Tag Archives: animals

From Russia with Love

I’m savoring these precious days with our new baby girl… spending all my hours nursing, changing and holding the baby while wondering how to make the laundry do itself.

And I’m watching the Olympics! We love the Olympics in this house! I won’t spend hours telling you about all the great picture books about Russia; there are plenty of lists online.  But I will spotlight my three very favorite (excluding Christmas themes, that is) stories based in Russia from our collection:

  I am especially fond of The Littlest Matryoshka by Corinne Bliss right now because my daughter finally has a sister!  And this story captures that special relationship between sisters just beautifully.  The tiniest little sister gets lost and goes through a series of adventures before finding her way back to her home with the other matryoshka sisters.  Lovely gentle art throughout…

 No one captures pastoral Ukraine or Russia like Patricia Polacco and Rechenka’s Eggs is one of our very favorite books to bring out toward the end of Lent and close to the Easter season.  It’s a great kickstart to any kind of pysanky projects one might want to delve into.  Another variation of this folktale can be found in the lovely book: The Birds’ Gift: A Ukrainian Easter Story by Eric Kimmel.

 Lastly is A Symphony of Whales by Steve Schuch.  A couple years ago, I based an entire unit study on this book.  I am so in love with everything about it:  it’s  based on a true story of villagers saving some beluga whales from ice entrapment, it’s richly illustrated in oil paintings, and the story is based in a unique geographical area that doesn’t usually get much attention: the Chukchi Peninsula.  It is truly a living book if ever there was one.  In fact, I need to replace my paperback copy to get it hardbound.


“Little by little, one travels far…”
-Tolkien
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The Mice, the Monks and the Christmas Tree

When I somehow stumbled on the title of The Mice, the Monks and the Christmas Tree, I had to immediately find out about it.  I love tales of mice at Christmastime and I love tales that weave the Catholic faith into them too.  It had to be good right?! Well, I couldn’t find any info online whatsoever other than it was written by George Selden—author of the famed Cricket in Times Square.  So I found a cheap copy online and bought it… a rare move for me when I know or hear nothing about a picture book!  But I am not disappointed.

The story is lovely.  A group of monks are all so busy performing charitable works for others that they quite forget about getting a Christmas tree.  On Christmas Eve, the mice of St. Patrick’s Monastery finally take matters into their own hands and chop down and decorate their own tree to present to the good brothers.  The whole story begs to be read with a thick Irish accent… it’s a fun piece of vintage children’s picture book history.  Here are some amateur images so you can take a peek inside:

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Saint Felix and the Spider

Another new book by Dessi Jackson came out a few weeks ago!  This one is Saint Felix and the Spider and tells the story of how this saint befriended a little spider who went on to save him from soldiers hunting him down. It’s a fun little legend and would be excellent if you have a child named Felix and want to find SOMETHING… ANYTHING on his namesake! Or even if you just like to keep saint books on hand for feast days (January 14th in this case).  The illustrations are pretty good all around, fairly simple but bright and vibrant. It is so difficult to find good saint books on lesser-known saints and I’m very willing to seek these out!  This is the same author who brought us the very fun Saint and his Bees story recently too.  I hope there is more coming from her!

It’s really too bad that these aren’t offered in hardcovers (not sure if these small-time publishers can even offer that?) because they are great additions to a Catholic child’s bookshelf!

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Oh Mercy!

I’m not sure where I was when the Mercy Watson books hit the shelves in 2009 or so, but they have somehow missed my radar completely until very recently. At our local library, the children’s librarian and I often chat book talk and she and I compare notes and ogle over illustrations together; I’ve even been able to pass on tips to her.  Anyway, she is the one who pulled out Mercy Watson to the Rescue and suggested my kids would like it.  I only checked the book out to be polite, without giving it much glance at the time.

But she was right.  My children—ages 2 thru 11—all love Mercy Watson! Who knew?!  They were written by the same talented Kate DiCamillo who gives us The Tale of Despereaux and illustrated by one of my children’s favorites Chris Van Dusen… whose art is the closest thing to animation in a picture book you’re ever going to see. (We love his A Camping Spree, Learning to Ski, and Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee).

Anyway, Mercy Watson, much like Stuart Little is an animal with human parents.  She is pleasant and plump and curious.  And, just like me, she has an affinity for toast “with a great deal of butter” which is brought up in every book. She is great fun and even funner are the old lady neighbors next door…

These books are FANTASTIC first chapter books.  They are short, highly illustrated, easily digestible, large font chapters. Yet, at a total of 75 pages or so, it could still be read in one sitting to a child out loud in about 15-20 minutes. What more could one want?! Children feel so awesome when they read such “mature” books and this is an excellent segue from picture books into that world. I’m so happy we found them.  After reading four out of the six in the series, I’m confident that I want to buy them all to have on hand for that perfect window of time when a child is ready for a bit more of a challenge than easy readers.  And being a sucker for “boxed sets,” there happens to be an attractive gift option for a certain someone’s upcoming Christmas gift: Mercy Watson Boxed Set: Adventures of a Porcine Wonder.  Superb.

