More Books: For The Grown-Ups

Thursday, November 26, 2009

In the hallway of my Aunt Jane's home hangs a pastel drawing of a book that looks like a slice of pie.  Below the pie is a caption that I always remember : 

You Are What You Read.

Here is a slice from my bedside table.  

Bon Apetit!

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

First page, one sentence in, I knew I was holding something extraordinary.  An elderly country preacher, with a young wife and son, comes to the end of his life and begins a series of letters addressed to his child - the only legacy he has to offer.  Poignant.  Exquisite.  Magnificent.  

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

16th century Tudor England.  Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Ann Boleyn.  Thomas Cromwell rises from obscurity, and personal tragedy, to become the king's advisor and the ultimate political operative.  "Pitting himself against parliament, the political establishment and the papacy, he is prepared to reshape England to his own and Henry's desires."  Deft and nuanced and dense.  I am two-thirds of the way through, and will be re-reading it immediately.  Masterful.

Year Of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

When the Plague comes to a remote village in 17th century England, and its inhabitants take the brave step of quarantining themselves to contain the disease. Told through the eyes of Anna, a young widow and mother who struggles to maintain her humanity against a backdrop of violence, ignorance, and unimaginable loss.  It is also a story of grace, friendship, and beauty.  Brooks' research and power of imagination are marvelous.  One of my favorites.

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama 

This is not a political memoir.  It is a classic, and surprisingly candid, coming-of-age story.  Told by a gifted narrator, who could easily have made his living as a writer rather than as President, this book deserves a place in the pantheon of American literature.  

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Chilling.  Original.  A completely absorbing study of evil, beauty, desire, murder and scent in 18th century France.  Simultaneously repellent and captivating.  You won't be able to turn away, as much as you might like to.  Brilliant.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston

Published in 1937, this masterpiece tells the story of Janie Crawford, a beautiful, independent black woman and her journey to know, and live for, herself.  Bitter-sweet, wise, specific and universal.  This is essential reading for every woman.  And man.

American Wife: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld

If you've ever wondered how Laura Bush could live with W. and live with herself, here is a satisfying, fictionalized answer.  Highly entertaining, this novel paints endearing and plausible portraits of a marriage and its two parties, who wind up living their private life in the public eye.  Perfect for the beach or a long flight.  


More Children's Reading: Picture Books

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In my efforts to whittle this post down to a manageable size, it occurred to me that I could happily devote an entire blog to the subject of children's literature.  

It also occurred to me, as I listed the merits of each selection, that my summaries contain a conspicuous number of references to food.

Well, at least I am consistent.

Resisting the temptation to be exhaustive, I offer this (tiny) sampling of favorites.  

I'd love to hear yours.

One More Sheep by Mij Kelly & Russell Ayto

Quite possibly the best counting book ever.  The language and pictures are equally clever.  
Our copy is covered with sticky tape after countless repairs. Despite the fact that DB won't allow it in his bedroom (for fear that the wolf might come out of the book), it gets pulled out from its hiding place again and again.  A perennial favorite.

Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty

An absolute must for budding builders, precocious kids, non-conformists, and anyone with a passion.  Brilliant rhyming and stylish illustrations.  I want Iggy's mother's wardrobe.

We must have read this ten times at least in the week we brought it home.  About a boy who develops a taste for books and begins gobbling whole volumes in his quest to become the smartest person in the world.  An instant favorite and healthy reminder that there are no short-cuts on the path to knowledge. Perfect for bridging the divide between younger and older siblings.  

Dragons And Other Beasts,  by Kenneth Graeme, E. Nesbit and illustrated by Inga Moore 

This gorgeous volume includes two tales: The Reluctant Dragon, by Kenneth Graeme, and The Book of Beasts, by E. Nesbit.  It is the latter, about a young boy named Lionel, who suddenly becomes king, that we read over, and over, and over again.  The illustrations are sumptuous and the story (and its description of the grown-ups involved) is droll, imaginative, and perfectly pitched.  A gem.

