Lane Smith is probably best known, by me at least, as the Caldecott-winning illustrator of The Stinky Cheese Man…not to mention the author and illustrator of one of my personal favorites, The Happy Hocky Family. In the past, Smith has dwelt in the sublimely cheeky – bringing his quirky sensibilities to a wide range of offbeat and utterly brilliant children’s books. And while all of his books have had a teensy whiff of sentimentality in them, I never in a million years expected the sheer gorgeousness of his latest book Grandpa Green. In this stunning new book, Smith earns his stripes as an honest-to-goodness storyteller of the highest caliber. Smith’s book tells the story of Grandpa Green, an avid gardener who tells his unforgettable life story in a series of topiaries carved into the shapes of his memories. A first kiss. A war. The cafe where he first met his wife. All are lovingly and painstakingly recreated in the lush foliage of his garden. And his great-grandson, who sees these tales come to life, is the lucky recipient of not only his Grandpa’s artistry but his rich, beautiful life story. Lane Smith has outdone himself in this quiet little book that speaks volumes to the joy of memory. This book goes beyond the normal parameters of children’s literature and into the realm of literary treasures.
I’m feeling a bit sentimental today…and, as such, I’m bringing back an old favorite – Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty McDonald. Ooooo how I loved this series as a child. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle lives in an upside down house and smells like cookies and, thankfully for parents everywhere, has wonderful cures for every possible childhood lament. And we’re not talking about chickenpox or measles, here. We’re talking about cures for things like talking back and not picking up toys and selfishness. My favorite of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s infamous cures is for the girl who won’t take a bath. And the dirt just keeps accumulating on this beastly little child. So, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle instructs her parents to plant turnip seeds in the dirt on her face and watch them grow. They do just that and, surprise!, a bath is quickly accomplished. Young readers will delight in the whimsical and magical words of McDonald and illustrations from Hilary Knight of Eloise fame. And parents will love that someone finally has a cure for not wanting to go to bed.
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.
This book isn’t new, nor does it tackle a new theme of school time. Nevertheless, this book brought about such a turnaround in our household that I can’t help but write about it. When my sons went to preschool, I was that mother with the weeping child. The one whose children literally held on to her clothing, begging for her not to leave…whose sticky fingers and tear-stained faces peeked out from the window as I was directed to walk away since I was “upsetting the children.” After sobbing in my car for what seemed like weeks, a friend of mind recommended Audrey Penn’s amazing book, The Kissing Hand. The powers of this book seemed to be widespread at this time, but for anyone who is facing a teary first few weeks of school, it might be just what the doctor ordered. In this lovely little book, Chester Raccoon wants to stay home with his mother instead of going to school. His mother (a significantly more enterprising mother than I) tells Chester of a secret – a “kissing hand” in which she takes her son’s little paw and kisses it right in the middle. When he feels sad or lonely at school, all he has to do is take that kissing hand and press it to his cheek to feel all the love his mother has for him. It may sound sappy, but it worked for me and my sons and turned what once was a saline-laden experience into a new tradition of comfort and love.
Written by Lisa Eisenberg, illustrated by Elwood Smith
Ages: 6 and up
If your kids are anything like mine, they can’t resist a good joke. My older son’s current favorite is “Why was the mummy late for dinner? Cause he was wrapped up in his work.” And we all cracked up recently at my dear friend’s son who asked, “How do you annoy Lady Gaga? You poke her face.” Get it? Poker Face? Love it.
If your kids have a tendency toward knee slaps and belly laughs, or even just want to impress their friends with a few jokes on the first day of school, then check out Lisa Eisenberg’s Silly School Riddles. It’s a zany, fantastic collection of great riddles, accompanied by Elwood Smith’s hilarious illustrations. Wanna try one? OK. Which state is the best place to buy school supplies? Why, that would be Pencil-vania, of course. C’mon, admit it. That one’s a keeper.
Amazing to think that it has been 50 years since Ezra Jack Keats published his quietly groundbreaking children’s book, The Snowy Day. Today, we celebrate that achievement with the 50th Anniversary edition of the book – available now at bookstores near you. Not only is The Snowy Day one of the most lovely and gorgeous books of its generation, it brought with it the added triumph of being, what is widely known as, the first mainstream children’s book to feature an African-American child as its lead character. Peter, in his bright red snowsuit and matching elfin hat, not only made footprints across a snowy landscape, but made important footprints across American literature. For me, the success of Ezra Jack Keats, long a hero of mine, is not necessarily in his choice of Peter’s ethnicity, but in his ability to create a piece of literature in which the ethnicity of the child was not the focus of the book. His simple tales of childhood and city life speak not just to one but to multiple audiences – carving out a new lexicon in children’s literature that has been spoken from then on. If you have never read The Snowy Day or even if you’ve read it 100 times, please celebrate this special anniversary by sharing it with your children – a generation who, hopefully, won’t even notice that Peter is any different from them.
