Friday, August 20, 2010

Beat back-to-school blues with these fun new titles

The approach of a new school year brings mixed feelings. Part of me looks forward to the comfort and rhythm of a routine—not to mention the promise of seven straight weekday hours to work, write, or run errands without children in tow. But the other part isn’t quite ready to let go of all that blissfully unstructured time.

My kids seem to echo these emotions. Letters arriving in the mail with new class assignments spark feelings of excitement, along with a touch of trepidation and wistfulness about the dwindling days of summer vacation.

One way to ease anxieties and embrace this time of transition is to read a fun back-to-school-themed book with your kids. Here are two new titles I highly recommend.

“How Rocket Learned To Read,” by Tad Hills (Random House)

New York Times bestselling author-illustrator Tad Hills (“Duck & Goose”) turns his considerable talents to the story of a furry black and white dog named Rocket, and his “teacher,” a cheerfully persistent little yellow bird.

“Rocket loved to play. He loved to chase leaves and chew sticks. He loved to listen to the birds sing,” begins the story. But when Rocket settles for a nap beside a tree, he is startled by a tiny yellow bird who claims to be his teacher.

A befuddled Rocket is at first more interested in sleeping than learning, but the clever bird lures him in by reading part of a storybook out loud. Rocket returns the following day, eager to know what happens next.

Having hooked her new student, each day, the little bird reads Rocket a new story, and each day she teaches him a new letter—until Rocket begins to form letters into words on his own.

Lessons proceed through the fall, until the weather turns colder and the little bird must fly to warmer locales. Rocket spends his winter practicing what he learned, tracing letters in the snow. In springtime, the little bird returns to find her once-reluctant student back to greet her, tail wagging.

The witty exchanges between Rocket and bird will quickly win over young readers, as will Mr. Hill’s detailed oil and colored pencil illustrations of an expressive Rocket and his tiny yellow teacher. For any preschooler about to launch into an autumn, winter and springtime of learning to read as Rocket does, bird’s chirps of wisdom: “Don’t forget! Words are built one letter at a time!” will surely resonate.

“Dotty” by Erica S. Perl; illustrated by Julia Denos (Abrams)

Growing up can be tough, and school is often the place where growing pains are most keenly felt. Such is the case of Ida, who brings her invisible friend “Dotty” to school. At first, Ida is in good company; there are plenty of other kids who bring imaginary friends to class. But as the seasons of the school year go by, the other children forgo their invisible pals and Ida becomes the object of teasing for continuing with the ritual. Ida wonders if it might be time to leave Dotty behind.

Ms. Perl’s warm and well-written story deftly captures the struggle of those early elementary school years, when children are on the cusp of being “big kids” and must navigate the first signs of peer pressure, while staying true to who they are. 

Equally charming are Ms. Denos’ loosely rendered illustrations of school life and a parade of fantastical imaginary friends.

This article was originally published in East Bay Life - a section of the East Bay Newspapers, on 8.17.10

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Chicken soup in a children's book

When your child isn’t feeling well, reading books together can be a quiet, soothing activity. And even though it’s more about the time and attention than the book itself, sometimes it helps to choose a story in which the main character is also under the weather, so that children, especially very young ones, can relate and find comfort in knowing that everyone gets sick from time to time.

Here are two books that will lift little ones' spirits when they’re feeling down and out.

How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Mark Teague

Of the numerous books in Yolen’s perennially popular series, this earlier installment is my favorite. The incongruity of Teague’s massive spotted dinosaurs whimpering in the doctor’s office, or curled up with hot water bottles on their heads, are hilarious—and likewise, Ms. Yolen’s rhetorical rhyming questions about dinosaur health-etiquette are sure to garner giggles from tots who’ve had to brave doctors visits of their own.

“What if a dinosaur catches the flu?/ Does he whimper and whine between each ‘At-choo’?/ Does he drop dirty tissues all over the floor?/ Does he fling his medicine out of the door?”

Readers soon learn that the answer is no, and that all good little dinosaurs behave politely – even when feeling a bit icky. But most importantly, no matter what, their mommies and daddies love them and want them to “get well soon.”

Don’t You Feel Well Sam? by Amy Hest; illustrated by Anita Jeram

Although no little bear cub likes to be sick, it can come with a few advantages. In little Sam’s case, the advantage is getting to cuddle up with Mama late in the evening and wait for snow to fall outside their window.

The “Sam” books are among my favorite picture books for young readers. Ms. Hest’s charming, simple language, coupled with the warm acrylic paintings of a mama and her little bear safe and content in their cozy house, make you want to jump right into their world and snuggle up under the blankets.

