Curious Garden spread

Review: The Curious Garden

The Curious Garden

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author and illustrator: Peter Brown
Publisher: Word Alive (published April 2009)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0316015474
ISBN-13: 978-0316015479

I think I speak for everyone when I say that spring is our all-time favourite time of year in this house. Admittedly, Tall Dude’s favourite time of year is fall, and Little E and Tiny J kind of love every time of year. But I’m going to make an executive decision here and cast our family’s vote for spring. Sprouts are sprouting, flowers are blooming, and the snow tires are off the car (I really hope that wasn’t premature). Little E and I are planting a butterfly garden, which is happily a hard activity to mess up since native plants grow really easily (Little E mostly likes to sprinkle the seeds and then run off to jump on the trampoline, shouting “Okay, butterflies, we’re ready for you!”), and I’ve got all my veggies and herbs growing nicely. And we are reading lots of books about flowers. And vegetables. And birds. And butterflies. And curious gardens.

The Curious Garden is set in a dreary land with no trees or greenery of any kind — not a plant to be seen. People stay inside most of the time…except for Liam, who loves to explore in any kind of weather. One day, he finds a dark stairwell leading up to the old, defunct railway tracks, where he discovers…plants. Perhaps the last plants in existence! The wildlowers and plants are struggling, so Liam becomes a gardener. He cares for the plants and watches them spread and spread and spread, all over the railway, and, the following spring, down into the city.

Suddenly there are plants everywhere! And, what’s more, there are gardeners everywhere, as people take on the stewardship of the new plants and greenery.

Many years later, the entire city had blossomed. But of all the new gardens, Liam’s favorite was where it all began.

The story and the illustrations are what make this book and, its message about of nature reclaiming urban spaces, shine. You may recognize author/illustrator Peter Brown‘s name from Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and My Teacher is a Monster (No, I Am Not), both of which we very much enjoy. Little E and I love the images of bare feet on grassy steps, lively animal topiaries, and lush green plants spreading across a grey urban landscape. Little E’s favourite is the picture of Liam in disguise, sneaking plants into new places. This led to a conversation about seed bombing, an activity we’ve now got on the agenda for this coming weekend.

Where this book falls down a bit is the writing. There’s nothing exactly wrong with the writing, but the words don’t particularly sing. However, the illustrations are so winning and the story so lovely that The Curious Garden is still a winning pick for lovers of spring, for urban gardeners, for children who like to get dirty, and really for anyone who has ever smiled to see a flower popping up between the cracks in the sidewalk.

Advertisements

Review: Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night

Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 4-7
Author and illustrator: Jon Davis
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (published August 2014)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0544164660
ISBN-13: 978-0544164666

In the deepest, darkest hour of the night,
Small Blue woke up.

Small Blue awakes in her bed, thinking of creepy things and sneaky things and gnarly snarly teeth and boggling goggling eyes. She cries out for Big Brown and tells him she saw goblins. Well, she didn’t see them exactly, but she knows they’re there.

“But if it was dark,” asks Big Bear, “How do you know it wasn’t a delightful doggies’ Saturday-night unicycle convention?”

Good question.

Big Brown helps Small Blue work through her fears. Are there flappy bats with shifty eyes lurking in the dark? Or is it a smiley spacemen’s zero-gravity birthday party? When they turn on the light, it turns out that there are no bats and no spacemen either. Are there warty witches or clackety skeletons, or is it a retired-pirates’ annual sock-knitting jamboree? Neither, as it turns out.

Together, Small Blue and Big Brown enjoy mugs of warm milk and wonder if the stars are running a relay race around the moon. And now, when Small Blue wakes up in the deepest, darkest hour of the night, she waves…

…just in case there are delightful doggies, smiley spacemen, or retired pirates to wave back.

The lovingly illustrated picture-book equivalent of a mug of warm milk, Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night is a great place to turn if you’ve got a little one who’s having trouble sleeping or is working through some anxiety. The imagination game Big Brown and Small Blue play together would be a great jumping-off point for talking through any child’s worries.

Actually, I think it could work for grown-ups’ fears too. Let me know if you try it.

Kids Need Fairy Tales

Kids need fairytales

Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for my two-week absence. Little E’s magical fairyland daycare that I wrote about here turned out to be not a magical fairyland after all, and we found ourselves, extremely suddenly, without childcare. So I have been hard at work finishing up deadlines and winding up work while trying to keep my very confused three-year-old happy during an unexpected and challenging transition.

All of which brings me to the power of stories and, in particular, of fairy tales, which are great tools for kids during rough times.

