Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bread and Jam for Frances

Sometimes, I think my kids are going to develop vitamin deficiencies. I worry constantly about how much brown food they eat. And about how little colorful food they eat (I'm told rainbow sprinkles is not what they mean when they tell you to "eat a rainbow of food."). My pediatrician assures me that "toddlers seem to grow on air," and that my job is to just keep offering a variety of foods at every meal, and not fight about it. And that I shouldn't worry. But, telling me not to worry is like telling me not to breathe. It's just what I do.

On yet another night when my children ate little other than noodles for dinner, they chose Bread and Jam for Frances for their bedtime story. The book was new to our house, and it was our first time reading it--my first, as well as theirs. I'm not sure who enjoyed the story more. I suspect it might have been me, but just by a narrow margin.

Frances is a little girl (well, a badger, actually, but a thoroughly anthroprmorphized badger). She is a very, very picky eater. It seems whatever her family eats, she sings a hilarious little song about it, and then just eats bread and jam instead. Until her mother gets fed up with it. At which point she decides that Frances will only be offered bread and jam each meal. At first, this pleases Frances immensely. Until it doesn't. And then she finally relents and starts trying new things.

I seriously love this book. A lot. It might actually be my favorite children's book at the moment. Why? Let me count the ways.

1. Frances. Though this book is older (originally published in 1964), Frances is a very modern little girl. She is smart, outspoken, and very funny. I love her little songs. She sings to her soft-boiled egg, "I do not like the way you slide. I do not like your soft inside. I do not like you lots of ways. And I could go for many days, Without eggs." I feel the same way, though I never put the reasons quite so elegantly. Another song has become a family refrain for us (often when we make a meal that produces way too many servings of leftovers). "Jam for snacks and jam for meals. I know how a jam jar feels--FULL...OF...JAM!" I love it. I just cannot get enough of Frances and her sassy songs.

2. Frances's mother. She is quite a character. A character I identify with and appreciate. It is also obvious where Frances got her sense of humor. After a few meals and snacks of bread and jam, Frances asks her mother, "Aren't you worried that maybe I will get sick and all my teeth will fall out from eating so much bread and jam?" Her mother answers, "I don't think that will happen for quite a while. So eat it all up and enjoy it." I actually laughed out loud at that scene the first time I read it. Mother has the best semi-sarcastic, understated, funny lines. She is so much fun to read.

3. Food. I am a sucker for books about food. (As evidenced by my 350+ cookbooks. But that is a whole different blog, and probably a problem.) This book shows such respect for good food. And the foods are delightfully dated. How early 1960s Frances and Albert's lunches are! So fun! At the end of the book, Frances has a thermos with cream of tomato soup, a lobster-salad sandwich on thin white bread, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, two plums, a tiny basket of cherries, and vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles. Albert has a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread, a pickle, a hard-boiled egg (with a cardboard shaker of salt to go with it), a bunch of grapes, a tangerine, a cup of custard, and a thermos of milk. So elaborate. So unlike Lunchables. You could almost see a Betty Draper-type housewife lovingly packing such a lunch. My foodie self is completely enamoured with the retro foods, so carefully described, in this book.

4. The lesson. Even with Frances being a little sassy, the point comes across loud and clear. Food is fun. Bread and jam gets boring. Try something new. You might even like it. Oh, and don't underestimate Mother. She will win. Every time.

If you have a fussy eater, you need to go read this book. Even if it doesn't change your child's mind, you will empathize, and get a good laugh in the process. Perhaps we should all start singing little songs to our meals.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Matzah Man

I love seasonal and holiday books. They are a weakness I have, whether or not my kids enjoy them as much as I do. Thanksgiving books? We must have ten. Halloween books? Probably twenty. Books about falling leaves, snowman building, flowers blooming? A shelf's worth, at least. But, when it comes to Jewish holidays, we run into a problem. Namely, that books for those holidays are hard to find, in general. And, finding good books--books that have actual stories and are engaging--is nearly impossible.

Whenever I find a Hanukkah book at a yard sale or used bookstore, I buy it. I hope for the best. I am often disappointed. We do have some gems, though. I also pick up any book that so much as mentions Passover. They are even harder to find. And almost every one of them is a recitation of "this is what we do on Passover, and why."

I understand why the books are like this. Simply put, Jews are a minority, and our holidays and customs are not familiar to most Americans. So, where an author can weave a fanciful story about Christmas--without ever having to explain how or why it is celebrated--writing a story about Passover the same way would not fly. Most readers would be lost. What is matzah? Why are they sitting around a table with that funny plate? And, so, almost every Passover book I have found is a list of customs and facts. "We ask four questions. These are the symbols on the Seder plate, and what they mean." I understand the need for these. But, for Jewish children who already live the customs (and have them explained every year, two nights in a row, at the Seder table), I wanted something more. I wanted something fun.

