I’ll be honest, I’m not particularly thrilled with most Halloween books out there. They generally fall to two extremes: the much too-scary ghoulish books or the cutesy little stories that are explicitly twaddle. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing really in the spiritual realm to bank this holiday on… with the exception of All Saint’s Day on November 1st—for which there are of course many good saint books. But Halloween as it’s popularly known today? Pretty barren for the literature world. There are of course, a couple gems, generally related to pumpkins in general: Pumpkin Moonshine by Tasha Tudor is probably my only “must have” for this specific holiday. But Too Many Pumpkins is another fun one worth picking up. And if you are able to find a good copy of Mousekin’s Golden House for under $20 you’d be lucky, but chances are slim. There are probably others, but I’ve stopped searching for great Halloween specific books. I turn to other sources to get into the spirit of things.
Ed Emberley is single-handedly responsible for encouraging my children to become little artists. Whenever I used to try and get them to draw a scene from a story or just be creative, they would whine that “they didn’t know how.” So I first bought Ed Emberley’s: Make a World to see if they would be motivated to try. Would they ever! Suddenly, the whole world was opened up to them! They just needed to realize how easy it was to break down basic figures into manageable parts to draw, and Emberley was the first to show them how. Lately the boys have been drawing from two of his very Halloween oriented titles: Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Weirdos and Ed Emberley’s Big Orange Drawing Book (unfortunately out of print right now) . Both books are excellent for inspiring fun, not-too-scary-but-just-scary-enough drawings. We currently have expanded our How-To-Draw ______ books but still have a good half dozen of Emberley’s titles.
Another alternative to traditional Halloween stories are to explore picture books that really embody mystery and suspense… not necessarily fear. Chris Van Allsburg comes to mind with books like The Stranger or the fun and macabre (a great combo) alphabet book The Z Was Zapped.
Please note that not all fairy tales were written for children and some can be quite gruesome and morbid. Use your best discretion in previewing these tales… but know that this is what they looked like before Disney came to popularize and trivialize them.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”-Albert Einstein
This year, we are doing artist studies in a way that highlights just one artist per school term… a new painting each week. In our home, it looks a lot like this. Anyway, to get my boys excited about art in general, I knew I had to introduce them to a very boyish, exciting artist first, before getting into things like Degas and the ballerinas. Enter N. C. Wyeth. He is an extremely prolific and wonderfully exciting artist for young boys (think pirates, cowboys and knights) and we had a lot of fun appreciating his work. The problem is that there exists very little literature that tells us about the artist himself in a child-friendly way, and no real compendium of his work in the picture book world. Or so I thought. I just discovered N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims which is an out of print (but readily and economically available used) story of Thanksgiving from the perspective of his happy paintings and cheerful characters (Wyeth was a consummate American, even if this meant overlooking some of the darker realities of the Thanksgiving story). We actually have a number of Thanksgiving books and weren’t necessarily looking for more– but this popped onto my radar just last week– and I had to buy it. Even if we have moved onto Rembrandt (to correlate with a visiting exhibit coming to the Seattle Art Museum soon), the boys were excited to peruse the book and see some more paintings by this artist, larger than the 4 x 6’s I’ve been pinning on our board. The story itself by Robert San Souci is fairly typical. But the art is classic, and the notes about Wyeth in the end are great. I’m surprised to not see it mentioned more often either in conjunction with artist studies, or with Thanksgiving itself.
I suppose it’s time I speak a bit about Easter books then. Okay: it’s a seriously underserved genre!!! Unlike Christmas–which offers a broad spectrum of everything in between light and silly to evocative and religious– Easter falls flat. Maybe because we don’t promote the Easter Bunny, I find this to be so. See, St. Nick has a very real and relevant connection to Christmas… so he has found his way into our homes… but the Easter Bunny is so random and distracting from the Resurrection, the most glorious and important day of the Christian year, that I’ve little desire for his inclusion on our Sunday festivities. Oh, the children get baskets, sure. We do egg hunts and eat too much candy like everyone else, but their is no pretense of a giant bunny coming in the middle of the night. No, it’s a joyful, festive, relaxed day that follows a dramatic and spectacular vigil celebration Mass the night before.