Kids don’t seem to read fairy tales anymore. Parents sometimes feel like they’re drowning in a sea of kids’ books and in the overwhelm, it doesn’t always occur to us to pick up a copy of Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Plus, we always think, aren’t they terrifying? Doesn’t the hunstman kill the wolf and doesn’t the troll drown and do I really want to be reading these to my kids?

Yes. Yes you do.

Neil Gaiman put the power of these stories thus: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Children, particularly small children, live in a scary, uncertain world, where things can change quickly and they rarely have much control. People tell them how their day is going to go, what they’re going to eat, and how they are to behave, and they don’t always know what is going to happen to them next or what it will mean. They need stories where the brave hero comes through the dark, terrifying forest unscathed and where the troll will wash away down the river, never to be seen again. Parents like to protect children from dark ideas, but kids’ heads are already full of dark ideas. Giving a child a safe way to see those dark ideas expressed and to talk about them together is a positive way to help her realize that it’s okay to have those fears and to help her work through them with you.

It is true, however, that you should have a look at the book before you sit down to read it with your child. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are famously terrifying, particularly if you get your hands on a translation of the original, which features stories such as “How the Children Played at Slaughtering,” in which a boy cuts his brother’s throat and is then stabbed in anger by his mother, who has left the other brother alone in the bath, where he drowns. She hangs herself, naturally, and the father dies of grief. Then there are problems with sexism and chauvinism and the idea that girls must be rescued by handsome princes and that their value can be quantified by their looks and how sensitive they are to a pea under their mattress. So I do recommend a look through the fairy tales you plan to read to your children in advance and also that you use them* as a jumping-off point to talk about some of these ideas.

That said, how do you find good versions of fairy tales to read? The best way is to have your local librarian in the children’s section point you in the direction of the fairy tale section and pick some you know your kiddo(s) will enjoy (I don’t recommend the Disney versions, which come replete with their own negative messages). Sometimes it’s fun to take out a few different versions of the same story (most libraries have a few of the classics, often including spoofs and sequels that can be fun to read) and let them decide which one they like. I do have just a few favourites to recommend but mostly I think you should have a browse through your local selection and read the ones that catch your eye!

(1) Brave Chicken Little  (2) Little Red Riding Hood

(3) Clever Jack Takes the Cake (4) A Bean, A Stalk, and a Boy Named Jack

(5) Three Little Pigs

(1) This pen-and-ink-illustrated version of Chicken Little is great fun to read (just try to race through the cast of characters: “Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Turkey Lurkey, Piggy Wiggy, Rabbit Babbit, Natty Ratty, Froggy Woggy, and Roly and Poly Moley” — and that’s before they meet the large Foxy Loxy family!) and features an interesting twist, in which the wee poultry hero turns the tables on the sly fox family and no cute animals are eaten. You could also read the version in which the heroes are cooked in the villain’s stew if you think your kids are up for it!

(2) This telling of Little Red Riding Hood stands out because of Trina Schart Hyman’s rich and evocative illustrations. It’s not a sanitized version of the story by any stretch, though, so be prepared.

(3) Clever Jack Takes the Cake may not be a traditional fairy tale, but it is a fairy tale nonetheless, and great fun to read. The book will probably get its own post in time, but pick it up to find out how poor Jack is going to make a cake and get it to the castle in time for the bored princess’s birthday party, against the odds and using all his wits and resources.

(4) This lighthearted tale falls into the spinoff category, riffing on the familiar story of plucky little Jack stealing from the Giants high above. But kids will delight in the story of King Blah Blah Blah, Jack and his cheerleading friend the talking bean, and a “smallish giant kid” named Don.

(5) All of the books in this read-along “Noisy Picture Book” audiobook series are great: Three Little PigsThree Billy Goats Gruff, and Little Red Hen. Each one comes with a CD, and the audio recordings are far better voice-acted than most children’s audiobooks, including sound effects and songs that even Tiny J can almost sing at eighteen months. We got Little E her own CD player (they’ve become so cheap now that they basically come free with cereal) and she loves to put these on and “read” along. The stories are funny, well illustrated, and pretty un-scary.

So hit up the library and fill yourselves up on tales of dragons, castles, sneaky wolves, and brave children! What are your kids’ favourite fairy tales?

*Perhaps not “How the Children Played at Slaughtering” specifically.

Review: The New Small Person

The New Small Person EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author and illustrator: Lauren Child
Publisher: Puffin (published October 2014)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0141384913
ISBN-13: 978-0141384917

Elmore Green had things pretty much the way he liked them. He could watch his favourite shows on his own TV, no one moved any of his belongings when he had them all lined up on the floor, and he never had to share his jellybeans, not even the orange ones.

