Friday, May 6, 2011

Children's Book Week: Books and Babies

Around a month ago, I was at a baby-stuff store and I heard a conversation between two women where one of them was dismissing board books because it only takes a few minutes to read them. While I know that parents of babies are often in search of things that will amuse their children for a more significant portion of time, I couldn't help thinking that they were somewhat missing the point. At the same time, I do remember that when I started reading books with Emmett, I sometimes wondered, "Am I doing this right?" OK, I've wondered that about everything from swaddling to feeding to bathing, but I think it can be hard to figure out how to make reading with a baby a worthwhile activity. Here's what I've figured out about the process so far.

First off, if you think that holding the baby still as you read a book to him or her is the best route, you'll probably end up convinced that the kid is not yet ready for books. I mean, it may work OK at the stage where they don't move much, but you'll have better success if you let the baby move around and not worry (at least not yet) about whether they are looking at all (or any)of the pages while you read. (One exception: if you're trying to work some tummy time into the baby's routine, sometimes it works to have the baby lie across your lap and look at a book as you read it.) I've found that I can attempt readings of longer books as long as Emmett can do his thing while I read.

Sometimes the baby wants to manipulate the book so much while you're reading it that you can't actually turn the pages. Here, I think there are a couple of options. One is the "let the child play with one book while I read a different one" option, which can work fairly well. The other is to read the book anyway even without being on the right page. This only works with books that you've pretty much memorized (and I know, you're tired, you might think that memorizing something even the length of a board book is impossible!), but as you read some of these books over and over, they will get implanted in your brain and it'll be possible to "read" them without looking at every page.

(This may be a good place to put in a plug for Indestructibles, a series of books that are made to be chewed on. I remember being a little aghast the first time that Emmett ripped a book or nibbled some paper. The picture books from Indestructibles have gorgeous illustrations by Kaaren Pixton and can be chewed and easily wiped clean. Mine have gotten wrinkled but haven't gotten ripped. I keep one in my purse, one in each car, and others in various locations around the house.)

As kids get older and start paying more attention to the words and pictures on the page, there's lots you can do in terms of pointing out details in the illustrations, checking vocabulary by asking them to point at things, and so forth.

Right now, one of my favorite things to do is to combine books with songs. So, if I'm reading the Dr. Seuss ABC Book, I might sing a song like "A You're Adorable" or "Alligators All Around" before or afterward. After a book about farm animals, we might sing "Old MacDonald" or another farm song. You don't need tons of singing talent to do this, and if you don't remember all the words to songs, just make something up if you need to.

Anyway, don't worry about doing it wrong, but do read stuff to babies! I know it feels like you have to just have faith that they are getting something out of it at this stage, but it definitely matters.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Children's Book Week: Skippyjon!

Since today is Cinco de Mayo, it seems like the perfect day to blog about the Skippyjon Jones books by Judith Schachner. These books are a lot of fun to read aloud, especially if you know some Spanglish. Skippyjon is a male Siamese kitten who has an alter ego as a chihuahua and has lots of pun-filled adventures in his imagination.

A few years ago, Judith Schachner made an appearance at the NC Literary festival and I met her during a book signing event. I remember being annoyed at how slowly the line was moving until someone pointed out that she was doing a little kitty drawing in each book that she signed. I remember her that during her reading, she talked about how she remembered having trouble staying focused in school and that she was often daydreaming or drawing when she should have been paying attention.

One of my favorite little things about the Skippyjon books is that Skippyjon's mother has all these goofy nicknames for him, such as "Mr. Kitten Britches" or "Mr. Fuzzy Pants." I always look forward to seeing what name she will use next.

Skippyjon does have some stereotypical Mexican characteristics that don't always appeal to everyone (especially those of us too prone to overthinking these things), but I remember that when I was waiting in line to meet the author, there were two elementary school librarians in front of me who were talking about how the Skippyjon books were the only books that some of the Spanish-speaking kids in their school got interested in on their own.

Children's Book Week: Revisiting Childhood Favorites

A few months ago, I went to a small exhibit of drawings from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and got reunited with a book from my childhood entitled Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni. The book starts with a young minnow and a young tadpole who are friends. After the tadpole becomes a frog, he has adventures in the world outside the pond and tells his friend the fish about everything he sees. The fish can only picture things like cows and people through his own fishy world view, so the images in his mind look like this. The fish learns to appreciate the beauty of his own world in the end. There's something very relaxing about Lionni's artwork in this and other books. As I read it again, I had the feeling that I'd read it as a kid. Sure enough, when I consulted a list of children's books that my parents have held on to, it was there so I had them send it to us.

Another book that I have been thrilled to be reunited with is I Am A Bunny, which is written by Ole Risom and illustrated by Richard Scarry. This book has some of Richard Scarry's finest illustrations. The cover picture shows the bunny (Nicholas) keeping dry under a toadstool during a rain storm. The book describes what Nicholas does during each season. I imagine that my parents still know this book by heart. I remember reading it every time we were at my grandparents' house in Cranford, New Jersey. I used to think it was hilarious to say "In the spring, I like to eat flowers" instead of "In the spring, I like to pick flowers." I can't recommend this book enough (and I think I've already mentioned it in other blog posts).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Children's Book Week: Pouch!

