In 1944, Eleanor Estes and Louis Slobodkin joined together to create an extraordinary book. The Hundred Dresses is one of those rare children’s books that stays with you, long after you have turned the last page. Granted, it is a difficult book, dealing with the topic of bullying, but the beauty and poetic sensitivity of this book have made it a classic for these last 67 years. The Hundred Dresses tells the tale of Wanda Petronski, a poor Polish-American girl, who is teased at school for her accent, her shabby clothes and her hard-to-pronounce last name. Wanda bears the brunt of her bullying with poise and grace. That is, until, one of the girls in her class makes fun of her faded blue dress which she seems to wear to school every day. Wanda, in a moment of defiance and brilliance, tells the other girls that this is just one of a hundred dresses that she has at home. And she describes her dresses, and their beautiful fabrics, their vivid colors with such detail and such imagination that the other girls, knowing it has to be a lie, begin to bully her all the more ruthlessly – asking her daily about her hundred dresses back home. When Wanda’s family decides to leave the town and move to another school due to the torment their child is experiencing, one little girl experiences the guilt and shame associated with her role in this decision. And when she, and the others, actually come to see Wanda’s hundred dresses with their own eyes, the outcome is touching, tragic, and ultimately beautiful. This book has stayed with me all of these years not only for its rich, abundant prose and gorgeous illustrations, but for the universal themes of ridicule and its outcomes. This is an important book – and one that all parents should share at some point with their children. To teach them that everyone, no matter their color, class or accent has a hundred beautiful dresses of their own just waiting to be seen.
In 1975, Peter Mayle (yes, of A Year in Provence fame) and Arthur Robins published a book that would forever change my life. Their brilliantly informative and remarkably unembarrassing teenage tome, What is Happening to Me: A Guide to Puberty, would prove to be my personal roadmap through acne (why yes, it does appear on your back!), periods (why yes, they do happen on ski trips!) and bras (why, yes, the woman in the bra department will quickly become your worst nightmare!). Written for both boys and girls, Mayle and Robins’ book gently and factually describes every injustice known to plague teenagers – handling each question, no matter how humiliating, with common sense, and no hint of ridicule or judgment. Robins’ illustrations bring a sense of humor to the topics and make the reader feel a lot more comfortable reading about unexpected hairs than you’d ever imagine. I poured over this book as puberty beckoned and found comfort in not being the only person on the face of the earth to experience the new feelings, emotions and struggles of that time. For any parent working through the first signs of adolescence with their children, this book is as powerful now as it was then to a little girl in her pegged jeans who just needed to know that everything was going to be alright.
Perhaps I am just a sucker for bemused looking animals, but Jon Klassen’s book I Want My Hat Back is one of my new all-time favorites. I mean, seriously. Just look at that bear’s face. It’s irresistibly droll. The book offers a simple story, really. No bells and whistles here. But for anyone with a slightly bent sense of humor and a great appreciation for clever writing, this is the book for you. Simply told, bear’s hat is missing. And he’s not too thrilled with the situation. Using the age-old repetitive trope of such classics as The Gingerbread Man and The Little Red Hen, the creatures of the forest encounter the peeved bear one by one, offering little-to-no guidance on his chapeau search. That is, until a graceful deer triggers a faint memory in the bear’s fuzzy brain. And with that, the true mystery of the hat takes off on little furry feet. And don’t even ask me what happens to the bunny. I’m not telling. You’ll just have to immediately go out and buy this adorably naughty book and find out for yourself.
Around our house, Star Wars is King. And not in some sort of ineffectual, outdated Monarchy kind of way. I mean, truly Kingly – in charge, ever-present and downright overpowering. We talk about Star Wars, we dream about Star Wars, at times we dress like Star Wars, and we read every book available on the topic. So imagine my utter delight when my mom purchased Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy for my sons. I swear the Heavens opened. Angels sang. And my boys found themselves completely blissed out on every eye-popping, 3-D page. (Pssst…there’s even a light-up light saber…). This is the perfect gift for any Star Wars-oholic, young and old…made by the expert hands of pop-up author Matthew Reinhart. It’s so awesome, they even keep it in plastic wrap at the book store. I mean, how can you resist? Star Wars is King, I tell you. And long may it reign.