Elmore Green’s parents thought he was simply the funniest, cleverest, most adorable person they had ever seen. And Elmore Green liked that because it is nice to be the funniest, cleverest, most adorable person someone has ever seen.

But then one day everything changed.

The New Small Person is a refreshing and funny look at becoming a big brother for the first time from the perspective of Elmore Green…who doesn’t particularly want to be a big brother. Sometimes the small person would come into Elmore’s room and knock things over and sit on things that didn’t want to be sat on. Once it actually licked Elmore’s jelly bean collection, including the orange ones. As anyone knows, jelly beans that have been licked are NOT nearly so nice.

Lauren Child’s light-hearted text and impish mixed-media collages show the world from the perspective of a child, where grown-ups are seen primarily as knees, and little people like Elmore Green are not always at the top of everyone’s priority list. Elmore Green continues to refuse to acknowledge the presence of “the new small person,” even when the small person moves its bed into Elmore Green’s room. Only when the new small person helps Elmore Green through a scary dream and begins to appreciate the importance of lining up possessions in a long straight line does Elmore Green begin to think that the new small person might have something to offer.  Eventually, Elmore calls his brother Albert by name and offers to share his jelly beans with him.

But not the orange ones.

Elmore Green is a likeable and highly relateable character for young kiddos; quite frankly, I like and relate to Elmore Green. A great book for a new big brother or sister. Also, how lovely, in a world where talking animals are more common than main characters who are people of colour, to be seeing more picture books with main characters who are not white!

Review: Home

Home by Carson Ellis

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author and illustrator: Carson Ellis
Publisher: Candlewick Press (published February 2015)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0763665290
ISBN-13: 978-0763665296

Mary Ann Hoberman’s A House is a House for Me is a longstanding favourite around these parts, so I was intrigued when I stumbled across Carson Ellis’s similarly themed picture book Home at the library last week. Home is a house in the country. / Or home is an apartment. The book begins simply but immediately takes off to homes that are boats, palaces, underground lairs, or shoes. French people live in French homes. / Atlantians make their homes underwater. The book is a jaunt through a universe rich with possibilities from moon creatures’ homes to castles for Norse gods to fairytale teacup dwellings. Each page teems with imaginative possibilities for readers young and old: Whose home is this? asks a page depicting a precarious cliffside stone cottage.

Who in the world lives here?

And why?

Ellis’s gouache illustratrations stand out among picture books for their muted, simple colour palette — oranges and yellows are all but nonexistent while sepias and blue-greys abound — and for a feeling of what I can only describe as gravity; her characters go about their daily lives, not necessarily smiling in her renderings of their homes and lives. Frankly, after reading several hundred books with more playful illustrations this past winter, I was delighted for this visual break. The illustrations give Home a feeling of solidity, of seriousness, but since the book is jaunting from moon homes to tall ships there is still a strong sense of humour and cheekiness (see if you can find the boy with the bare bum on the page with the little old lady who lives in a shoe).

A House is a House for Me‘s main failing is its oversimplifications to the point of near-racism; critics have argued that Home falls down in the same way, and I would tend to agree with them. The Some homes are wigwams page is a pretty ludicrous stereotype of how native North Americans live, and the bare-chested man with the scimitar in a vaguely Eastern palace is likewise a tired trope. But, as always, I like to use things like that as a teachable moment and remind Little E: “This is one person’s imagination about how people live.”

I prefer to think of Home as a beautiful tour of what unites us: our homes, comforting and familiar, common threads that draw us together across space and time and even imagination.

Review: Sleep Like a Tiger

Sleep Like a Tiger EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-8
Author: Mary Logue
Illustrator: Pamela Zagarenski
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (October 2012)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 0547641028
ISBN-13: 978-0547641027

Once there was a little girl who didn’t want to go to sleep even though the sun had gone away.

Sound familiar?

“Does everything in the world go to sleep?” she asked.

Her parents say yes, everything in the world goes to sleep. Even their dog, “curled up in a ball on the couch, where he’s not supposed to be.” Caldecott Honor winner Pamela Zagarenski’s exquisitely surreal dreamscapes bring to life the dozing animals, from the majestic whales who “swim slowly around and around in a large circle in the ocean and sleep” to tiny snails: “They curl up like a cinnamon roll inside their shell.”

Sleep Like a Tiger

The little girl, who is of course still not at all sleepy, lies in her bed “warm and cozy, a cocoon of sheets, a nest of blankets. Unlike the dog on the couch, she was right where she was supposed to be.”