Last year, only a few days after Passover, I went to the Used Book Superstore, and I hit gold. There, among the "spring holiday" display, was The Matzah Man by Naomi Howland. This book is exactly what I had been looking for. It is a fun take on that Christmas-y story The Gingerbread Man. Instead of a gingerbread man, we have a matzah man. Instead of the well-known taunt, "Run, run as fast as you can. You can't catch me. I'm the Gingerbread Man," we have, "Hot from the oven I jumped and ran, So clever and quick, I'm the Matzah Man." This book is pure perfection. Finally, a fun, rollicking story for Passover.

One of the things I love so much about this book is that it touches upon the cultural aspects of Passover without getting very religious and preachy. Through the course of the book we see the matzah baker, Cousin Tillie making brisket, Auntie Bertha shopping in brand new shoes, Grandpapa Solly chopping onions for gefilte fish, Miss Axelrod making matzah ball soup, and finally Mendel Fox, who tricks the Matzah Man into hiding under the matzah cover at his Seder table. (We also see a red hen and goat along the way, who, as far as I know, have nothing at all to do with Passover.) I like that we see the foods of Passover. We see people preparing for a joyous meal--cooking, getting dressed into new holiday clothes, making their way to a common Passover table. We get to see all of this without a discussion of plagues, or slavery, or fleeing before the bread could rise. Which is nice. Because sometimes, you just want a nice holiday story for the kids without all the heavy religious explanations. (And, yes, I know that those heavy religious explanations have their place--they just don't need to be the only literature out there.)

This week, my son's preschool teacher asked me if I have a Passover book that she can share with this class. My son is the only Jewish child in the class, and I wanted to steer clear of anything too religion-heavy. I was so happy to have this story to offer. It is fun. It mirrors a familiar tale. And it shows a table full of happy family, sharing a Passover meal on the last page. It is exactly the representation of our holiday that I would like to present to people who have never seen it before. I am so thankful to Naomi Howland for making it available to us.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Plump and Perky Turkey

As I have mentioned before, I am a total sucker for seasonal books. The trouble with seasonal, holiday-themed books is that it seems that publishers know they will sell, just by virtue of the fact that they are seasonal or holiday-themed. Meaning, not on the virtue f the writing. There are a lot--and I mean a lot, of bad holiday books out there.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the fall. I love food. I love the harvest. I love visiting New York, and this is the only time of year I seem to do that anymore. I love the parade (we used to go every year when I was a child). I love the smells. I love the brisk walk I take after the crazy meal. Most of all, I love being with family.

Now, when you love a holiday, and you love children's books, you naturally want a good collection of books to psych your kid up for the season. The trouble is, so many Thanksgiving books are terrible.

Enter A Plump and Perky Turkey by Teresa Bateman. I happened upon it one October in the now-closed Nashua Used Book Superstore. I picked it up because of my known Thanksgiving obsession. I read it, expecting another bad holiday book, and was quite surprised. This one is very good. Good enough that Jay asks to read it year-round.

General synopsis:
"The people of Squawk Valley were downhearted and depressed. Thanksgiving was approaching, but without its special guest. They couldn't find a turkey for the feast they planned to eat. It looked like they'd be making do with bowls of shredded wheat." What ensues is a great little story about the townsfolk coming together to "trick a turkey into jumping in the pot." They decide to hold an arts and crafts fair, and invite a plump and perky turkey named Pete to be the judge. The trouble is, Pete is a pretty clever bird. As you can probably guess, Pete gets away, but the townsfolk are still grateful for their bowls of shredded wheat.

Who loves it:
I do. Good seasonal books have a special place in my heart. Jay does. He loved it from the first Thanksgiving season we read it (when he was 11 months old), and we often read it during the rest of the year, too. Kay is warming to the book this season. After our first seasonal reading on November 1, she has started calling most poultry birds "turkeys." So, she is enthused, if not necessarily accurate.

Why we love it:
This is a very lovable book. The townsfolk seem sweet, but slightly (and endearingly) dim. The bird is clever, and has a sense of humor. Actually, a lot of the book is funny. It produces little chuckles, if not belly laughs. On the page where Pete is fleeing, it is fun to have the younger kids try to find him among all the other arts and crafts turkeys. Also, the rhyme is wonderful. I've said it before--if an author is going to rhyme a book, it had better be done well. This book is written with skill. Every word rolls off the tongue, and there are no sticky points that trip up your read-aloud. This is especially important for a Thanksgiving read-aloud, because we bring it to New York with us, where relatives who ave not read the book a hundred times are reading it to our children.