As the mother of an incoming third grader, it was with great excitement that I heard of Rachel Vail’s new book Justin Case: School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters. Chronicling, in diary style, the life of Justin Krzeszewski (a last name completely bungled by everyone), Vail’s book is as charming as it is heartbreaking as it details every disastrously awkward moment of Justin’s life. Dropping the ball at baseball practice…bungling his violin recital…a play date with a girl? Little Justin K faces each new obstacle with a humorous self-deprecation that most adults could learn from. From dinosaur reports to school elections, Justin’s repeated attempts at fitting in and making his way through third grade are spot-on, particularly for any child (like me) who ever felt a bit on the edges. Example? In the third grade, among Cyndi Laupers, robots and superheroes, I famously dressed up as Betsy Ross for Halloween complete with bonnet and bloomers. Just about sums it up doesn’t it? So, for me, Justin feels like home and will touch the minds and hearts of any child who might be struggling with finding their way in school, friendships and self-confidence. In a market currently overrun with diary-format books, Justin Case stands out as a smart, witty and perhaps more innocent version of Wimpy Kid. It feels authentic in its voice and will no doubt bring a little bit of comfort to children, like mine, who get stomachaches at the thought of cursive writing.
Meet Mr. Al Foxword, salesman extraordinaire. Al could sell an umbrella to a fish, an icebox to a penguin, a vacuum to a mole. (Wait, he did! Amazing!) And now Al wants YOU to buy his top-of-the-line, utterly fantastic, flying-off-the-shelves book. Not convinced? Consider other books available to children. “Sleeping Beauty” might put you to sleep. Cookbooks just leave a bad taste in your mouth. But with Al Foxword’s new book, you’ll be the talk of the town and the envy of your neighbors. Buy within the next ten seconds and you’ll be the lucky recipient of a bookmark! Melanie Watt’s delightfully quirky book takes every ridiculous sales pitch ever heard and turns it into an uproarious infomercial for kids. It’s like Guy Smiley and that Sham-Wow guy got together and created a book character. And that Al is amazingly persuasive. I mean, he almost had me calling the 1-800 number when he offered me two for the price of one! Not sure how to use that second book? Al offers a few suggestions, including my favorite, a unique hat. The end of the book will make even the most stoic parent giggle. A truly enjoyable, utterly endearing and supremely marketable tale.
I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker when it comes to collage. Give me a pair of scissors, some paper and a glue stick and I’m good to go for hours at a time. And I love it when illustrators tend toward the collage-tastic – like Lois Ehlert and Lauren Child and Leo Lionni (who all seem to have “L” names…interesting…). So imagine my utter delight at finding Hanoch Piven’s My Best Friend is as Sharp as a Pencil in all of its collage splendor. The story begins when a little girl’s grandmother comes to visit and, instead of just explaining what her friends and teacher are like, the little girl decides to show her grandma with a series of found objects. Her friend Jack, for example is “as sharp as a pencil” and sports a microscope for a nose. Her art teacher has a palette for a face. And her teacher, Mrs Jennings, doesn’t miss a thing – just like a pair of glasses. Piven’s use of objects as art pieces is truly clever, witty and utterly endearing and you and your child will keep busy guessing how he’ll incorporate each little doo-dad into the characters. Not to mention your children will get a subliminal lesson in metaphor and simile. (Shhhh..don’t tell them…) This is an adorable book and when you’re through, be sure to go check out Piven’s other book My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks.
Those of you familiar with the tale of the Little Red Hen (“not I,” said the person stuck under a large piece of furniture), will love Susan Steven Crummel and Janet Steven’s retelling in their book The Little Red Pen. Faced with a mountain of ungraded papers, the little red pen tries, rather unsuccessfully, to enlist the help of her fellow office supplies – each with their own clever excuses. The eraser’s head is shrinking. The stapler’s back is hurting. The highlighter is bright, but not inclined to help. So, the poor little red pen must tackle the term papers all on her own. That is, until her sheer exhaustion causes her to lose her balance and teeter on the brim of the wastepaper basket – facing a fate worse than one can imagine. Who will help the little red pen get out of this mess? Children will delight in the humor and fabulous illustrations of Janet Stevens and adults will love the fact that office supplies have never provided this level of entertainment. Except, of course, for that one time with the hole punch.