When I Was Born

Review: When I Was Born

When I Was Born EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 2-6
Author: Isabel Minhós Martins
Illustrators: Madalena Matoso
Publisher: Tate Publishing (published February 2011)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 1854379585
ISBN-13: 978-1854379580

When I was born I had never seen anything.

At first glance, this book looks almost like it’s aimed at babies or toddlers. When I first picked it up at the library, the simple illustrations and short sentences seemed too young for Little E (4) and more suited to Tiny J (1.5). But when I sat down to read it with both girls, I realized that it’s actually a beautifully simple book, a poem really, about life, learning, and growing.

When I was born
I did not know there was a sky

or that the sky could change
or that clouds were so beautiful.

When I was born everything was new.

Everything was about to start.

Sincere and earnest without being saccharine, childlike without being patronizing, When I Was Born is a gem of a picture book. This is a wonderful book to read at bedtime, slowly, quietly, with just enough spots for giggles (spoiler alert: one page features, surprisingly, a giraffe pooping. Which, obviously, is Little E’s favourite part).

 

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The Story Blanket

Review: The Story Blanket

The Story Blanket EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-7
Authors: Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz
Illustrator: Elena Odriozola
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (published July 2009)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 1561454664
ISBN-13: 978-1561454662

Deep in the snow-covered mountains was the tiny village where Babba Zarrah lived. The children loved to settle down on Babba Zarra’s big old blanket to listen to her stories.

Babba Zarrah, noticing a hole in little Nikolai’s shoe, decides to knit him some nice warm socks. But the village is snowbound and there is no way to buy new wool. So she unravels a little bit of the story blanket to knit the socks.

Then she notices that the postman is looking chilly.

Once socks have been knit for Nikolai and a scarf for the postman, Babba Zarrah moves on to warm mittens for the schoolmaster  and a shawl for the grocer, leaving her gifts anonymously. No one knows who is knitting the wonderful presents. The story blanket is growing smaller and smaller by the day, and the children must sit closer and closer together to hear Babba Zarrah’s stories. Eventually, the whole village, down to the tailor’s scraggly cat, is warm and snug, and the story blanket is gone! The people of the village come together to find out what is going on and to give a memorable gift to Babba Zarrah to thank her for her generosity.

This charming story knits together (see what I did there?) themes of generosity, the gift of the handmade, and the importance of community, all with the enduring sense of timelessness of a classic folk tale. The illustrations of rosy-cheeked children and warm woolly blankets and the simple but graceful writing are a rare match, and the book’s attention to detail goes right down to the endpapers that feature the pattern of Babba Zarrah’s pink floral dress. The Story Blanket is a great conversation starter for talks about giving to others, about storytelling, and about supporting one another, but at the end of the day, it is an absolutely lovely picture book.

 

Review: Ella Kazoo Will NOT Brush Her Hair

Ella Kazoo Will Not Brush Her Hair

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 4/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 3-6
Author: Lee Fox
Illustrator: Jennifer Plecas
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press (Published December 2009)
Pages: 40
ISBN-10: 080278836X
ISBN-13: 978-0802788368

I think we’ve all hit upon certain things that our kids will NOT do. One kid will NOT wear a red shirt, another will NOT try the broccoli, and another will NOT get into his carseat.

Obviously, some “will NOT”s are more manageable than others. I’m all for picking your battles, but someday that kid is going to have to get into that carseat. We’ve all been there, and where do you choose to draw the line?

Well, Ella Kazoo will NOT brush her hair.

She hides in the cupboard and under the stairs
She roars at her mom like a big growly bear.
She whines and she moans and she howls in despair,
but Ella Kazoo will not brush her hair
.

Her mother tries various tricks, but to no avail. Ella Kazoo’s hair grows longer, and wilder, as gleefully illustrated by Jennifer Plecas’s playful drawings, until at last the hair begins to take on a life of its own.

Ella Kazoo will not brush her tresses.
One morning they slip into some of her dresses.
They creep round a chair and slink over the table.

They climb down the stairs and they swing on the cable.

“My goodness!” cries Ella.
“This hair must be chopped . . .
or scissored or shortened or layered or lopped.
But most of all, Mother, this hair must be stopped!”

A crack team of hairdressers is brought in, but Ella is unimpressed with their proposals. At least an accord is reached and they trim! snip! and chop! until Ella Kazoo has just one lovely, manageable curl tied up in a bow.

All due to a haircut, quite simple and snappy,
both mother and daughter are blissfully happy.

And of course, now, Ella brushes her hair.

This book is a favourite for kids (certainly for mine) because the power is in the hands of little Ella Kazoo. Any book that puts power in kids’ hands is going to be a hit. Every kid is regularly subjected to doing things or having things done to her that she doesn’t like: having her hair washed, brushing her teeth, having her nose wiped. And yes, brushing her hair. A kid making a stand against a parent is a winning plot device, and in this case, both find happiness in the solution so even the parents who never want to read about disobedient children have little to complain about (though they always seem to find something, don’t they?).

Some readers of this book have complained that Ella Kazoo has to cut off all her hair to be happy, but I like the ending. Her hair wasn’t working for her anymore, so she changed it — not because someone else wanted her to. Everyone gets to change themselves up when what they’re doing isn’t working. I do take great issue with one line in the book, though: “She puts on a dress with some earrings and pearls, / and lipstick and perfume like most other girls.” Blech! I change that line whenever we come to it. I don’t like any text in children’s books that puts people in boxes, gender or otherwise, and this book definitely puts Ella and all little girls in a box.