The verdict:
If you love Thanksgiving, and you want to start putting some books on your child's shelf for the holiday, A Plump and Perky Turkey should be first on your list. It is a good story, regardless of its seasonality. My only warning is that it does produce a bit of a pang of guilt if you do eat turkey on Thanksgiving. The "turkey escapes being eaten on Thanksgiving" theme is extremely common in Thanksgiving books. At least this one does it very well. Still, if your child is very sensitive to the plight of Pete and other birds, I could see why you might proceed with caution.

That said, this is, by far, my favorite book for my favorite holiday.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Where's My T-R-U-C-K?

When Jay started preschool, we found out that they participated in the Scholastic Book Club. I was thrilled. I remembered the catalogs from my elementary school years, and the thrill I felt each time I brought one home. As a young reader, they were such a treat. So, I was determined to order from each catalog for Jay, to build our collection, especially with seasonal books.

Things didn't work out as planned. For the first order, I had to register online. I put my order in well before the due date, excited to be receiving a pack of three Halloween books for an amazing price. Unfortunately, I had to confirm my new user name through a link that was, unbeknownst to me, delivered to my inbox. I realized too late, missed the deadline, and felt a boatload of mommy guilt that my son would not receive books in the very first month of Scholastic ordering.

The next order, I sat down with the catalog, and chose a four-pack of Thanksgiving books. Then, as was suggested by Jay's teacher (for all the students, not just Jay), I spread the catalog before him and told him to choose one book. The theory was sound--kids who get to pick their own books are more likely to read. But, the theory does not account for branded children. Or, maybe it does, and is directed toward branded children who are resistant to reading. Jay was indeed branded--I am thankful that almost-three-year-olds cannot get tattoos, or Jay might, at that point, have a Buzz Lightyear painted across his bum. Jay was also a reader, though, and did not need another character book on his shelves. He, of course, tried to get the Toy Story "how to tell time" book, which was most likely a piece of garbage.

It took a lot of negotiating. There may have been promises of additional books, or donuts, or something. I can't really remember. But, finally, he caved and we got Where's My T-R-U-C-K? by Karen Beaumont. What else came with the order? Seven Thanksgiving books. I guess my pending order from the month before went through, and, since the Halloween season had passed, they sent the current season's package.

We have not kept up with ordering from Scholastic. When Jay can read and make better choices from the catalog, we will likely resume. In the meantime, I like being able to read a book before purchasing it, and we have a steady stream of books coming in due to our used bookstore addiction, anyway. In the meantime, despite my initial feeling that this book would be junk, we actually scored a decent story.

General synopsis:
The basic premise of Where's My T-R-U-C-K? is that the main character, Tommy, has lost his beloved toy truck. He spends the length of the book searching for it, before finding that his dog has stolen it and buried it in the backyard. (Spoiler alert, I know. I'm sorry. Just don't tell the child you are going to read it to.) 

Who loves it:
Jay really liked this book. Was it because he chose it? Maybe. Was it because he was suddenly able to spell truck, due to the repetition of the T-R-U-C-K throughout the rhyme? Maybe. It's empowering to an almost-three-year-old to be able to spell one word, and get all the oooohs and aaaahs from adults who hear him do it. 

Why we like it:
I like this book. It is not an absolute favorite, but I never mind reading it. Why? Because it has a lot of little jokes for the parents that make me chuckle. The whole book starts with these lines, "'Shhh!' I hear my parents say. 'Tommy's not himself today. He's lost his T-R-U-C-K!'" Of course, Tommy, who is listening, can surmise what his parents are spelling. (They probably always can, but I, for one, like to continue deluding myself.) Throughout the rest of the book, Tommy often spells out truck, just as his parents did.

The verdict:
The book is cute. It's not deep or philosophical. It does not have a strong moral, or a story that will stick with you for the rest of your life. The rhyme is good, but not outstanding. It's just a solid, cute book. One that I don't mind reading when it gets chosen for bedtime, but I never think of it to buy for birthdays or baby showers, either. Ultimately, a good book collection will have a lot of middle of the road books. This is one. Enjoyable when it gets chosen, just not a stand out.

Monday, November 4, 2013

On Character Books and Literature

A few of our Toy Story books against a backdrop of Jay's Toy Story sheets. Branded much?

This past summer, I noticed a disturbing trend in our family reading. Namely, every book I was asked to read featured characters from a movie or television show. I started to worry about how branded my children were becoming, and began to feel pretty guilty.

