Remember phone booths? Remember having to call your parents collect to come pick you up after track practice in high school because you couldn’t scrape together two gum-encrusted dimes from the bottom of your backpack? Maybe that was just me…but for anyone who does remember the antiquated charm of the phone booth, Peter Ackerman’s adorable “The Lonely Phone Booth” is a treat. On a busy corner of New York City, sits a little phone booth who’s feeling rather neglected, what with all the cell phones he sees rushing by. But, could he find new life once an electrical storm renders the cell phone towers defunct? This story has a retro feel and rallies support for the little booth as city officials threaten to haul it off to the dump. The pairing of Peter Ackerman’s delightful prose with Max Dalton’s illustrations is a smart one. Ackerman, a playwright who wrote Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight,imbues an obvious love for New York City and the symbols of its glory (ballerinas, businessmen, racing cabs, skyscrapers) and Dalton, Argentinian-based illustrator extraordinaire has long been a favorite ever since he designed a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Board Game.” Put these two together and you’ve got a winning combination that will have children cheering for the booth. And you’ll recall with warm memories when you used to close that folding door behind you and call home collect.
Some days, you just feel like a blah. A big, beige blah. Like a potato with feet. And some days we can’t even explain why we feel that way. And other days, the world conspires against us to create said blahdom. It just happens. So we can all relate to the little boy in Jack Kent’s The Blah. His older brother stepped on his crayons. His mom is too busy doing mom stuff. (What? That happens?) And he feels like no one listens at all. So he creates the King of the Blahs – a drawing of a big blotch with a crown who terrorizes his fellow blahs. In this simple little story (which I first read almost 30 years ago), Jack Kent perfectly captures the frustrations of being a kid. Like when I was seven and I wanted my mom to listen to this great joke I’d made up (it involved a snowflake and a burrito if I remember correctly) and she was on the phone and couldn’t listen. Or when I’d recorded a soap opera called “As the Stomach Turns” on my hand-held tape player and wanted my grandmother to have a quick listen and she happened to be talking to her neighbor Abe, who strangely wore bathrobes all day long. And I wanted to turn right around and draw my own King of the Blahs on the wall of my room. Published in 1970, The Blah is as relevant today as it was then – for kids and adults. It’s a great book to bring out when the blahs are at your house for no other reason that perhaps they were bored down there in Blahville. There are just some days like that. And if, on some day in the future, I slightly resemble a potato with feet, you’ll know why.
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.
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.
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.
In honor of the royal wedding (the hats! the dress! the pomp! the kiss!) I offer a little glimpse into London by way of Miroslav Sasek’s This is London. From the Tower of London to Big Ben to every cheery black cabby, Sasek’s book gives us Yanks a beautiful peek inside what makes London so special. First published in 1959, some of the landmarks from Sasek’s day no long exist, but the vintage flair and whimsy of historical anglophilia will live on. And while Beatrice’s hat may not have been my particular cup of tea, Sasek’s gorgeous book is and will remain so as long as the Royal Guards continue to stand.
I’m feeling a tad nostalgic today and can’t help but recommend a book that I absolutely LOVED as a child. (To the point that my elementary school librarian forbade me from checking it out anymore because I wasn’t “giving other children a chance to read it.”) I loved it so much I even tried, rather dismally I may add, to pronounce the authors name…which to this day eludes me. Esphyr Slobodkina. (If you have a correct pronunciation, please comment below so that I may finally put this to bed.) Anyway, Slobodkina’s 1940 classic, Caps for Sale has delighted readers for more than 70 years and will continue to delight for 70 more. The simple tale of the cap peddlar and the monkeys (trust me, it makes sense while you’re reading it) who taunt him is just one of those books you always remember and that should be passed along from generation to generation. I hear from our school librarian that it’s still a favorite of children today. We’ll see if my son is forbidden from checking it out soon.
For starters, there’s really nothing better than Charlie and Lola. And for any of you who have not yet fallen in love with Lauren Child’s dynamic brother and sister duo, you must do so immediately. That said, Charlie and Lola are two of my favorite characters of all time (right up there with Anne Shirley and Veruca Salt) – perhaps slightly because they’re British and I have that thing for all things British, but also because they’re beautifully rendered as hilariously lovable children. So today, as I sat in the dentist’s chair (which for me is akin to sitting in a torture chamber) I let my mind drift happily to one of my favorite Charlie and Lola books about teeth: My Wobbly Tooth Must Not Ever Never Fall Out. This little morsel of a book tells the story of Lola’s wibbly-wobbly tooth that, at first, she does not want to lose. But when wind of the Tooth Fairy hits her ears, she embarks on a mission to wiggle it out of its gummy slumber. Charlie, as always, steps up to the plate as the best big brother on the planet and shepherds Lola from worry to happy in a way only he can. You don’t a wobbly tooth to truly appreciate this lovely book. You don’t even need to be sitting in the inquisitor’s…uh…I mean…dentist’s chair.