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.
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…