Quibbles aside, however, the rhymes and illustration are a delight and this book has made it easier to get Little E to let me wash and brush her hair by adding an element of silliness. “If we don’t brush your hair, it will get so big it will sneak into the freezer and steal all the Popsicles! It will take up the whole house and there will be no room for the dog! We must brush your hair!“Any book that gets the kids giggling while we’re trying to get something done is a winner in my book. And in theirs.

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.

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.

Featured Series: Little Kids First Big Books

First Big Book of Space  First Big Book of Dinosaurs  First Big Book of Animals  Little Kids First Big Book of the Ocean

Little E turns four this summer, and suddenly we’re being peppered with questions that are not as easy to answer as they used to be. I can handle “How does a carrot grow?” and “Is Daddy a giant?” but suddenly it’s “Where does the wind come from?” and “Would this big dinosaur be able to eat that dinosaur?” We haven’t yet entered the world of “How many moons does Jupiter have?” yet, but I like to be prepared, and I really like these National Geographic Little Kids First Big Books. There are lots of them, covering everything from bugs to space to the ocean, and including The Little Kids Big Book of Why, which gives you somewhere to turn when children ask “How does dough become a cookie?” or “Why do I have a belly button?” and The Little Kids Big Book of Who, which introduces children to all kinds of people they might want to know about, from the Beatles to Malala Yousafzai.*

These books are just slightly too old for Little E, so I would recommend them more for the four-and-up crowd. They have enormous rereadability and make great references. When I was a kid, we had a junior encyclopedia that was fundamental to my school career and interests. But even in this age of ubiquitous technology, children need to know how to look things up in atlases and other reference books, how to use an index, and what a glossary is for. The Little Kids Big Books series lays a great foundation for those skills, while still being well written and packed with great photos and visuals.

Have you checked out these books? Does your family have some favourite reference books to recommend?

  • Any book of biographies is bound to be problematic for some people, because you can’t include everyone, but the Big Book of Who has made a valiant effort to include a diverse group of people and give decent coverage to women. A lot of people and groups are still left out, but as always, I think that makes for a good jumping-off point for talking about why underrepresented people are sometimes left out and how to find out about the people who don’t always make it into books.

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.

Featured Series: Up and Down / Over and Under

I don’t know if two books can be said to constitute a series. I doubt it. But I wanted to talk about these books together and I feel like “Featured Pair” sounds weird. So here we have a featured series of two.

Over and Under the Snow  Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

All around us and under our feet, a hidden world of animals and insects buzzes and thrums with activity and is transformed with the changing of each season. Over and Under the Snow brought the wintertime version of this world vividly to life through the writing of Kate Messner and illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal. A father and daughter cross-country-ski together through the deep forest and as they glide over the snow, the book reveals all the creatures who are making their lives under the snow.

Under the snow, a chipmunk wakes for a meal. Bedroom, kitchen, hallway—his house under my feet.

Under the snow, a queen bumblebee drowses away December, all alone. She’ll rule a new colony in spring.

Under the snow, fat bullfrogs snooze. They dream of sun-warmed days, back when they had tails.

Over the snow, the skiing pair spot the deep hoof prints of a deer, the frozen reeds of a marsh, a fox. We loved this book from the first read, the cozy pictures of the hibernating and snacking creatures, the child’s gliding progress through the woods to a campfire meal and a warm bed. The book has become a bedtime favourite, since it ends with snuggling under warm covers and the beauty of the night sky.

Four years later, Messner and Neal have teamed up again for Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, featuring a girl (I like to presume it’s the same girl) and her Nana, growing a food garden. The book begins in early spring and brings us through all the stages of a vegetable patch, from planting seeds to harvesting the fruits of their labours and the taste of a sun-warmed tomato.

Down in the dirt, pill bugs chew through last year’s leaves. I give a gentle poke. They roll up tight and hide in plated suits of armor, roly-poly round.

Down in the dirt, water soaks deep. Roots drink it in, and a long-legged spider stilt-walks over the streams.

Down in the dirt, frantic ants gather what we leave behind. They’re storing food for cooler days ahead.

The carrots poke out from the earth, the dirt and deep roots drink the water the girl and her Nana provide, the sunflowers are tied into a house for reading. The book takes us into autumn, and a night that smells of snow. The girl goes in for her Grandpa’s soup, and the garden goes to sleep for another winter.

The two books follow the same format, telling parallel stories about what’s going on above in the world of humans and aboveground plants and animals while following along with all the critters living below. The intricately detailed illustrations bring both worlds to life, and the writing is lively and expressive as well as genuinely enlightening (maybe you already know that ladybugs eat aphids, but I didn’t!). An author’s note and an “About the Animals” section at the back of each book gives further information about all the animals you meet in the pages.*

These books make great reads either on their own or together, especially for an aspiring naturalist. Over and Under the Snow brings to life the magic of a trip through the forest on cross-country skis, and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt captures the wonder of a vegetable garden coming to life through the seasons…and makes me ache for the first sprouts of green to poke out of the cold earth at last (spring is late to the party here).

 

*Fun fact: pill bugs (we always called them potato bugs) are actually crustaceans.