She wriggled down under the covers until she found the warmes spot, like the cat in front of the fire.
She folded her arms like the wings of a bat.

She circled around like the whale . . .
and the curled-up snail. 
Then she snuggled deep as a bear, the deep-sleeping bear,
and like the strong tiger, fell fast . . . asleep.

The words are reassuring, rhythmic, and gentle. The illustrations, made through a combination of digital artwork and mixed media paintings on wood, are luminous, beautiful enough to be hung in a gallery. There are details to enjoy on every page, from the crowns the family wears to the bunting in the girl’s bedroom that reappears throughout the dreamy animal scenes to the daytime and nighttime scenes of enchanting dream trains on the endpapers. Reading Sleep Like a Tiger may resolve even stressed-out parents’ insomnia troubles. Hands down, our favourite new bedtime book.

Review: And Then It’s Spring

And Then It's Spring EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author: Julie Fogliano
Illustrator: Erin E. Stead
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (published February 2012)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 1596436247
ISBN-13: 978-1596436244

You guys, sometimes after a long winter, I just cannot remember what spring feels like.

I remember that plants grow, but I can’t quite recall the smell of earth and buds they bring with them or exactly how the tulips look right before they open up (or, in my case, right before the squirrels and rabbits eat them).

We stumbled on this book at the library and I feel like it has reminded me, not only of that smell or the bright green of the first few brave stems pushing their way up toward the sun, but also of that lengthy period of anticipation, when the snow has melted but everything is still brown.

First you have brown, all around you have brown
then there are seeds
and a wish for rain,
and then it rains
and it is still brown,
but a hopeful, very possible sort of brown,
an
is that a little green? no, it’s just brown sort of brown

A little boy plants his seeds and cares for them — accompanied by his friends (a dog, a rabbit, and a turtle) — and, when they do not grow, wonders “if maybe it was the birds / or maybe it was the bears and all that stomping, because bears can’t read signs that say things like please do not stomp here — there are seeds and they are trying” until one day, of course, he walks out of the house “and now you have green, all around you have green.”

Julie Fogliano’s sparse, expressive, and poetic text accompanies lovely, captivating illustrations by Caldecott medalist Erin E. Stead, who creates her images with a combination of woodblock printing and coloured pencils.

I fell in love with this bespectacled boy and his friends, pressing their ears to the ground to listen for “greenish hum that you can only hear if you put your ear to the ground and close your eyes” and Little E fell in love with the little dirt piles, each carefully labelled with the seeds inside, the seeds that are trying.

A story of hope, and waiting, and perseverance, and green.

Oh, green, you can’t come soon enough around these parts.

 

Review: The Black Book of Colours

blackbookofcolours EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author: Menena Cottin
Illustrator: Rosana Faría
Publisher: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press (published June 2008)
Pages: 24
ISBN-10: 0888998732
ISBN-13: 978-0888998736

If we could all understand each other just a little better, see the world from other people’s perspectives, we could change the world.

So why don’t we teach our children about other people’s points of view?

This ingenious, innovative book brings to life the world of a blind child named Thomas through his descriptions of colour to his sighted friend, the book’s narrator. Braille letters accompany the text so that the book can be read in two different ways. Each page is black, and the pictures, also in black, are embossed to give the reader the opportunity to experience “feeling” images and to perceive the world through a sense other than sight. The writing is vivid, opening a window into a world where “yellow tastes like mustard, but is as soft as a baby chick’s feathers” and “red is sour like unripe strawberries and as sweet as watermelon.”

Can you feel the difference between a brown fall leaf and fresh-cut green grass? Could you tell them apart if you couldn’t see them?

Having recently listened to a fascinating podcast about how some blind people can learn to “see” (really see, not just locate things) through echolocation, I’ve had blindness and perception on the mind lately. In The Black Book of Colors, Venezuelan author/illustrator team Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría bring to life a world most people avoid thinking about — a world without sight — and invite readers to think about perception differently.

I want my kids to grow up able to imagine and think about the world from other people’s perspectives and not to think of people as being less worthy because they lack a sense like sight or hearing, or the capacity to walk, or some other thing that marks them out as being “different.” Everyone is “different,” and books like this help plant the seeds of understanding that we so badly need in the world right now.