Do not pick up the pigeon if you've been neglecting your pelvic floor exercises.  He is charming, wry, indignant, and irrepressible.  We are reduced to raucous laughter each and every time.  Long live the pigeon!

Chimps And Zee And The Big Storm by Catherine & Laurence Anholt

Two naughty twin chimps, who sometimes get along, sometimes don't, and always land in mischief.  The detail in the illustrations is fantastic.  I want to live in their tree house and dine on fried bananas, sitting by the stove.

A small boy joins a band of pirates and enjoys life without any rules... until bedtime, when he learns that pirates don't read bedtime stories and they don't tuck-in.  They also have green teeth - a fact that comes in handy when arguing the merits of brushing!

The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Surprisingly, this is a story that always prompts discussion.  We find ourselves cheering for Peter, while wrestling with the fact that our flawed hero is a thief!  Moral ambiguity aside, it remains a favorite.  We never close this one without musing about how delightful a supper of bread, milk and blackberries would be.

Another story that inspires food fantasies.  Sophie and her mother have just sat down to a bountiful tea, when they are joined by a tiger of prodigious appetite (for cakes, not people).  The pictures are priceless.

Whenever things go terribly, horribly wrong, we invoke the words of Alexander's wise mum: "Some days are like that, even in Timbuktu." A permanent fixture, on our shelf and in the family vernacular.  Timeless. 

In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

I confess, I don't entirely understand it, but my boys adore this book about Mickey, who,while dreaming, falls out of his bed, and clothes, to find himself in cake batter, in the night kitchen.  Completely surreal and always a favorite.

Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall

Miss Nelson's kids are the worst behaved in the entire school, until the arrival of substitute teacher, Miss Viola Swamp.  But where is Miss Nelson?  This is a mystery you will never grow tired of solving.  

Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola

People in her village are wary of Strega Nona (Grandmother Witch)'s powers, but always come to her for help.  When silly Big Anthony tampers with her magic pasta pot, she comes to everyone's rescue, again.  A good lesson in the importance of not touching things that don't belong to you!  (Not that we need it.)

I Wish I Had A Pirate Suit by Pamella Allen

Peter has a pirate suit, and his younger brother covets it.   By the time he is big enough to wear it,  it's not quite new, there's no one left to be the crew, and Peter has moved on to other pursuits.  But that's not the end of the story....  For younger siblings everywhere. 

Bread And Jam For Frances by Russell & Lillian Hoban

Frances is one of our all-time favorite literary heroines.  Precocious and imaginative, with an original song for every situation.  The descriptions of the lunches that Frances and her friend, Albert, take to school are positively tormenting.  I always close this book craving a lobster salad sandwich, served on a doily, with celery sticks, olives and a small, cardboard shaker of salt.   

George And Martha by James Marshall

George and Martha are two hippos who provide lesson after lesson in how to be a real friend.  Lovely, simple stories for younger listeners and early readers.  

The original Curious George stories have lost none of their appeal since they were first published, forty years ago.  The syntax and expressions ("My new, fine kite!") sometimes feel stilted, but it never gets in the way of enjoying this little monkey's antics.  A word of caution: the "New" Curious George stories are sterile and hugely disappointing.  Original only!

Officer Buckle And Gloria by Peggy Rathmann

Officer Buckle's safety talks leave the kids snoozing, until he is joined by a theatrical police dog called Gloria, who quickly becomes his best pal.  When Officer Buckle discovers that his newfound popularity is due to Gloria's performance, his pride is hurt.  But, ultimately, he learns the most important safety tip of all: always stick with your buddy.  A sweet look at human (and canine) fallibility, friendship, and chock full of safety tips.  An absolute winner.  

Firefighters A to Z by Chris L. Demarest 

Another dog-eared, taped-up veteran from a thousand bedtimes.   A fantastic way for aspiring firefighters to learn their letters, and pick up a little industry knowledge along the way.  
"K" is for K-tool, to open locked doors; "L" is for ladders that climb several floors."  