In this book, Sam awakes with a cough, “Hck, hck.” But he doesn’t want to take his medicine. So Mama coaxes him downstairs with a drink of water and the promise of staying up late to watch for snow. Eventually, when he least expects it, Mama pops the medicine into Sam’s mouth. But Sam hardly makes a fuss, for he’s wrapped up all tight in a chair with Mama as the snow begins to fall.

For any time—but especially when children are not feeling well—reading the Sam books (which also include “Kiss Goodnight” and “You Can Do It Sam”) will make little cubs feel extra special and loved.

This article was originally published in East Bay Life - a section of the East Bay Newspapers, on 8.11.10

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Barbara Joosse’s new book captures what’s special about visits to Grandma’s

I’m told that one of the well-earned privileges of being a grandparent is enjoying the grandchildren when they come, and then giving them back to their parents at the end of the visit.

My own mother readily admits to feeling a bit blue in those first few hours after her grandkids leave, when the house seems too quiet. But then, slowly, realization dawns that she can sit and read a good book for as long as she wants, or head out for a late supper, or watch something besides Nick Jr. on TV, and she’s mollified—maybe even a little relieved.

Perhaps it’s this brevity, this understanding that the more grueling work of raising children is, at last, someone else’s, and that their job is simply to enjoy, that makes visits with grandparents so sweet for all parties. Grandparents tend to pull out all the stops, play all the games, pack in all the fun because, well, when it’s over, they can put their feet up and relax!

Recently, I came across a book that captured the playfulness and indulgence of these special grandparent visits perfectly: Barbara Joosse’s “Sleepover At Gramma’s House” (Philomel Books).

A bouncy read-aloud featuring a grandmother and granddaughter elephant, the story begins as the little girl packs her overnight trunk, bids goodbye to her parents, baby sibling, house, and pet fish—for a drive through the countryside to “Gramma’s house.”

When she arrives, the fun begins immediately with silly games, party hats, painting time, and desserts. Then, the two round out the evening with bath time, story time, and at last, getting all snuggled up tight together in bed.

Ms. Joosse’s gift for childlike rhythm and rhyme is on full display in the sing-song beats of her text:

“Snuggled and together/ on the pitter patter porch/ on the ricky rocky swing./ ‘Oooooh!’ watch the lightening sky writing./ ‘Ahhhhh!’ hear the thunder rain rumbling./ This we know—/ the very best way to fall asleep/ is inside a hug./ Oh. We love each other so.”

The author teamed up with illustrator Jan Jutte (the two collaborated on the successful “ROAWR!” in 2009) and once again, Ms. Jutte’s boldly outlined watercolors complement Joosse’s writing style beautifully.

Simply put: Reading “Sleepover At Gramma’s House,” is almost as good as being wrapped up inside one of Grandma's cozy hugs.

This article was originally published in East Bay Life - a section of the East Bay Newspapers, on 7.27.10

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Local author Peter Mandel talks books, Botswana & burgers

Providence-based writer Peter Mandel is an adventure travel journalist and the author of nine children's books. His latest title, “Bun, Onion, Burger,” (Simon & Schuster) just earned a spot on this summer’s “Kids’ Next” list—a roundup of inspired reading recommendations from leading independent booksellers across the country.

Mr. Mandel took a moment to chat with Bookmarks about his diverse writing career, what inspires and surprises him, and his love of the all-American culinary classic: A perfectly cooked hamburger on the grill.

Q: You’re an adventure travel journalist and a children's book author. How does one career inform the other?

A: Well, for one thing, several of my kids' books have travel themes: 'Planes at the Airport,' 'Boats on the River,' and 'My Ocean Liner.' So going on trips on assignment for newspapers and magazines helps get me the experience I need to make my children's books feel authentic and, I hope, exciting. On the flip side, the language simplicity and clarity that's needed to write for kids is something I care a lot about, and I try to carry it over into my journalism.

Q: Have you always had the adventure-travel bug? Did you travel a great deal as a child?

A: I can't remember an age or a single day in my life when I didn't have the urge to go somewhere or take part in an adventure. It stuns me when I hear people—both adults and kids—say that they'd just rather hang out around the house. As a kid, my brother and sister and I were lucky that we had parents who loved to go places and take us with them. I grew up in Manhattan, but my dad took a job in London when I was seven and we moved to England for two years. It was a life-changing experience, in part because we sailed over on one of the last real ocean liners, the original Queen Elizabeth.

Q: With all the exciting places you've visited and written about, which destination was the most intriguing to you?
The most surprising?