I really enjoy children's books about the animals of Australia, such as Jackie French's Diary of a Baby Wombat (with great illustrations by Bruce Whatley), but I am especially fond of kangaroos. I remember hanging out with a lot of kangaroo moms and joeys at a wildlife park in Australia. The older joeys would often do a thing where they would hide their heads in mom's pouch or go in and out frequently. It may sound strange, but sometimes I wish that I had a pouch--it just seems like it would be easier than adjusting the straps on my baby carrier.

When I first saw the book Pouch! by David Ezra Stein, I couldn't help signing it out of the library (and later buying it). It's a simple story about a young joey's first few times venturing out of his mother's pouch. Whenever he gets freaked out about something, he goes "Pouch!" and runs back to his mother. Towards the end of the book, he makes a friend and becomes a bit more independent. It's a little bittersweet from the mom's point of view ("what, you don't need me as much?") but cute and happy nonetheless.

Emmett and I have enjoyed some other lovely kangaroo books. Recently we've read I Love It When You Smile, which is by Sam McBratney, the same author as bedtime favorite Guess How Much I Love You. Another good book for Australian animals is John Lithgow's Marsupial Sue. (This book, as well as Lithgow's I'm a Manatee, is also a song.) I don't always get on board with the "I'm an actor and now I have a children's book" thing, but Lithgow won me over with his "Singing in the Bathtub" children's album and now I'm a fan of his children's work. Marsupial Sue has a message about being yourself instead of trying to be someone you're not. Like many Books With a Message, it can come across a little heavy-handed, but the book has grown on me in subsequent readings.

Out of the kangaroo books that I've mentioned, Pouch! is the simplest and because every element of it works so well, it's my favorite...but I'm always on the lookout for more marsupial books!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Children's Book Week: Boynton Books

I was planning to just do one blog entry per day for Children's Book Week but it struck me as wrong that I've only posted about male authors so far. Few children's authors have infiltrated my life as much as Sandra Boynton has. Before I started reading her books with kids, I enjoyed her greeting cards and have been known to sing the words "Hippo Birdie Two Ewes" to the tune of the birthday song. I've been listening to songs from Philadelphia Chickens since early in 2003 and already owned her other book/CD combos long before Emmett's birth.

We often start our day by reading Hey, Wake Up and end it with The Going To Bed Book. Our bedtime ritual also often includes singing Pajama Time and Silly Lullaby from Philadelphia Chickens. During the day, we often read or sing one or more of her other books, with Barnyard Dance and Your Personal Penguin as current favorites.

What I love about Boynton books is the emphasis on silliness. Take, for example, a few lines from "Silly Lullaby":

The chickens in the bathtub
The closet full of sheep
The sneakers in the freezer
Are all drifting off to sleep...

The animals in Sandra Boynton's books have a lot of personality, whether they are show-stealing aardvarks or hippopotamuses who really know how to have a party. These books are fun to read over and over.

Children's Book Week: Pinkwater-Induced Blueberry Muffin Cravings

The first time I signed out one of Daniel Pinkwater's books from the library, I did it more to amuse my husband than anything else. Adam has fond memories of reading The Snarkout Boys books during his young adulthood, and I've given Adam various Pinkwater books as gifts over the years.

The first Pinkwater picture book that I signed out was Bad Bears and A Bunny: An Irving and Muktuk Story. I was curious about what made the bears "bad." At the time, I didn't realize that this was one of several books about Irving and Muktuk. I definitely recommend starting with Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears. I think that the stories make more sense (as much as anything in them makes sense) with that book.

Most of the Irving and Muktuk books involve plots to steal large quantities of blueberry muffins, and there's usually a major conflict between the polar bears and a bunny. The books are set in Bayonne, New Jersey, the blueberry muffin capital of the world.

Dang. Now I'm craving blueberry muffins.

Although Irving and Muktuk don't do anything much worse than stealing muffins, readers who want a more universally-likeable polar bear character might prefer the books about Larry the Polar bear. Larry lives in a hotel that was named after him (long story) and works there as a lifeguard. From the point that Larry's mom kicks him in the head and tells him to get lost to his first sleepover party, there's a lot to enjoy. I would be remiss if I didn't comment on Jill Pinkwater's wonderful polar bear illustrations--these really do help make the zany storylines work.

So, if you're in the mood for a weirder-than-average children's book and have a fondness for polar bears and/or muffins, check out the Larry books or the Irving and Muktuk books.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Children's Book Week: Mo Is the Man

For Children's Book Week, I am going to try to blog about a different book or author every day.

I find that when I go to the children's section of the library, I tend to seek out certain authors. One of my most sought-out authors is Mo Willems. Mo is known for books like Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Knuffle Bunny, but my favorite of his books is Leonardo, The Terrible Monster, which is all about a monster who wants to be scary but just isn't. My favorite bit in it is how he really wants to "scare the tuna salad out of" some kid. Is that how monsters think? I don't know. In any case, most of the books have a bit of warped humor to them that is appealing to people like me.

I also quite enjoyed Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct, which has the same sort of weirdness as a recent favorite, Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed. I especially like reading the naked mole rat book to Emmett when he's resisting our attempts to put clothes on him.

Mo is both author and illustrator for his books, and long before Emmett was born, I read and was inspired by some of his thoughts on drawing in this NPR piece. I was thinking about it again recently. Specifically, I was thinking about what our babies see us doing in an average day and what effects that may have.