Dig Dig Digging!  by Margaret Mayo & Alex Ayliffe

This is for very young listeners and probably belongs with the pram post, but I had to include it.  It is impossible to look back on the past seven years without chanting: "Dig, dig, digging!"  If you spend considerable chunks of time watching building sites (and you're not a foreman), this is for you.  

crayon image from courtneycolors, via photobucket


Unbelievably Fantastic

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Roald Dahl.  

Wes Anderson.  

George Clooney.  

Meryl Streep.


I think Christmas may have come early.

More reading recommendations (for children and adults) are on the way....


More Children's Books: Board Books

Monday, November 23, 2009

Back in the days when I was pushing a pram, I rarely stepped foot out of doors without the following:

  • Nappies
  • Wipes
  • Tissues
  • Nappy rash cream
  • Nappy sacks
  • Sippy cup
  • Snacks box
  • Spoon
  • Extra Onesie or t-shirt
  • Teething ring
  • Favorite toy
  • Spare blanket
  • Sunscreen
  • Phone
  • Wallet
  • Lipgloss (untouched)
Is it any wonder I have a bad back?

This left scant room for reading material.  

Board books are marvelous as they are virtually indestructible, but toting around more than one is like carrying a load of bricks.

Therefore, every book in the bag had to justify its presence.

BOARD Books, Yes.  

BORED books, No.  

Here are a few that were worth their weight in gold.   

Hippos Go Beserk!  Barnyard DanceThe Going To Bed Book, all by Sandra Boynton.  

Rhyming, rhythmic, lyrical, and down-right funny.  

Do yourself a favor, and buy a A Big Box Of Boynton or Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2.  

Hug, Tall, and Yes by Jez Alborough.  

With just a word - or two - per book, Jez Alborough's cheeky little chimp communicates all the fun, frustration, worries and joys that come with being little.  

All wonderful, but Hug is our favorite.  

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman.

Another book of few words about a cheeky primate, and loved by my cheeky primates.  
The illustrations are amazingly rich with detail and humor - every one worth a thousand words.  
A joy. 

What can you say about Eric Carle?  

I want to do collage every time I close one of his books. 

We loved predicting "what do you see?" before turning the page - 
not difficult after the 100th read, I grant you, but it never lost its novelty.

Fireman Small To The Rescue by Wong Herbert Yee.

Small people seem to love reading about other small people doing big, important deeds.

With two budding firefighters in the family (WB was rarely out of costume between 2004-2006), this was a favorite.

Firetruck by Peter Sis.  

Red, black and white.  So spare and so brilliant.  

We had to buy a second copy, because we wore the first out.


Children's Books: An Exchange Of Ideas

Thursday, November 19, 2009

(image from cookie magazine)

Opening my Inbox to find a group email, addressed to masses of women, usually elicits an inward (and sometimes audible) groan.  

I appreciate the sentiment that prompts friends to include me when they reach out, but, at the risk of offending, let me go on the record:
  • I do not now, nor will I ever, wear a purple hat, no matter how old I become;
  • I realize that we kids who were raised in the '70s did crazy things, like running with scissors, and survived (frankly, I think it's a miracle);
  • I already check under my car (and in my back-seat, and in my closet, and under the bed, and behind every door) for would-be assailants - my paranoia does not need to be fed; 
  • If I want to cry, I can just look at my ironing pile; and, finally,
  • I will break the chain.  
That said, last week I received a truly inspired group email from my clever friend Melinda.

She loves to give books as presents (a girl after my own heart) and, with Christmas shopping in mind, she proposed an exchange of kid-tested, mother-approved reading recommendations among friends, to make the choosing easier.  

The reponses came fast and furious.  

In some cases, the reply was a refreshingly frank admission to having children don't read at all, unless you count dirt bike magazines and the sports page (which I do).  

Others responses testified to the enduring appeal of children's classics by authors such Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.

Still more were made up entirely of  titles that were new to me.  

In some cases, this was a function of the cross-cultural experience.  My own childhood reading was firmly shaped by the American Library Association.  Consequently, as with The Famous Five, many titles that qualify as old favorites among Australian and English readers have been exciting discoveries for me.  And it's now difficult to imagine my children's childhood without them.  

