Never before have the mysteries of the Universe seemed so appealing than after reading Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s latest book, George and the Big Bang. Beautifully and engagingly written, this newest offering in the series is an exciting adventure that strikes all the rights chords for young readers. It’s jam-packed with fun, heart-racing capers, villains, a lonely pig and, believe it or not, lessons from the world’s most famous physicist. If you’ve ever read Stephen Hawking’s theoretical work, you’ll know how difficult it can be, at times, to wrap your head around. What’s utterly brilliant about this series is that Stephen, in partnership with his delightful daugher, Lucy, has taken his most highfalutin concepts and broken them down into understandable and downright appealing ways. As a university freshman, A Brief History of Time was required reading for all incoming students. Thus, I spent my summer slogging through his dense prose and, at times, mind-boggling theories. For a literary soul with nary a minute of experience with physics, his book was like reading an Ancient Sanskrit text without the aid of a translation. I recognized the brilliance, respected the man behind the ideas, but couldn’t quite decode the complexities of his imagination. With this children’s book series by Hawking and his daughter, it’s as if I’ve been given a second chance at understanding the Universe. In this particular book, George and his best friend, Annie, (isn’t it wonderful to see boy/girl friendships in children’s books?) are back at their intergalactic adventures courtesy of a super computer named Cosmos. Using portals offered by Cosmos, George and Annie begin this tale in a rather unexpected way: trying to find a new home for George’s pet pig. What ensues is a conspiracy of the most clandestine and sinister kind that involves Annie’s brilliant father, Eric, and his experiment to find the source of the Universe. Children will love the fast-pace, the space and time travel and will most likely be asking for a Cosmos of their own for their next birthday.
Eager parents will appreciate the fact that interspersed throughout the book are lessons and illustrations about physics – offering a fun and surprising way for kids to take the first step towards understanding Stephen Hawking’s brilliant mind.
In an interview, Hawking himself said that he hoped that the readers of this series would be open to reading his other, more complex, works when they grow up! I think he and Lucy have and will accomplish that (and might even inspire a few adults to follow suit!)
Over the holiday break, I made a point of reading a few books (children’s and otherwise) that have long been on my to-do list. These included You Know When the Men are Gone (Siobhan Fallon’s utterly remarkable and heartbreaking collection of short stories centered around the military wives of Fort Hood) and Mrs. Dalloway (which I read every year just to be inspired). Also on that list was R.J. Palacio’s debut novel for young adults, Wonder. I’d seen this book on a number of “Best of 2012” lists for both children and adults and am always impressed when a writer can span the two audiences. Kathryn Erskine’s mockingbird is another of these books that speaks to any age – a brilliant, lovely piece which I hope to review soon. Wonder tells the story of young August Pullman, a ten-year old boy born with a severe facial deformity. Homeschooled until this story takes place, Auggie has been protected by his lovable parents and sister with a fierceness and loyalty that any parent would exhibit in such a situation. Now, in an attempt to bring him out into the world and mainstream his education (both academically and socially), Auggie will take on new challenges as a 5th grader at an elite private school in his neighborhood. What unfolds is a story so universal in its pain and joy that every child and adult can relate. Auggie’s challenges, his ups and downs are, indeed, magnified by the extreme physicality of his differentiation, but the heart with which Palacio tells his story, makes Auggie an everyman…everyboy. Friends come and go, cafeteria seats are saved, then not saved, then pulled out from under him, until ultimately, kindness wins. This is an important book. One that every child and parent should read, even together as a means of opening up necessary discussions about interaction with one another. And in an era of bullying and teasing and taunting the likes of which we have not seen before, Auggie’s story is not only a beautiful example of the resilience of the human spirit, it is a reminder that there is always kindness in the world. It may take a while a find it, but it’s there, waiting with wonder.
First, a brief disclaimer. This is not a “holiday” book, per se. No tinsel or holly or jolly gentleman. But it is just one of those amazingly charming books with snow in it, so I’m willing to include it in my holiday books round-up. I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s just too adorable to pass up. And penguins are festive! They’re jolly, right? For anyone who loved Antoinette Portis’ “Not a Box” and “Not a Stick” (trust me…you’ll LOVE them), her tale of a penguin named Edna cannot be missed. First of all, kudos to any author who names a penguin Edna. Sheer perfection. In Portis’ tale, Edna wants more from her life than just the white snow and the occasional waddle. What she finds is a research station and an orange glove. Sounds simple? It is….simply wonderful. Portis’ poetic and minimalistic text, dry sense of humor and graphic novel-like illustrations make this book a favorite of mine and one I heartily recommend to you this holiday season and every day after it.
Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman was a staple in my home growing up. Not only did I linger over his stunning illustrations, but my mother would always play the soundtrack of the book for me on our little tape player. What distinguishes Briggs’ tale from other holiday books is the fact that he so compellingly and beautifully weaves the story of the little boy and the snowman without words. Told only in pictures, The Snowman is as clever and engaging a read as any word-ridden book and will delight readers young and old. In the book, a little boy builds a snowman. Then, that night, after a fitful sleep, the boy goes outside to find that his snowman has come to life. But this is no Hallmark card remake of Frosty the Snowman. This is better. It is lovely and heartbreaking and, without one word, entirely literary. If you’ve never read this book, please look for it at your local library or bookstore. It is one of the most wonderful books in the world.
So, you want to give the all-time classic Christmas tale to someone this Christmas. Well, it’s certainly easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of them on the market. Personally, I don’t think anyone can have too many copies of Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. (I, myself, have about six and each one is a favorite.) But, in my opinion, if you are searching for the most beautiful of them all, look no further than Mary Engelbreit’s version. The quintessential colored pencil artist, Engelbreit has created the most gorgeous Christmas Eve tale yet – and her illustrations are the perfect match for Moore’s timeless verse. This books makes for not only a wonderful Christmas Eve read-aloud tradition, but would make a gorgeous gift to anyone you love. It’s a big, beautiful book filled with timeless delights and inimitable illustrations. A true Christmas treasure.
Last year, my utterly wonderful friend sent a little package to me with a children’s book inside that, no kidding, is one of the most adorable holiday books I’ve seen. Maggie Smith’s Christmas with the Mousekins is, for lack of a better term, darling. Darling, darling, darling. In it, the Mousekin family is busy with holiday preparations – writing letters to Santa Mouse, cutting paper snowflakes and baking holiday cookies – all with a special mouse-ish flair. What makes this book so amazing is that Smith has included fun craft activities and baking recipes in the story so that the readers can write, cut and bake right along with the Mousekins! From making paper Mittens-in-a-Row to baking Gingerbread Mice, Smith’s easy-to-follow instructions and whimsical illustrations will have you spreading Christmas cheer all over the house! (And if you want to take a peek at Maggie Smith’s amazing stuffed animal creations, just visit www.maggierama.etsy.com for more! This is one talented lady!) I can’t even begin to tell you what a wonderful addition to the world of holiday books this little treasure is. It would make a delightful tradition to read every Christmas – and makes a lovely present for loved ones. Darling. Just darling.
Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree is enormous. Much too enormous for even for his mansion of a house. Not too keen on the idea of a leaning tree, Mr. Willowby calls upon his butler, Baxter, to trim just a little off the top. Baxter, ever the resourceful assistant, decides that this little tip of the tree would be perfect as a Christmas tree for the upstairs maid. But she, too, must trim a bit off the top to fit in her room, so she gives that tip to the gardener. And so on and so forth, until just about everyone in the entire household (including the mice) has been given the gift of the perfect Christmas tree. This delightful book will keep your children laughing as Robert Barry’s rhyming verse tells this fun and whimsical tale.
How can you resist Richard Scarry? He was a staple of my childhood – Lowly Worm, Huckle Cat and the rest of the gang in Busytown…and this collection of Christmas stories will keep your children delighted and (perhaps, more importantly) occupied for hours while you try to finish that last-minute wrapping! It’s wonderful for reading aloud on Christmas Eve or for nestling in on the couch by the fire with your little ones. With so many stories to choose from, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick your favorite. My children adore this book and I love that I have my own memories of it too…
At first, my two sons couldn’t be bothered with reading a Judy Moody book because, as they put it, “There are girls in it.” But once Judy’s little brother, Stink, made an appearance, they couldn’t get enough of Megan McDonald’s fabulous chapter books. Enter The Holly Joliday, McDonald’s Christmas book starring this cool brother and sister duo. Judy has a long list of presents she’d like to see under the Christmas tree this year, but all Stink wants is for it to snow. An unlikely occurrence, until their new mailman comes onto the scene. His name is — wait for it — Jack Frost and he’s awfully magical for a mailman. Beginning readers will love that fact that they can read this chapter book themselves, and you’ll love listening to the story unfold.
We all know Eric Carle for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Grouchy Ladybug and The Very Quiet Cricket. But for those of you who have missed his Christmas tale Dream Snow, it is truly a must-have for any bookshelf. In it, a farmer (with a rather familiar white beard) dreams of snow falling on each of his animals (conveniently named 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). Special plastic pages printed with snowflakes hide which animal is covered with snow until the child lifts it and exposes each animal’s slumbering shape. When the farmer wakes up, he realizes he has some last-minute preparations to make and dons his red cap, coat and boots. Children will delight in this simple story, with the added surprise of a special push-button Christmas tune that plays at the end.