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.
“Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.” So begins Patrick McDonnell’s lovely story of Dr. Jane Goodall, the woman who single-handedly and lovingly changed the way we interact with animals. Readers might recognize McDonnell as the creator of the syndicated comic strip MUTTS and as the author of the award-winning picture book Art. He is also a strong animal welfare advocate and has channelled his love for all things fanged or furry in this beautiful book. The elegant text (“With the wind in her hair, she read and reread the books about Tarzan of the Apes, in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa”) married with McDonnell’s inimitable drawings make for a magical journey into the mind and heart of Goodall. With her stuffed chimpanzee by her side, Jane marvels at the wonders of nature and dreams of someday visiting Africa to see the real life versions of her beloved toy. This dream, of meeting and interacting with these exotic and endearing creatures, comes true for Jane – and readers will be left yearning to learn more about this wonderful woman. I’ll be teaching my world history students about Jane Goodall in the coming weeks and I’m so thrilled to be able to use this book as a springboard for her lovely contributions to the world. Complete with photographs of Jane as a child and an amazing cartoon drawn by the primatologist herself, Me…Jane is a wonderful introduction to not only true life stories, but to a future built of understanding, philanthropy and wonder.
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.
Every summer, my older son attends a Shakespeare Camp in which he and his fellow campers spend two weeks in literature heaven. Improv, movement, Shakespearean history…why, oh, why can’t adults go to summer camp too? I’d give anything to spend two weeks learning my son’s lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor (he made a smashing Doctor Caius, by the way…) At any rate, inspired by this Bard Bonanza, I went to my favorite local bookstore on the lookout for a children’s biography of Shakespeare. I found that (a lovely member of the “Who Was…” series by Celeste Davidson Mannis) and then I found what may be the most glorious gift to children’s literature in quite some time. Are you ready for this? Author Jennifer Adams and artist Alison Oliver have teamed up to create BabyLit Board Books. Yes, now you can find not only Romeo and Juliet for your little anglophile-in-training, but Pride and Prejudice as well. (Insert swooning here.) Not only are Oliver’s illustrations just the most adorable things you’ve ever seen, the way Adams has turned the concept of two jilted lovers and the dashing Mr Darcy into counting primers for children is nothing short of miraculous. Some purists may scoff at the “dumbing down” of great literature for children, but I give a hearty “huzzah” to the concept of introducing great literature at an early age. Will babies truly understand the difference between Capulets and Montagues? No. But isn’t it fun to try?
How thrilled was I to see a clothesline hung in my local children’s bookstore…strewn with multi-colored underpants. The occasion for such tighty whitey hi-jinx? The release of the latest in Dav Pikley’s beloved series, Captain Underpants! In stores next week, Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, promises to surprise, delight and depants not only avid fans of the series, but newbies to the genre. (I promise a lengthy review once I can get my grubby little hands on it!) So, hang on to your boxers, briefs and (in some cases) granny panties. The Captain has returned!
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.
When I was little, my Aunt Doll gave me a copy of Jack Gantos’ Rotten Ralph and I was mesmerized. For reasons unknown to my eight year old heart, I just loved this awful, terrible, absolutely naughty cat and the little girl who loved him despite of it all. My children love it too – mostly because they get to watch a character do absolutely devilish things and laugh about it. So, in honor of my younger son’s 6th birthday today, I offer Happy Birthday, Rotten Ralph – a wickedly delightful romp through Ralph territory that leaves no mischievous deed undone. In it, the titular Ralph does everything from squirting toothpaste in his owner’s shoes to pouring prune juice in her cereal (which my grandma Deedles might have quite liked come to think of it). Nicole Rubel’s illustrations are truly fabulous and perfectly capture the whiskered imp who, no matter the misdeed, continues to enthrall us all.
Happy National Poetry Month to you all! I hope you all run out and grab your nearest copy of Millay or Nash or Silverstein or Cummings and spend an afternoon wrapped up in a wonderful poem or two. While you’re at it, take this month as a fabulous excuse to introduce your children to poetry and its many forms with I Like this Poem: A Collection of Best-Loved Poems Chosen by Children for Other Children. This is, by far, the most amazingly fantastic collection of poems for children I’ve ever seen. Originally published in 1979, this collection doesn’t include some of my favorite children’s poets (i.e. Silverstein or Prelutsky) but what it does include are famous poems from every corner of literature. It’s like a primer for future English Majors (hooray!). Where else can you find The Witches’ Spell from Macbeth alongside The Owl and the Pussycat? Not to mention Roald Dahl’s I’ve Eaten Many Strange and Scrumptious Dishes in my Time (from James and the Giant Peach) a few pages away from Wordsworth’s I’ve Watched You Know a Full Half-Hour. Recommended by children ages 6-15, the best part of this collection, for me, is that after each poem, there is a quote from the child who recommended it. It’s like a poetry anthology that’s been kid approved, and it’s a must-have for any book shelf.
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.