That said, you’ll find a small handful of sweet bunny stories out there (mixed with the saccharine or kitschy stories), and you’ll find a small handful of religious books (of varying quality) out there. And you’ll find a select few wonderful out of print books out there too. But if you want to buy just one, beautiful story to be told year after year, it’s this one: The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith (one of my very favorite illustrators). It’s hard to find a book that doesn’t talk down to children about the Crucifixion (if it gets presented at all), but this one manages a perfect, family-friendly balance. And the gold leaf illustrations are superb. I bought this book two years ago and somehow it’s gone out of print since then, but you really ought to get a copy anyhow, used or otherwise. In the meantime, I really hope more authors jump on the bandwagon and start creating some lovely Easter tales…
A potpourri post that omits some of the best books based in Ireland only because there are many and I’m saving them for another upcoming theme:
Next week is the feast of St. Patrick. If you live in a particularly big city or a particularly literate area or a particularly homeschooler-thick area, it’s probably too late for you to reserve your St. Patrick books at the library because bibliozealots like me snatched them up at least a week or two ago already. See you really have to be forward-thinking with seasonal literature. Some people walk into a library on December 23rd expecting to pick up some lovely Christmas stories for their kids to enjoy Christmas Day… ha! It ain’t gonna happen my friend! Reserve your Christmas books a month out, then when they notify you that your holds are ready to pick up, you wait until the last possible day to pick them up. Usually you have a week’s grace period to pick up your holds. So that puts you out three weeks to the holiday. Your library should let you borrow books for three weeks. But if you want them longer, try to renew your books a week after you get them or so. Some will already have reservations on them from other users, others will be available for renewals. You make the most of it.
This is the way to get seasonal or holiday books. I try not to hoard every single book on St. Patrick or Christmas or Thanksgiving or whatever… that’s just gluttonous, but I do try and make sure we have a super great title or two that we can count on to be perfect holiday reading.
Furthermore, I am more and more interested in purchasing seasonal or liturgical books than the average run-of-the-mill book only because it’s nice to rotate things in and out of your book basket as the rhythms of the year come and go. So I’ll even borrow some Christmas books from the library in October or November for preview’s sake… to see if it’s something I want to purchase. Right now, I’m getting itchy to purchase some lovely Easter-themed books for the children on Easter morning and the time is already over-ripe to make those plans!
But I digress.
St. Patrick’s Day. And a wee bit of Ireland in general just to get in the sprit of things shall we?
St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning by Eve Bunting. Very sweet story with excellent Jan Brett illustrations about a young boy who is too big for his britches.
Patrick Patron Saint of Ireland by the incomparable Tomie dePaola. Everyone should have the basic story of Patrick in mind on this holiday that quickly gets overtaken with beer and leprechauns… this is a good a story as any! Also, I haven’t personally read these, but here are some other books on the saint himself that look like they might be real gems too: Patrick, Saint of Ireland, and The Story of Saint Patrick andThe Life of St. Patrick: Enlightener of the Irish. St. Patrick’s Day by Gail Gibbons. Gibbons does a great job at producing basic, light non-fiction children’s books on a ton of topics. This book is a good overview of the holiday and current customs. My only beef with it is that it says the shamrock is a “symbol of St. Patrick”… well, uh, actually it’s not. He made this symbol famous for representing the Holy Trinity… but I try not to be too pedantic with kid’s books. Key word “try.” Mary McLean and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade by Steven Kroll. Wishes really can come true for this little girl!
Saint Patrick and the Peddler by Margaret Hodges is out of print but your library may have it. This is a fantastic story that tells like a verbal story… try to read it with an accent! It may be scary for young readers as the ghost of St. Patrick is shown… the story actually has nothing to do with his feast day but all things Ireland relate to him somehow it seems!
I was typing a title into Amazon to find the link and I stumbled on this book which looks like it could be a real winner… at least the cover art is appealing to me. So don’t take my word for it, since I’ve not reviewed it myself yet, but I was surprised to find a book on St. Patrick that I’d never heard of that looked really promising! (boo, my library system doesn’t have it in their system.)