While chatting with one of our children's room librarians about this problem, she said something to me that resonated. "Well, you've got to have some fluff and some stuff. Character books are a lot like fast food. It happens sometimes, but it's okay in balance." I think she was right. 

So, after that conversation, I started to make a concerted effort to bring in more non-character books. You know, books with some "stuff." But, it was also becoming clear that character books were not going away.

Here's the thing. Not all character books are created equally. There are a lot of rote, lifeless retellings of movies or an episode of a show. You know the ones I'm talking about. They are the ones you can barely follow unless you have viewed the source material. Those books are pure McDonalds. 

But, then there are books like the Out and About with Winnie the Pooh series, which are honestly good books. Do they rely on familiar characters? Yes. But, they also each have a decent plot, some beginner science concepts, and quite a bit of heart. I think of these as the Chipotle of children's books. Is it still fast food? Yes. But they're trying to use free-range meat and organic ingredients, and there is at least the illusion of love or care going into your meal. Most Sesame Street books (with the obvious exception of some--see my previous post) fall into this category.

My feeling nowadays is that it is almost impossible to have an unbranded child. If you do, I stand in awe of you. I would still rather see my kids reading about their favorite characters than watching them. I have just promised myself that I will read the books a little more carefully before purchase, trying to find the ones that are written with some level of skill, and which might impart a bit more wisdom than "buy our merchandise and watch our show/movie and make our company richer."

You will see character books popping up in this blog. You may even see a lot of them. I will be honest with you about whether I regret buying them, and if they are well-written. We have found some real treasures that feature our favorite characters (The Muppets Books to Grow On come to mind). But, there certainly is a whole lot of trash in this category.

Come play along with us. Comment and tell us if you allow your children to read character books. What good ones have you found? Which do you wish you could burn?

Library Mouse

All my life, I have been a reader. I cannot remember the first book I ever read, or the first book I ever loved. It was just something I was, something I did. Since I was in third grade, I have been a writer. I do remember the first time I wrote a fictional story. I remember how it felt to have that pencil in my hand (with a purple triangle grippy thing, because no teacher has ever appreciated the unique way I hold a pencil). I remember the elation of realizing that I was the one controlling the story. I remember the feeling, way deep down in my eight-year-old soul, that I was doing what I was meant to do. No matter what has come of my writing since, that moment will stick with me forever.

Now, this post is not about what a wonderful writer I am. In truth, I am rusty, and tired (two young children will do that to you), and out of touch with any sort of writing community (being a financial analyst for six years before becoming a stay-at-home mom will do at to you, too). What this post is about is the initial spark. That moment when I realized I had the potential in me to tell a story. Because that is what Library Mouse, by Daniel Kirk is all about.

We bought the book at a yard sale this summer. I had never heard of it before. But, it looked interesting, and was in good shape. For a quarter, how could we go wrong? It sat on the shelves, unnoticed for a while. Then, one day Kay brought it to me and asked me to read it. We were both smitten.

General synopsis:
Sam is a library mouse. That is to say, he lives in a library. When the people go home, he reads a lot (wouldn't you, if you had the run of the library, all by yourself, every night? I think this book had me right here--a childhood fantasy written in a book. But, it gets better.)

One day, Sam decides to write a book. When a little girl finds it, she brings it to the librarian, and, intrigued, the librarian shows it to the other librarians. (Readership! Of his first book! The fantasy just keeps getting better.) Sam writes two more books, which are similarly discovered, and read. Finally, the head librarian writes a letter to the mysterious Sam, asking him to come in for a "Meet the Author" day. Sam, not wanting to have to interact with people (he is an introvert, like many writers), spends the night making tiny, blank mouse-sized books. Then he leaves those blank books next to an empty tissue box that has a mirror taped to the bottom and a "Meet the author" banner above.

The first little girl who bends over to look in the box says, "Oh!" in surprise. "Me?" she says. "An author?" And she, and many people thereafter, write in the tiny books. "Soon there was a whole shelf full of books written by people who had never written a book before, telling stories that had never been told." How beautiful is that???

Who loves it:
I do. A lot. Library Mouse brought me right back to my third grade classroom, right back into that moment when I realized "Me. An author." The story made me sad that I don't write anymore, and happy that I ever did, and inspired that I might do it again, and hopeful that maybe, some day, my children will love to write the way I did, and still kind of do.