A: Wow, it's not easy to choose. I guess the most intriguing was a trip I took to Antarctica. Adventure cruise ships and icebreakers go there nowadays, and it's a very rough sail down from the tip of South America. But is it ever worth it. You see things that are hard to describe: immense, blue icebergs floating past, and colonies—cities would be a better word—of penguins. Literally thousands of them on shore. The light is different there, it's ethereal, like being on another planet.

Among the most surprising was a camping safari I did in Africa, in Botswana. We writers camped out in the bush in regular boy-scout style tents and when we first got there we all assumed there would be some sort of protective fence, or guards with guns to keep the lions, elephants and rhinos away. ‘Oh, the animals hardly ever bother anyone who stays in their tent,’ we were told by the locals. What they didn't tell us was that the animals do poke around campsites all night long, snuffling, growling, crunching bones from the fire, and charging around.

Q: What's one place you haven't visited that you'd like to explore and write about?

A: Number one is a place I'm afraid I'll never be able to get to: outer space. Maybe the next generation, or the one after that will. My dad covered the original Mercury and Gemini astronauts for LIFE magazine, and I've always thought of being an astronaut, or a passenger in a spacecraft, as the ultimate adventure.

Q: What do you love about living and working in Rhode Island?

A: It's just right for my wife and me in many ways, because it has so much beauty, but is close to New York and Boston. We're big fans of the East Bay in particular, by the way, Bristol, Little Compton, Newport, and other towns. Also, to us, Providence is like a miniature version of New York. Very miniature, I guess.

Q: Which is your favorite of the children's books you've written and why?

A: They're all different, so it's kind of hard to pick a favorite. Maybe it would be 'Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays' (Hyperion, 2000) because I'm such a baseball nut and writing it was a way for me to try and capture some of my nostalgia for the way the game was when I was a kid, in the 1960s.

Q: What inspired your latest book: “Bun, Onion, Burger?”

A: I'm not someone who tries to write a book because I think it'll sell, or because I think the world 'needs' or 'wants' it. I pick topics that appeal to me nowadays, or those that were a big deal to me when I was small. And, er, what can I say? For me, at least, there's nothing better than having a burger or two or more on the grill. The smell, the taste, the texture. I'm hoping readers, kids, agree.

Q: You often visit schools and speak to children about writing. What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?

A: Everyone answers this question by saying 'read, read, read,' and I completely agree with that. Read for fun, I say. Comics, cereal boxes, anything you like. Get off the computer and off the cell phone and away from the TV. There are way, way too many screens in our lives. So many that we've begun to think that we can't live without them. A kid who simply enjoys books, gets lost in them, can outstrip one who has all the latest electronic equipment. In short, I don't think a computer is necessary in the least to be literate or to write. In fact, to be blunt, they're huge distractions.

This article was originally published in East Bay Life - a section of the East Bay Newspapers, on 7.14.10

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Books to share with Dad on Father’s Day

Last week was grads, this week: It’s Dads!

Here are some of my favorite books that celebrate all the “Papa Bears” we love.

1. “Because Your Daddy Loves You,” by Andrew Clements; illustrated by R. W. Alley
The Daddy in this story knows just what to say, at just the right time. Be it a bad dream or a lost shoe, this book celebrates the singular way dads make it “all better.” Barrington resident, R.W. Alley’s buoyant, breezy cartoon illustrations lend an air of whimsy, without being sappy or overly sentimental.

2. “My Dad,” by Anthony Browne
All little kids believe their dads are heroic in some way, and Browne’s witty play on this concept makes for a fun read and a fitting tribute to fathers everywhere. According to the young boy narrating the story, his dad can do many incredible things, including jumping over the moon and fighting off the big bad wolf! Despite the fact that the Dad in the book never gets out of plaid pajamas and bathrobe, fathers reading it with their children will feel flattered and loved.

3. “I Love My Daddy,” by Sebastien Braun
On a background of vivid greens and warm golden-yellows, two bears—a massive Papa Bear and his tiny little cub—stand nose to nose. Each page contains a single phrase: “My Daddy wakes me,” / “My Daddy feeds me,”/ “My Daddy cuddles me.” Any young child whose papa reads this story will know, for sure: “My Daddy loves me.”

4. “What Dads Can't Do,” by Douglas Wood; illustrated by Doug Cushman
Although this book is written from the perspective of a child, really, it’s the dads who will appreciate the joke. A reptilian preschooler offers up all the things his reptile pop can’t do. "Dads can't pitch a baseball very hard or hit one very far."/ "When dads play hide-and-seek they always get found, but they have a hard time finding you."/ "They aren't very good wrestlers./ "Dads lose at checkers/ and cards/ and almost every other game." With a playful wink, it reminds us how brilliant dads are at making their little lizards feel special.