St. Patrick and the Three Brave Mice by Joyce Stengel…
The Blackbird’s Nest: Saint Kevin of Ireland by Jenny Schroedel. This is a good time of year to go through other Irish saints too… and this particular story is particularly Lenten so I consider it a must-read!
Ciaran: the Tale of a Saint of Ireland by Gary Schmidt. St. Ciaran was one of Ireland’s first saints… he was encouraged by St. Patrick. This is a lovely, gentle book with excellent illustrations and evocative prose: “But still Ciaran’s eyes looked to the east, and his heart longed for the name of God…” Saint Brigid: Abbess of Kildaire by Jane Meyer. Geared toward slightly older children, this story of St. Brigid has stunning illuminations that make the whole thing come alive from the Emerald Isle… (see also Brigid’s Cloak)
Acrosss a Dark and Wild Sea by Don Brown. This is an excellent story about the Irish monk St. Columba… Brendan and the Voyage Before Columbus by Michael McGrew. Get your history straight on the “discovery” of the New World and add some faith in there too!
Here is my personal, comprehensive list of excellent picture books that help nurture a love for the Catholic faith and Christianity in general. This is just my opinion, mind you. There are certainly other Catholic books out there but I have been pretty selective in highlighting only ones that I eitherhave or would buy myself. You won’t see ugly or inane books on this list; I don’t think we should buy/read “twaddle” even if it comes packaged as a “saint story.”No sense in dumbing down the beautiful! However, there are a couple compromises on this point… only because either the pictures or the text are in and of themselves absolutely worth your time. This used to be a post linking you to my Listmania lists on amazon.com but they limit you to 40 titles. 🙂 I also left out the entire St. Joseph Picture Books series (which admittedly do have their place, especially being thin, cheap and Mass-friendly), as well as most Christmas books since that genre is too big for my purposes here, another time maybe… I’m interested only in STORY picture books here, that happen to reinforce specifically Catholic/Christian values. I starred *books that are my own very special favorites. Either way, enjoy the list!
One week from today we’ll celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas. On this day, my own family wakes up to stockings filled with nuts, chocolates and small toys, trinkets or in the case of this year: battery operated toothbrushes! The joy! We do this on the 6th of December in keeping with the tradition of who St. Nick was and the legends that surround his name. Unlike many Christian parents I know, I’m 100% at ease with the place of St. Nick in our holiday celebrations. Forget the Easter Bunny, he makes no sense whatsoever… and the kids have ALWAYS known it’s us and not some random “tooth fairy” who places money under the pillow upon losing a tooth. You think we’d bypass the pillow tradition for efficiency’s sake but there’s something deflating about Junior presenting you with a bicuspid and demanding: “Pay up!” No thank you.
But we do foster a healthy and appreciable devotion to good St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. And I don’t think Santa Clause detracts a bit from the Christ Child on Christmas Day if he’s given his proper place. There is a book to help you if you’re wondering what that place is: A Special Place for Santa: A Legend for Our Time. This book sort of tells the story behind that darling ornament of Christ kneeling before the Infant. It reconciles who Santa is and who St. Nick is and what his place is for Christmas. The illustrations aren’t my favorite… I’m allergic to anything that looks like a Saturday morning cartoon… but the text makes this book a good one for parents who don’t know how to explain St. Nick to their kids.
A couple weeks ago I got on the library’s catalogue system and began hoarding all the great 4th of July books to my holds account. I came home later with a bunch of fantastic stories. Plus a few others from our home library have been floating around the house since we got really behind in our American history studies and are just now finishing our book (How Our Nation Began). The beautiful irony about this and one of the reasons I love homeschooling is that by getting off-track with so many side tangents in American history, we inadvertantly delayed getting to the climax–the American Revolution– until this week! How timely and wonderful is that?!
At any rate, the kids are eating up this history and I’m happy to let them explore all the great titles we have and borrowed from the library.