Kay also loves this book. She asks for the "mouse book" frequently. Often, she will ask to have the book read again the moment it closes. At 20 months old, she is too young to articulate why she likes the book. I suspect it may be because of the cute mouse. But, there is a part of me that wants to believe that she is precocious, and already recognizes that there is some spark of a writer within her. But, I do realize that I am probably projecting a lot there, and, really, she loves the cute mouse, and going to the library, and the combination is a win for her.

Why we love it:
I think I have already covered this quite well. But, I will sum it up by saying that this book can make anyone--child or adult--realize or remember that they have a story to tell. Anyone can be a writer. Even a mouse who lives in a library. Even you. Even me.

The verdict:
Library Mouse is one of those lesser-known books that deserves a spot on every child's shelf. It is playful, and inspirational, and reminds us that reading and writing can lead to great things. 

P.S. Further proof that writing can lead to great things: I just discovered, through searching for a link to the book for this post, that there are sequels to The Library Mouse. After I finish writing this post, you better believe I am placing holds on those titles from my local library. I love how sharing favorite books can lead to realizations like this. Please, if you have favorite children's books to share, comment with the titles. We are always happy to find new favorites.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Name Is Grover

Thus far, I have reviewed only books I and my kids have enjoyed. But, let's be honest. When you buy as many books as we do--especially during the summer yard sale season--there are bound to be some duds. Sometimes, we'll stumble upon a book that none of us like. That is unfortunate. But, after a few days, the newness of the book wears off, I take it off the shelves and put it in the donate pile. No harm done. But, other times, we purchase a book that is horrendous to Kurt and me, but, for some inexplicable reason, becomes a favorite of one or both of our children. Those are the cases in which we must grit our teeth and endure it, mentally cursing ourselves for not reading it through before buying. But, the damage is done, and the book is now a part of our literary landscape for the foreseeable future.

My Name Is Grover is one such book. It's not that it is a book about a character from a popular television show (though I do have much to say about that, and will, in a future post). Honestly, Sesame Street books are often quite good, especially the older ones. It's also not necessarily that it was a cheap book originally. Many of those turn out fine. No, it's that Grover seemed to have no real point to his story, and can't seem to stay focused on one topic for longer than a page.

General synopsis:
Grover's name is Grover. Then, he proceeds to list stream-of-conscious facts about himself that do not connect or flow one to the next, until he reminds you again that his name is Grover (in case you forgot, which, honestly, how could you? Because, if you are unlucky enough to own this book, chances are your child is already obsessed with Grover.)

Along the way, we learn that Grover plays "pretend" with Elmo (Kurt still questions every time, and often aloud, why pretend is in quotation marks), likes to eat blueberry muffins and milk with The Count, helps his mother do the grocery shopping, has a name that begins with G, can put his jacket on over his head (which he calls a "magic trick"), is best friends with his Mommy, and inserts his name into a nursery rhyme that, to adult ears, could have some questionable connotations.

Who loves/hates it:
My kids love it. Jay went through a few-month period where he would bring me the damn book every day, often multiple times a day. He eventually, mercifully, grew out of the phase. We all kind of forgot about the book for a bit, which was my tragic mistake. Had I remembered it, it could have "disappeared" during its lean months. But, no. I forgot about it. Until Kay found it and decided it was the best book ever, and started asking me to read it almost as often as Jay had. And now, I am back to reading it almost every day, hoping for the time when it gets forgotten, and I can really make it disappear once and for all.

Why we love/hate it:
I have no idea why my kids love it. Truly, I do not. The illustrations are not overly wonderful. The story is non-existent. We have about a hundred better Sesame Street books on our shelves. I just do not get it.

I know why I hate it, though. It has no flow. It is random, disconnected, and the writing shows no love whatsoever. I searched for My Name Is Grover, and found that it is part of an eight-book My Name Is...series. Based on this one, there is absolutely no way I am picking up the other seven to see if the bad writing is consistent. I suspect these books were churned out without much thought or care, simply to fill space on the shelves in the Sesame Street section of the bookstores, to make quick cash based on character recognition alone. It's a shame, because Sesame Street books are usually much higher quality than this dreck.

The verdict:
If you spot this book, and your kid is a Grover freak, turn around as quickly as you can and run the other way. Don't let your kid spot that blue furry guy waving his hand on the cover, because you know as well as I do that it is all over after that. Then you, too, will be holding your head, and idly wondering why it looks like Grover is about to push his shopping cart right into a huge display of cereal boxes. (Is it because his mother is being sarcastic when she says Grover is her "best helper," or is it just lazy illustrating? I'm betting on the latter, but I guess we will never know.) 

Sesame Street has put out a lot of better books. Grover has been featured in much better books. Do not subject yourself to this one if you do not have to.