Review: Little Tree


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book
Ages: 2-6
Author: E. E. Cummings and Chris Raschka
Illustrator: Chris Raschka
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 1-4231-0335-1
ISBN-13: 978-1423103356
Caldecott Medal winner (2006)

The holidays are a magical time of the year. Well, they’re supposed to be, anyway. Sometimes, between the cookie baking, gift buying, drop-ins and open houses, it can all feel a little overwhelming. Now that Little E is three and Tiny J is one, I’m finding it absolutely essential to slow things down this year. We’re just not doing as much. We’re giving fewer gifts, sending fewer cards, and trying to maximize our time with each other and with extended family. It’s so easy to forget why we’re doing all this: to be together and celebrate. (Unless you’re super into Christianity. Because then your reasons for enjoying Christmastime might be different than mine.)

This is Little E’s first year really Getting It when it comes to Christmas. She is stoked. And she loves, loves, loves our Christmas tree. It’s nothing fancy: just a charming, not-too-big balsam fir we picked out at a tree farm. We didn’t cut it ourselves, though we did get hot cider and reindeer cookies. But Little E runs over to it every morning when she wakes up and admires the branches from every angle, adjusts a few ornaments here and there, and often exclaims, “I love our Christmas tree!” You can’t beat a three-year-old an enthusiasm contest.

I think E. E. Cummings would have loved our tree too.

This little book beings with Cummings’ poem about a Christmas tree and then tells the tree’s story with sweet, whimsical watercolour illustrations that remind me of stained glass.

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see    i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

The poem is a simple, lovely, small jewel and the book takes the story of the tree further. “The little tree had a little dream. The little tree dreamed of being a Christmas tree, a beautiful Christmas tree in a city, far, far away in a place he’d never seen but only dreamed of, with his own little family in his own little house.” After its journey to a Christmas tree lot, the tree is purchased by “[a] little boy, a little girl, a little mother and father and their little dog.” The illustrations show the life and beauty of the city, and observant readers will spot Santa playing his role in fulfilling the tree’s Christmas wish, as the “little tree lifted up his little branches, like little arms, to show off all the little ornaments, ribbons, chains, and lights.”

“The little tree had found his own special place in the world, a special little place that was waiting for him all his life.”

(The only catch, of course, is explaining to the little ones that the Christmas tree winds up in a garbage truck after Christmas.)

But in the meantime, this book is a winner. And taking a few moments to read poetry with my kiddos is the perfect reminder of what the holidays mean to us.

Note: This edition does not seem to be in print anymore. But there are lots of copies available cheap on AbeBooks.


Read around the World: Africa

Before we had kids, Tall Dude and I travelled a lot. Like, a lot. We worked picking apples in a New Zealand orchard, used a ride-on poop vacuum to clean alpaca droppings on a farm in Australia, were among the first people to ride the new train from China into Tibet, spent a summer in southern Africa (see my Hog in the Fog review for my scarring experience with warthogs in Zimbabwe) — well, you get the idea. We were really lucky (though we are still paying for it now) and we hit a lot of countries before we settled down to what is commonly referred to as “real life.”

Guess how much country-hopping we do these days, now that we have a house, a fat dog, and 2.0 kiddos?

You guessed it.

So, since I can’t hop on a plane, I take Little E on trips with books. This past month we’ve been on an Africa jag. We got a couple of great CDs from the library with music from all over Africa (Putomayo Kids puts out a great series of kid-friendly world music CDs called Putomayo Playground). We tried to look at a map, but she definitely did not understand what it meant (she’s three and still thinks “Toronto” is what Grammie and Grampie’s house is called and “Kingston” is what our house is called). I’ve been looking for some good maize meal to make mielie pap, which I learned how to make from the wife of the paramedic who helped me in the aforementioned scarring Zimbabwean warthog incident.

And we got a whole pile of books about Africa out of the library.

It’s been a lot of fun to talk about different countries and regions in Africa (it drives me crazy when people refer to the continent as one homogeneous entity), the animals that populate the country, and the stories people tell. I think this endeavour might be a smidge more successful when Little E has a better idea of what “country” means, but it’s still been a slice.

So, if you want to take your kids all over Africa but, like us, you can’t afford the plane fare nor abide the idea of being trapped on a jet with your children for seventeen hours, here (in no particular order) are my and Little E’s top five picks. I tried to include books from different regions of Africa.

Top 5 Picture Books About Africa

rainschool animalswaiting honey honey lion mypaintedhouse anansi

Rain School (James Rumford): A young boy starts school in Chad, where not everyone has the opportunity to get an education. The universal experience of the first day of school is given a new twist in a region where the first lesson for the children is learning how to build the school they will attend. At the end of the school year, the rains came and wash the school away, so that the children must build the school every year before they can learn. A great opportunity to talk about how classrooms can be different in different places as well as gratitude and opportunity. There’s a map of Africa in the back of the book; I hope you have more luck explaining maps to your kid than I did.

What the Animals Were Waiting For (Jonathan London): Unusually, this book is told in the second person, and Little E always seems captivated as soon as we start reading: “You are Maasai. / You stand on one leg, like a stork, in the sun. / You are hot and your stomach growls. / ‘These are the Months of Hunger,’ says Grandmother.” The crocodiles, the giraffes, the wildebeest, the elephants — all the animals are waiting. Finally, “a wall of water comes crashing down. / Lightning scribbles. Thunder booms. / ‘Rain, Grandmother! The rain is coming!” The animals stampede to drink, the people gather to celebrate, and the Months of Hunger end at last as fresh grass comes to the plains. The water is here and now we know what the animals were waiting for. The lyrical writing makes this book shine.

