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).

 

Advertisements
The Insomniacs

Review: The Insomniacs

The Insomniacs EditorsPick (2)

GoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvarkGoldAardvark 5/5 aardvarks

Format: Picture book
Ages: 4-8
Author: Karina Wolf
Illustrators: The Brothers Hilts
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (published August 2012)
Pages: 32
ISBN-10: 0399256652
ISBN-13: 978-0399256653

The Insomniacs weren’t always a night family.

After moving twelve time zones away for Mother’s new job, the Insomniac family finds themselves with a problem: they are up all night and can’t stay awake during the day. With some inspiration from their nocturnal animal neighbours, they decide to embrace the night themselves.

With a story that could have come from Neil Gaiman and illustrations reminiscent of Tim Burton’s, The Insomniacs is not your typical picture book. An utterly unique cast of characters, including a little girl with an unusual menagerie of nighttime pets, is complemented by surprising and wondrous illustrations in a palette of deep blues, indigo, and black. There is something oddly comforting in the nighttime world of the Insomniac family, and certainly something magical. Highly recommended.

 

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.

 

The Aardvark's Apprentice

Welcome back to the Aardvark!

Well, my friends, summer is coming to a close, which means kicking the Aardvark back off, and up a notch. The school year is starting for many of us — Little E, astonishingly, is off to junior kindergarten — and September always feels like a time for new beginnings and for new books. You can expect new reviews here every Wednesday, and lots of other fun surprises in the weeks and months to come. The Aardvark has been snuffling all summer and we have a great lineup of picture books to bring your way. Stay tuned and keep turning pages!

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.
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.