For a paper nut like me, Robert Sabuda is just about the most wonderful guy in the world. His pop-up books are phenomenal and create entire worlds of whimsy and imagination. My favorite is Cookie Count: A Tasty Pop-up, which features a countdown of the most fantastical baked goods around! Your children will marvel at the details behind each beautiful morsel. My sons particularly love the fact that the chefs are mice in tiny little toques. Sabuda has written and designed many pop-up books, but this one is, by far, the most delicious.
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?
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.
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.
If that isn’t the best children’s book title ever devised, I’ll eat my hat. Mo Willems has done it again – this time with a naked mole rat. If your kids adore the penguin who wants to drive the bus, and just can’t get enough of elephant and piggie, then this will most certainly be their new favorite book. In it, Wilbur (said naked mole rat) rebels against his community’s dress code of nothing and dons space suits, tuxedos…to the horror of his fellow naked mole rats. But when the leader of the bunch, Grand-pah, is called in to mediate, they’re soon surprised to find that maybe clothes aren’t such a social taboo after all. Mo Willems can do no wrong, in my opinion. And everything…EVERYTHING…about this book is right.
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.