Review: I am a Bunny

iamabunny EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Board book (also available as a picture book)
Ages: 0-4
Author: Ole Risom
Illustrator: Richard Scarry
Publisher: Golden Books (originally published in 1963, rereleased January 2004)
Pages: 26
ISBN-10: 0375827781
ISBN-13: 978-0375827785

Kids’ books are amazing these days. There is an astonishing variety available, covering every topic and idea anyone can imagine, and they all seem to do something different — there’s The Book with no Pictures, which has (you guessed it) no pictures; there are books like Press Here! that invite the reader to push and press and tilt them; and stay tuned next week for a review of a book that’s entirely black and helps sighted children get an idea of what the world might look like to a blind person. I love it. As an avowed lover of children’s books, I revel in this wealth and abundance. I love to find books that do things differently and even test our idea of what a children’s book is.

But sometimes, I just want to read my kids a sweet little story about a bunny in overalls.

I am a Bunny is utterly lacking in gimmicks and pretension. A 1963 collaboration between influential children’s book publisher Ole Risom and beloved illustrator Richard Scarry, the book is a gentle exploration of the life of a little rabbit through the four seasons.

I am a bunny.
My name is Nicholas.
I live in a hollow tree.

Scarry’s illustration capture every leaf, every daffodil, and every butterfly in loving detail. Babies and young toddlers love examining all the different creatures and plants, and older children can look up the different birds and insects in field guides. And every child (and most adults) I have witnessed reading this book is captivated by the double-page spread of Nicholas blowing the dandelion seeds into the air.

This book captures the wonder of the natural world at the level of a bunny, or of a child. It’s  not a book you should race through, although it doesn’t have a lot of words and I will admit to pushing it as a bedtime story on rushed nights. This is the kind of book you should savour, delighting in every season as Nicholas enjoys spring, summer, fall, and finally winter.

And, when winter comes,
I watch the snow falling from the sky.
Then I curl up in my hollow tree and dream about spring.

Today’s kids always seem to expect more from toys and books: they want them to beep and boop and sing and dance and pop because so many of their toys and books do. But for more than fifty years now, babies and children have loved snuggling up with a favourite grown-up to enjoy the simple, natural magic of I am a Bunny. This book is the perfect baby shower gift (I got mine from our good friend and occasional nanny — thanks Sarah!) and a classic that belongs on every child’s shelf.

Review: Life is like the Wind

9781760060558

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Author: Shona Innes
Illustrator: Írisz Agócs
Publisher: Barron’s Educational Series (published August 2014)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0764167472
ISBN-13: 978-0764167478

Little E has been all about death in the past few weeks. We’ve been hearing a lot about how “pirates cut you til you’re dead” and how “dead means you’re not around anymore.” That last one is a direct quote from me, because when she asked me what it meant when someone was dead, I was caught completely flat-footed. Those are the words that came out of my mouth, but afterward I wish I had come up with something a little better. Someday I know this question (and the answer we give her) will mean more to her, but fortunately at the moment it’s a relatively trivial matter in her mind. But I was reminded that on the day the question “What does it mean when someone dies?” actually matters to her and her sister, we’d better have something to say.

This book is a great introduction for children to the idea of death and what it means when someone dies. Author Shona Innes, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist with experience working with children experiencing trauma and death, compares life to the wind: “We can’t see the wind, but we know when the wind is there. / The wind makes leaves flutter, / and fur fly, and kites soar high in the sky. / When the wind goes, things are very still. / They don’t flutter or blow or fly or soar anymore.”

“Where does the wind go when we can’t see it moving things?”

“Where does life go when it leaves the body?”

The book leaves plenty of room for discussion and thought, offering simple explanations about different people’s ideas about what happens after death. “Some believe the life enters another body, to give life to a new creature. / Others believe the life goes to a happy place called heaven, / where the life can enjoy its favorite things.”

“And some believe that a little bit of the life stays behind. / Even when the body is gone, / people remember and feel the life, still loving the life deep inside their hearts.”

[Tear.]

Actually, I was okay reading this book until I got to the page “But, like the wind, the life must leave.” Last week was the anniversary of the day my amazing aunt Beth was taken from us by uterine cancer and I will readily admit that this book gave me the ugly cries. I think it was the picture of the rabbit letting go of the red balloon and watching it float up to the sky.

The friendly, calming illustrations do a great job of bringing the words to life without distracting from the admittedly challenging topic. The book is part of a series called Big Hug Books that came out of Innes’s work with families facing challenges; I’m intrigued to read Friendship is like a Seesaw and The Internet is like a Puddle as well.

I haven’t read Life is like the Wind to Little E yet but, when we’re both ready, we can read it together so that maybe she’ll be better prepared for the losses that will come in her life. Or at least, I hope, I’ll be better prepared to talk about them with her.