Thank you to all the ladies - and kids - who responded to Melinda's call.  A sampling of their recommendations follows.  

For more ideas, visit my friend Jane's new blog; she contributed several of the entries below and has brilliant suggestions, especially if you have boys in the 5-8 range.

What were your favorites as a child?  What are your own children reading - and loving - now? 

I would love to hear what you are reading/giving this holiday season.

Picture Books
Gruffalo and Room On The Broom, both by Julia Donaldson and Axel Schaeffer.  The rhyming is the key.  Wonderful pictures and lots of opportunity to use silly voices.

Pearlie The Pink Fairy series by Wendy Harmer.  Fun pictures in chapter book format, about an  Australian fairy who lives in a park and says ‘Hurly Burly’ a lot. 

My friend Bear by Jez Alborough – another  lovely rhyming one.  

Busy Busy World - or any other title - by Richard Scary.  Hint: hunting for Lowly Worm on every page is a good game. 

The Fancy Nancy series by Jane O'Connor.  In the tradition of Eloise and Olivia, Nancy is a glamour queen surrounded by her not-fancy family.  Especially for girls, age 5-7.

The Winnie The Witch series by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul.  Funny stories and detailed, wacky illustrations.  Fun for young listeners and early readers, age 3-8.

Chapter Books  
The Squeak Street series by Emily Rodda and Andrew McLean.  Easy-t0-read chapter books about mice who live on Squeak Street.  For readers aged 5-7.

The Flat Stanely series by Jeff Brown.  A boy gets flattened by a falling picture board and has great adventures as a result of being so thin.  Especially for boys, aged 5-7.  

The Naughtiest Girl series by Enid Blyton.  This one came up more than once.  Ideal for girls who are ready to move on from fairies, but boys like them, too.  Who doesn't like reading about someone else's naughtiness?  Age 8, or thereabouts.  

The Dragon Blood Pirates series - Tales of pirates and treasure, with a bit of time travel thrown in.  What's not to love?Recommended especially for boys, age 8, or thereabouts. 

Young Bond series by Charlie Higson.  Exciting stories, with the additional bonus of a website that includes reading-based quiz games (ie you have to ready carefully to win the game).  Recommended especially for boys, age 11, or thereabouts.   

The Horrid Henry series by Francesca Simon.  More naughtiness - do you sense a theme?!  I plan on trying these out - particularly the Early Readers - with my sons this summer.  It's fun to see them act virtuous and appalled in the face of someone else's horrid behavior.  Recommended especially for boys, age 8.  

The BGF by Roald Dahl.  Again, Roald Dahl accounted for an impressive percentage of the responses.  This one is a hit with boys, girls and parents alike.  All ages.

The Just series - Just KiddingJust Disgusting, Just Shocking - by Andy Griffiths.  Especially good for boys, age 7-10.  

The Maxx Rumble books by Michael Wagner, with illustrations by Terry Denton. These feature an endless series of cricket matches and very wry humour.  Suitable for cricket fans, age 7-8.

The Magic Thief (Books 1 & 2) by Sarah Prineas.  Magic, wizards, secrets.  Fun for the whole family.  Age 7+.

Born To Run by Michael Morpurgo.  Brilliant, heartbreaking, lovely.  About the many lives of one incredible dog.  Have the tissues ready.  For older children, aged 10 +.

The Dragon Keeper triology by Carole Wilkinson.  Fantasy, history and personal courage woven together to form a story you can't put down.  Especially for girls aged 9+.

The Silver Brumby series by Elaine Mitchell.  An oldie, but a goodie.  Set in Victoria's Snowy Mountains, this is horse lover's delight.  

The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth.  This is the first in a series of six.  It follows the adventures of two gypsy children on a quest and fleeing persecution in 17th century England.  Gripping.  For readers aged 10 +.

The Slightly True Story Of Cedar B Hartley (who planned to live an unusual life) by Martine Murray.  Award winning story of a quirky twelve-year old girl finding her place in the world.  For children aged 10 +.


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