard and is headed for places unknown. The figure, an arrangement of leaves and acorns that could be a man if you supply some imagination, comes undone and flies past the chickens. We begin a journey past all things autumn with Leaf Man. There are leaf ducks and geese in the marsh, leaf mice, pumpkins and squash in the fields, a leaf turkey, some leaf potatoes, carrots and cabbages, a leaf rabbit in the prairie meadows, a spotted cow or two, fish and turtles in the lake. Every double spread is vivid with leaf figures to puzzle out–absolutely captivating. You could engage a little kid for an hour with this book. (You would be engaged, too, of course, but you probably wouldn’t mind.)

At the end of the journey there is a mystery and a possibility. You should rush right out at that point and go on a leaf hunt of your own. But if the colors aren’t there yet, explore the author’s note about how she collected leaves to make this book and check out the wonderful identified leaves and “mystery” leaves, all labelled. Perfect book for autumn. And absolutely gorgeous. Leaf Man slows down the rush of changing seasons to a reflective, able-to-savor-it pace.

Leaf Man (Ala Notable Children’s Books. Younger Readers (Awards))   Lois Ehlert | Harcourt   2005