Honey…Honey…Lion! (Jan Brett): Botswanan legend has it that the honeyguide bird has a deal with the honey badger: she leads the honey badger to the beehive, he breaks it open, and they share the honey. If the honey badger won’t share, the next time the honeyguide will take him to a lion instead. This book tells the story of the day Badger didn’t share the honey, and how the news spread through the bush. The next morning, Badger follows Honeyguide as usual, but she takes him on quite the wild goose chase (Little E loves the sound effects here — boom, boom! as Honeyguide stomps along a hollow log, clickety-click as the tall, dry papyrus reeds rattle as they pass, sprong! as Badger bounces off the top of a termite mound). Of course, she is not taking him to honey, but to a lion, who hides under a flap at the end and chases Badger back to his burrow. The animal characters and setting are great for showing some of the variety of flora and fauna of Botswana. You can bet Badger didn’t forget to share the next time Honeyguide found him a beehive!

My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (Maya Angelou): This one went just a bit over the head of my three-year-old (lots of things do), told as it is in the voice of Thandi, an eight-year-old Ndebele girl from South Africa. Each page features photographs of the Ndebele people, introducing children to a new culture, different clothing and intricate beadwork, brightly coloured houses, and Thandi’s best friend, who is a chicken. Maya Angelou wrote it, so the words are bound to be good, but the unusual collage-style layout and varied typeface size is a little distracting from the story. Nevertheless, the voice is perfectly child-like and and the book is a great read-aloud. Little E mostly liked the chicken.

Anansi and the Talking Melon (retold by Eric A. Kimmel): Anansi is a storyteller spirit in West African folklore who usually takes the form of a spider. In this myth, he plays a trick when he finds himself stuck in a melon by making it seem like the melon can talk. He insults everyone who comes across the melon. First Elephant is fooled, then Hippo, then my nemesis Warthog, and then the king, a mighty gorilla. The king is so angry when the melon calls him stupid that he throws the melon all the way back to Elephant’s house, where Anansi climbs out of the melon and takes refuge inside a bunch of bananas. Where, as one expects, he pretends to be a talking banana. This is a funny introduction to folklore from another region and to an archetypal mythological mischief-maker. It took Little E a while to realize that his name isn’t Nancy, but now she’s checking melons for talking spiders.

So, that’s our trip around the African continent. Do you have any favourite books from far-off lands?

Review: The Pout-Pout Fish


GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 3/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book (also available as a board book)
Ages: 2-5
Author: Deborah Diesen
Illustrator: Dan Hanna
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Published March 2008)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0374360960
ISBN-13: 978-0374360962

We can’t always control what happens. In fact, we rarely can. But we can always control how we choose to react.

The Pout-Pout Fish is kind of a dopey book about a silly fish with a frowny face who mopes all over the ocean. “I’m a pout-pout fish / With a pout-pout face, / So I spread the dreary-wearies / All over the place. / BLUB / BLUUUB / BLUUUUUUUB.” His friends in the sea try to convince him to cheer up: first a clam, then a jellyfish, then a squid. But nobody can cheer up the “glum gloomy swimmer” — the pout-pout fish tells everyone that his frowny face and miserable demeanour are out of his control as he flops all over the place. Even the straight-talking octopus can’t get him to turn his frown upside down.

Then along comes a beautiful purple fish whom no one has seen before. This vision of loveliness plants a big kiss on the pout-pout fish’s pout…and then swims away.

“Mr. Fish is most astounded. / Mr. Fish is just aghast. / He is stone-faced like a statue. / Then he blinks, and speaks at last.” He announces to everyone that he has been wrong all along: “I’m a kiss-kiss fish / With a kiss-kiss face / For spreading cheery-cheeries / All over the place! / So I’ll SMOOCH / SMOOCH/ SMOOCH / SMOOCH!”

Okay, so this book is not going to win any great prizes in western literature. But I bring it to your attention for three reasons: (1) Little E loves to say the BLUB BLUUUUB BLUUUUUBS and the smooches, and she gets a huge kick out of my pouty voice, so it’s a terrific book to read aloud, (2) the illustrations are lively and tons of fun, and (3) This book is a great jumping-off point for talking about how we are all in control of our reactions. I won’t get too deep into the subject because Tiny J is about five minutes away from waking up from her nap very hungry, but I really do believe that we can protect our children from depression by teaching them to be optimistic and by talking about feelings and how we react to them.

I think every parent and teacher should read Martin Seligman’s The Optimistic Child, which teaches parents how to teach their children to take charge of how they see the world: not to see everything through rose-coloured glasses, but to realize that bad news and unfortunate events are just events, that sadness is not forever, and that we are not our moods or our feelings. This is the principle behind the silly pout-pout fish: he realizes that he doesn’t have to be miserable or bring everyone around him down. He can choose to spread cheery-cheeries rather than dreary-wearies.

I see the book as a metaphor: the pout-pout fish, who suffers from major depressive disorder, receives cognitive behavioural therapy in the form of a kiss from the purple fish, and learns to take charge of his moods and change his maladaptive behaviours and cognitive processes, ending his depression and inspiring him to help others. How lovely.

Gotta go get that baby. How’s your day going? I hope you have more cheery-cheeries than dreary-wearies.