5. “Daddy Kisses,” by Anne Gutman and George Hallensleben
We received this board book as a gift many moons ago, and the frayed, worn edges of its spine are proof of how dearly we love it. Every spread features a different father animal with his baby, and describes how each daddy gives kisses. “Daddy giraffe gives his calf a kiss on the neck./ “Daddy Rabbit gives his bunny a kiss on the ear./ “Daddy lion gives his cub a kiss on the head.” The illustrations, made with chunky brushstrokes in vibrant oil paint, make it perfect choice for snuggly reading time, followed by plenty of sweet “Daddy Kisses.”

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gift books for grads

Graduation is an occasion when giving a children’s picture book can be the perfect way to express sentiments of congratulations, love, and hope for the future.

Here are my top 5 gift book recommendations for grads.

1. “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss – People have been giving this book as the quintessential graduation gift for decades now—and with good reason. There’s just something special about Dr. Seuss’s exuberant ode to life’s exciting journey that makes it the perfect “world is your oyster” message for graduates of any age.

2.So Many Days,” by Allison McGhee; illustrated by Taeeun Yoo - In a spirit similar to Seuss’s classic, but with slightly more abstract poetic language, Ms. McGhee’s lovely little picture book speaks of facing life with curiosity and wonder. “So many doors in all your days,/ so much to wonder about./ Who will you be and where will you go?/ And how will you know?” Ms. Yoo’s muted lino-cut illustrations of a young girl in her raincoat and boots add to the book’s message of dreamy possibilities. A particularly nice choice for young women graduates.

3. “Courage,” by Bernard Waber - Anyone about to embark on a new phase of life is bound to have some trepidation, and that’s why Mr. Waber’s cheerful picture book “Courage” makes an apt gift selection for graduates. From “Courage is being the first to make up after an argument," to "Courage is tasting the vegetable before making a face,” the book features simple scenarios where a good dose of guts is required.

4. “I Can Be Anything!” by Jerry Spinelli; illustrated by Jimmy Liao
For the graduate who may be wondering where his or her career path lies, this book is a great way to say: “Don’t worry, you can do it all!” A young boy asks: “When I grow up, what shall I be? / Of all the many, many jobs, which one will be the best for me?” He contemplates several vocations including: “Pumpkin grower / dandelion blower / paper-plane folder / puppy-dog holder,” but in the end, realizes perhaps he doesn’t have to choose just one. “So many jobs!/ They're all such fun—/ I'm going to choose…/ EVERY ONE!"

5. “All The World,” by Liz Garton Scanlon; illustrated by Marla Frazee- This book is a love song to the basic rhythm of life told in simple poetic phrases. Although in essence it’s about hours passing in a day, many stanzas seem more metaphorical: “Slip, trip, stumble, fall/ Tip the bucket, spill it all/ Better luck another day/ All the world goes round this way.” With beautifully detailed watercolor illustrations and gentle language, it offers a sweetly fitting message for graduates who are about to step into a whole new world of their own.

This article was originally published in East Bay Life - a section of the East Bay Newspapers, on 6.9.10.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

‘Little Boat’ is a story of bravery and confidence

“The ocean is a big place, and I am just a little boat,” begins Thomas Docherty’s tale of a tiny boat making its way through a vast ocean.

From the start, it’s clear that the little tugboat’s journey is meant to parallel a young child’s experiences in the big wide world, but Docherty makes the connections in such a sweet and subtle way, children will find themselves simply enjoying the ride while subconsciously relating to the story’s overarching metaphor.

The text is rhythmic, yet spare, with short descriptive phrases. “The sea is always changing, and full of dangers, but I sail on,” says the little boat while skirting the edges of an ominous whirlpool.

Despite “terrible storms, rolling waves, and treacherous rocks,” the tiny boat seems to truly enjoy the adventure, and before long, befriends a whale, octopus, dolphins, and a pair of seagulls.

Docherty cleverly plays with scale—making the tiny tugboat appear miniscule in a sea of blue during the scary parts—and larger when the little boat is traversing a changing seascape accompanied by its ocean pals.

In the end, the boat has traveled quite a long way, past penguins on floating icebergs, and still—in a spirit similar to “The Little Engine That Could,” or "Tuggy the Tugboat”—our hero presses on.

What sets this story apart, however, is that its protagonist, the little boat, seems to have a healthy does of confidence from the get-go. There’s no “I think I can,” in this tugboat’s universe. On the contrary, the little boat declares: “Full Steam ahead, to the edge of the world… because no ocean is too big for a little boat like me.”

Way to go, little boat. Rock on.

This article was originally published in East Bay Life - a section of the East Bay Newspapers, on 6.2.10.