So our favorite books so far are the D’Aulaire biographies of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin but we have a couple other non-fiction books worth mentioning too. One of the most pleasant surprises has been found in the great purchase I made of Farmer George Plants a Nation. Biographical picture books just might be my favorite genre since they add so much depth to meaningful learning in a child’s brain. And Farmer George is a treat. Not many words are spent talking about our first president’s glory days as a soldier or his political dealings. Instead the book focuses on the much lesser known accomplishments of this man as a farmer and entrepreneur; he really did have a brilliant mind! We also have a funny little book called Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?which offers a great and historically accurate perspective on the Revolution from the other side of the Atlantic. Then there’s Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biographywhich isn’t as fascinating as Farmer George but it does offer an important look at an important man whose ideas still shape our world.
I am one of those readers who does not particularly appreciate books about sentiments. When I read a story to a child, I want it to be a story… not a eulogy about how much I love the child or how special he is. While I can readily admit that certain “sentiment books” can be well written and nicely illustrated, I tend to find the genre itself to be saccharine and contrived. Children don’t– or at least shouldn’t– need books to feel like they are special in your eyes, or that they are loved. One book on which I stand against the crowd is the very popular Love You Forever by Robert Munsch (Do note that for the sake of charity, I do NOT link books that I myself would not buy.) This is one of those books that is on a ton of bookshelves across America, whether or not the parents are bibliozealots or not. It is the only children’s book I’ve ever seen on Amazon that has over 1000 (by and large positive) reviews. I’m not sure what it is about it. People just seem to love the message of this book: mom loves little boy unconditionally as he grows up. The final moments are when the tables get turned and the boy (now a full sized man) is holding his elderly mother in the rocking chair. So not only is there a lack of a real plot, I also struggle with one of the pages in particular. The mother, at one point, crawls up a ladder to her grown man son’s bedroom to hold and love him while he is sleeping. I find this rather creepy. There are other sentiment books that I don’t particularly like either. I do however have more tolerance for books which at least have some interesting elements to add to the story, as is the case in The Runaway Bunny where at least the illustrations are fun and imaginative.
So with Father’s Day just around the corner, it would be easy to find a few sappy ‘I Love Daddy” books to recommend that fall into the sentimental category. Instead, let’s discuss a few books that have good fatherly messages or figures without being quite so overt about it.
Anatole and the Toyshop by Eve Titus. I’m always willing to give a plug to the Anatole books; we love him around here. And in this particular story, Anatole gets to shine as the hero who saves his family from a tyrranical shop owner. Family is the ends; courage is the means. Pop’s Bridge by C.F. Payne gets double points for being based on history. (I love that.) In this book a boy admires his hardworking dad as he helps to build the Golden Gate Bridge. The sacrifices of men are noted and laborers of all kinds are celebrated in the end. Kids today don’t often get to see their fathers doing meaningful work. Back in the pioneer days, children worked alongside fathers out in the fields or in the stables. Since the industrial revolution, the actual sight of men at work is removed from most kids. So when dad gets home, often all they see is him lazing about on the couch or glued in front of a T.V. or somesuch. Not exactly images that inspire virtues of strength, commitment, sacrifice and integrity in young people. (Now this is a topic for another time, another blog… but while I have you reading here, if you’d like to explore this idea further see the excellent, short book Successful Fathers: The Subtle but Powerful Ways Fathers Mold Their Children’s Characters.) Papa Piccolo by Carol Talley was mentioned before in a thrifting thread. It’s been a good addition to our home library. Piccolo becomes a reluctant adoptive father to two spritely little kittens. After spending a lot of time trying to dodge them; their disappearance causes him concern and he finally embraces his role as papa and teacher. I suspect I’ll be mentioning this one last time in a future post when I write about my favorite books to use as curriculum units. (The glories of Venice are in top form here.) If: A Father’s Advice to his Son. Now I’m breaking all the rules on this one. Not only is this a “sentiment book” of sorts, and it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with fathers specifically, it’s a book I’ve not even SEEN in real life yet! I stumbled on it one day on Amazon.com. This is the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling (whose pedigree speaks for itself) illustrated with photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr. I am a tremendous fan of this poem. It will be one of the longer poems my boys are forced to memorize and I hope its message sticks with them. If you’re not familiar with “If”, I’ll post it here for your good pleasure. Drink it up, then force the koolaid on your kids too. As it is, I just found out that it’s in our library system so I’ve just put a hold on it for further perusal.
by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with triumph and disaster And treat those two imposters just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breath a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch; If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!