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The Saint and His Bees

November 1st is All Saints Day.  I like to introduce one new saint book into our collection on that day as a gift to my children.  This usually means finding a used copy of a saint book throughout the year at some point and hiding and saving it for that day.  Occasionally, in mid October, I do an online hunt for a particular book I’ve had my eye on and buy it used.  Rarely, is there a new, worthy saint book published that gets bought right away. This year, however, there was!  I took a gamble on The Saint and his Bees because I didn’t know anything about it. All I knew was that I absolutely loved illustrator Claire Brandenburg’s other book The Monk Who Grew Prayer.  I have been reluctant to purchase other titles of hers simply because she writes not explicitly Catholic books… but Orthodox.  Without going into history details, there is a fine distinction between the two faiths and while I respect Orthodox believers very much, I don’t make a point of venerating their saints specifically (pre-schism: the Catholic and Orthodox churches share the same saints… so I always double check to make sure the book being written by an Orthdodox author is about a saint who lived prior to the 11th century or so. There are exceptions: I did buy the book The Wonderful Life of Saint Sergius of Radonezh after researching that St. Sergius was indeed also recognized by the Roman Catholic Church…)

Anyway,  onto this year’s gift to my children: a story about St. Modomnoc (aka: St. Dominic), an Irish monk and student of St. David of Wales in the 6th century. It tells of his bond with the monastery’s bees and the legend of how bees were introduced into Ireland because the swarm  didn’t want to let their dear monk go when he had to return to the island… so they followed him!  Illustrated in Brandenburg’s classic, rough, quirky style, the story is sweet and fun and a great addition to our collection.  I’ll have to do some updating to my listmania lists in this category. I only wish it (and The Monk Who Grew Prayer) was available in hardback!  Such a pity to have lovely stories vulnerable to my ravishing, rowdy-handed children!  I just have to be extra careful…  🙂

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Appreciating Arnosky

Today I dug into our October basket (yes, our “seasonal” rotation of picture books has now grown into a “monthly” rotation of books!! I include all our picture books in this rotation (excepting non-fiction) so as to ensure we are getting a chance to read and appreciate all the good ones we have.  Otherwise, treasures get buried and forgotten in the surplus.) and pulled out Every Autumn Comes the Bear by Jim Arnosky.

I was reminded again of how much we love this author.  Is it the brilliance of the text?  Not so much.  The glory of the illustrations?  Not exactly.  I think what it is has to do with the perfect marriage of text and imagery Arnosky offers in all of his books.  He writes simple story lines… easy enough for a 2 year old to sit through, yet engaging enough for an 8 year old to appreciate.  And he doesn’t fictionalize things or  indulge in anthropomorphism like so many other popular kiddy books do— I have no problem with talking animals, believe you me… but all things have their place.  And animals in Arnosky’s books are simply stars in the natural history story he has to tell. And they are excellent.

Crinkleroot
Tom Bombadil

We own Grandfather Buffalo and Coyote Raid In Cactus Canyon also but I’m starting to get the itch that tells me I need to purchase more of his titles… so loved they are and so seasonally appropriate they can be.  On my shortlist are Rabbits & Raindrops or Raccoons and Ripe Corn and Armadillo’s Orange (get a load of those used prices! Ha!). And we can’t forget Crinkleroot and his series… which are very basic primers to different aspects of nature; kids love them. As a side-note, Crinkleroot reminds me of how I envision a simpler version of Tom Bombadil. If you get that reference, it’s a strong indication you might be awesome.

Anyway, Jim Arnosky provides good stuff all around!  Go get some books!

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Little Black Sambo/Little Babaji

The new and the old

The Preface to the version of The Story of Little Black Sambo  by Helen Bannerman that we have reads like this:

The original

Applewood Books is proud to reissue this classic edition of Little Black Sambo. During the last thirty years, the book and its little hero have been the center of a big controversy.  Sambo became, to some, a symbol of racism, and to others, he remained a long-remembered favorite.

Many may wonder why we are reissuing this book.  As with all the books we publish, we are reissuing the book as a window on our past. Recently, I read this book to my two young sons. When I asked them what they thought, they said they thought Sambo was a hero and marveled at his bravery.

This was my experience with the story as well.  I loved hearing the story when my mom read it to us kids and I never once thought anything of the pictures or the use of the term “black” to describe Sambo and his parents Mumbo and Jumbo.  I can’t remember a single incidence of racism in my household growing up and I had plenty of shades of brown among my friends in school.

The new, PC Babaji

There are now politically correct versions of this story available. These are well done. We have and love The Story of Little Babaji —illustrated by Fred Marcellino—as well as the original tale and it is faithful in essence and spirit. The only difference is the culturally appropriately named and colored Babaji, Mamaji and Papaji.  My children seem to like both stories equally while only one son prefers the crude-ish drawings of Black Sambo over Babaji.

I think it’s a shame to overthink race and to ignore the heritage that shaped our culture. Whatever you think on the issue, I encourage you to BUY at least one of the versions of this story because it is an absolute favorite of children everywhere and one of the most requested items on our own plentiful shelves.