Quick! Which President was so rotund he got stuck in the White House bathtub? Which President was so scared of getting electrocuted, he didn’t turn on the lights in the White House for weeks? Which President had a parrot that could whistle “Yankee Doodle”? Well, if you’re anything like my older son, you’ll not only know the answers to these questions but be absolutely THRILLED to learn more about all of our Presidential personalities! And Kenneth Davis’ book, Don’t Know Much About the Presidents, is the best book of fun facts about our country’s leadership around. Davis has a wonderful knack for sharing good solid historical information, like timelines, famous quotes, etc, and throwing in awesome tidbits about the Presidents to keep your kids fascinated. And once you’ve read it with your kids, you’ll never forget that Taft got stuck in the tub, Harrison was afraid of light bulbs, and McKinley had that patriotic parrot! But did you know that Herbert Hoover’s son had a pet alligator that wandered around the White House grounds? Share that one at your next playdate!
In celebration of Black History Month, I wanted to be sure to recommend one of the most beautiful books I’ve seen in some time. “In Daddy’s Arms I am Tall” is a compelling and stunning collection of poems paying tribute to African American fathers from a wide variety of writers, new and old. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, this book is a treasure trove of words and collage pictures from Javaka Steptoe that will resonate with every family, no matter the color. From the introductory Ashanti proverb: “When you follow in the path of your father, you learn to walk like him”, to the poems of Folami Abiade and Sonia Sanchez, this collection is a true testament to the power and beauty of fathers everywhere.
Now, granted, I have an intense bias. I love Maine. Everything about it. The ocean. The lobster. The osprey. The way the salt sticks to you like powder and the way the lobster boats hum in the morning. It’s utterly delicious. So, of course I’m going to adore the quintessential Maine writer, Robert McCloskey. It sort of goes with the territory. But you don’t have to love Maine…heck, you don’t even have to be able to find Maine on a map..to love Robert McCloskey and his brilliant ode to The Pine Tree State, “One Morning in Maine.” You might recognize Sal from her adventures in Blueberries for Sal (plink, plank, plunk) and this time she’s going on another adventure to Buck’s Harbor with her father and little Jane. The simplicity of the day – a loose tooth, a loon on the water, rolling up her pants to dig clams – all make for a magical McCloskey day matched beautifully with his black and white pencil illustrations. If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s not only a Caldecott Honor book, but it’s the kind of book you don’t find every day…magical for no other reason than it just is.
When I was in elementary school, I did my science project on optical illusions. You know the one with the picture of the old lady with the big nose that is also a picture of the young lady looking to the side? And the little gray dots that appear in between the black and white squares? Ooooo, I loved those. I’d spend hours staring at them and marvelling at the moment when I could finally see the trick within. Well, imagine my delight while visiting the Getty Museum at finding Silke Vry’s Trick of the Eye: Art and Illusion. It’s one of the best books on optical illusions I’ve seen since it marries both the ubiquitous illusions, a la “is it two faces or a vase?” with real-life illusions in fine art. From the mirror in van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrai” to those darn stairs from MC Escher, Vry’s book is a gorgeous way for children to see, or not see, illusions in art and design.
Years ago, my dear friend Gaby gave me a copy of Sharon Creech’s Granny Torrelli Makes Soup and, for some reason or another, I just never got around to reading it. Well, shame on me, because last night around 11pm, when i finally turned the last page of this remarkable book, i immediately added it to my list of absolute favorites. It is a stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking tale of the friendship between 12-year-old Rosie and her best friend, a very handsome and vision impaired boy named Bailey. For anyone who has ever had a best friend…for anyone who has ever felt those first stirrings of love and friendship all mixed together and for anyone who absolutely adores their grandmother, this is the book for you. Granny Torrelli is the heroine of this book – the no-nonsense Italian grandmother who solves all of the world’s problems with a little garlic and a whole lot of love. This chapter book is most appropriate for children ages 8 and up, and yet it speaks perfectly beautifully to adults as well. A complete and utter treasure of a book from a treasured friend.
Oh, Maurice Sendak. You wonderful, wonderful man. Not only did you give us Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but you gave me my favorite, Chicken Soup with Rice. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I checked this book out of the Lincoln Elementary library growing up…I just adored it. Still do. Mostly because it has the word “whoopy” in it…as in “whoopy once, whoopy twice, whoopy chicken soup with rice.” The monthly sing-song rhymes of the book married with the inimitable illustrations of Sendak himself make this book a classic to be enjoyed through the generations. And for an extra treat, try to find Carole King’s (yes, of “I Feel the Earth Move” fame) recording of Chicken Soup with Rice as part of her Really Rosie album of Sendak books. It’s walk down 1970’s memory lane…