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