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If You Want to See a Whale

I was eagerly waiting to get my hands on this book.  When Julie Fogliano paired her first story And Then It’s Spring with illustrator Erin Stead… it was a match made in Heaven and one of my very favorite books of last year.  I loved it so much that I did what I almost never do for children’s books: paid full price for it just to call it mine and see it sitting pretty in my springtime basket. So when If You Want to See a Whale came up, I snatched it up at the library and dove right in.

I had to read it twice. I wasn’t in the right mindset at first and I found myself getting lost in the lyrical side of it, wondering what the heck relevance this book had to a young reader. The pictures were gorgeous of course, and the text placement well thought out and the paper quality excellent… but I missed the magic boat initially.  So I read it again without my analytical, book critic glasses on.  It occurred to me that from the perspective of a young child, this book was a pure slice of lovely. Who cares if it was slightly off-center with where-is-this-going logic?!  I had to look at it the way I have to look at the genius of the incomparable A Hole Is to Dig for example.

      If you want to see a whale you shouldn’t watch the clouds, some floating by some hanging down in the sky, that’s spread out side to side or the certain sun that’s shining because if you start to look straight up you just might miss a whale.

I read an interview of Fogliano recently where she remarked that she loved working with Erin Stead because Stead often knew what she was trying to express better than she did. And I think this point is especially evocative in this story. The illustrations make the magic; they connect the sometimes disparate sentences.  Don’t get me wrong; the writing is great, and the cadence is well done… you just have to snuggle up with someone little and love it with them and for them to really appreciate it.

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More Wintry Titles

Aside from the titles, on my Top Ten Winter Book list, we’ve gone on another library binge of snowy titles in a desperate attempt to will some snow to come before spring!  So here I’m just throwing out some collected seasonal picks as we round out our wintertime.

Snow by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Lauren Stringer. A completely evocative book, slow and deliberate, with a delicious, stunning spread of a pink sunset reflecting on the snow. I’ve never seen THAT moment captured in an illustration before this… lovely all around.

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas. An easy, living book if there ever was one. Contemporary, clean illustrations.

Over the snow, the fire crackles, and parks shoot up to the stars.  I lick sticky marshmallow from my lips and lean back with heavy eyes. Shadows dance in the flames.  Under the snow, a queen bumblebee drowses away December, all alone.  She’ll rule a new colony in spring.


Learning to Ski with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen. I’ve been thinking on Van Dusen for some time… just how I want to pinpoint him as an author/illustrator and decided he deserves his own post quite soon.  So look for that. Until then, suffice it to say, we are big fans of Mr. Magee in this house!

The Snow Globe Family. A novel little story that will make you wish you had your own living snow globe family.

Snowmen at Night by Carolyn and Mark Buehner. Rhyme time!  Best enjoyed by the younger crew and recommended as a board book!

Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Yellow Sled by the one and only Maj Lindman.  As a child, I couldn’t get enough of these Swedish triplet boys and their female counterparts Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka. I know the 1940s innocence of these stories are a bit contrived but I can’t help loving them nonetheless. Such sweet morals and goodness in these series.

Winter Shoes for Shadow Horse by Linda Oatman High and Ted Lewin.  I was surprised that this book had no written reviews on Amazon, so I had to make one. It isn’t really snow focused. It’s just a lovely, well written book about a young boy learning to do a man’s work under the watchful eye of his father.

I pry, and salve, and whisper, and tap and nip and rasp and clinch, Papa’s hand on my shoulder. Shadow Horses’s back ripples and I flinch, scared. “Go on,” Papa whispers, his hand heavy and strong.

Cold Snap by Eileen Spinelli and Marjorie Priceman. New in 2012, this book is bright and vividly illustrated; the ultimate snow storm picture book emphasizing community! Includes simple and yummy recipe at the end. Now all we need is some snow to make it happen!

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Pick of the Week: Mice on Ice

 

Mice on Ice by the Rebecca Emberley and her father Ed. This was a random grab at the library, chosen for its season appropriateness and because I am a big fan of Ed Emberley. I credit all his drawing books to really jumpstarting my boys with the confidence to become little artists of their own. We own several of his books and will happily check out more when given the opportunity!  Regarding this particular title, I love it for three main reasons.

1- The illustrations are fun, bright and engaging!
2- It’s a reader book with very basic wording, yet not boring.
3- There’s an unexpected and clever little “development” in the book that I appreciated very much and won’t spoil for you with details. Otherwise, you’re pretty much just enjoying pictures of mice on ice the whole book.

And it’s as simple as that folks!  Fun, easy reader book that is both wintry and engaging!  Readers usually suffer from one two problems: they are either commercialized character books (which annoy me aesthetically and concern me parentally, when fed in excess to children) or they are dry as dirt in their story lines (if you can call a cat sitting on a mat a story).  Usually they are both.  I understand that the stories HAVE to stay simple to some extent but this is proof that they don’t have to be banal.  A refreshing change up.

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