Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Magical Tales for a Magical Time

Pumpkinpie and I are reading more complex tales these days, longer stories and classic fairy tales being favourite picks more and more often. These are things I'd like to have more of on our shelves, so I have a bunch of this stuff on my Christmas wishlist for her, and have bought a handful of them in paperback myself - a nice benefit of classics. (I am , in general, a snob about hardcover picture books, but the $10 each that I save by starting to get over it means I can have more books, so I'm getting there! The smaller price could also make them nice for stocking items or daily Hannukah gifties.) Some are favourite takes on standard tales, some are newer stories with a fairy-tale quality to them, but are are wonderful for sharing. Here are some of our recent favourites that we hope to find in Santa's bag!

The Little Red Hen, by Jerry Pinkney

In his usual manner, Pinkney renders the most beautiful red hen I've ever seen, making a fairly straightforward telling into a picture book gem.

The Gingerbread Boy, by Richard Egielski

This is a fairly simple version, but it is made fun and fresh by way of being relocated in modern New York and inhabited by construction workers and subway buskers. This makes it reall accessible to a city kid, but it's Egielski's gorgeous pictures that make the book. I also like that yes, the gingerbread boy DOES get eaten by the fox crossing the lake because honestly, I think it's kind of wimping out when he doesn't get eaten - I think kids get that he's a cookie. Best served with hot chocolate and a gingerbread man on a cold, snowy day.

Tikki Tikki Tembo, by Arlene Mosel, ill. Blair Lent

Remember this one from childhood? Can you still say his name? This story is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, and kids take great pleasure in learning that looong name. This is also one of the few older stories about other cultures that doesn't make me squirm a bit today.

Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina

Another old chestnut that you might have read as a child yourself, this one is another that kids still love every time. There is something about naughty monkeys tricking grownups that is still irresistible.

Epposumundas, by Colleen Salley, ill. Janet Stevens

This retelling of an old silly tale is great fun set in the south. In it, Epossumundas, who "doesn't have the sense he was born with" keeps ruinging everything his auntie sends home with him by way of following the wrong instructions. It's funny, and Stevens' great illustrations give it extra kick, including the visual joke of making the character an actual possum, albeit a cute one in diapers.

Tops and Bottoms, by Janet Stevens

This is a great trickster tale, in which a hare bests a bear for three straight planting season, making deals that give him the edible part of the crops he plants. By the end, the lazy bear is fed up and has learned his lesson, but by that time, Hare is ready to go out on his own, anyhow. Fantastic illustrations make the characters come to life.

The Subway Mouse, by Barbara Reid

This tale of a restless mouse who dreams of something better has a lovely, wistful, classic feel about it. In it, a mouse who just doesn't fit in decides to find out whether the rumours of an end to the tunnel are true, and follows his heart. Along the way, he meets a girl mouse who joins him, and they seek out the sweeter air and green grasses of out-of-tunnel life. Reid, of course, is also known for her amazingly detailed plastiscene illustrations, and these are even more stunning then usual, incorporating little found items that you might really see in a tunnel where mice make use of the detritus of humans.

Bruna, by Anne Cottringer, ill. Gillian McClure

This gorgeous book grabbed me right away, being about a girl who could not keep warm. She tried everything, but it wasn't until she found a friend and began to help him out that she could take off her extra layers. Beautiful in its simple telling and charming illustrations.

I'd add to this a handful of William Steig's perfectly-wrought fairy tales (which I wrote about here), and both Strega Nona and Kiss the Cow from this list of foodie fairy tales.

Up Next Week, a departure: Holiday Gifting Edition - not all of them books! I know! Would you believe I buy toys, too?! Plus, ideas on how not to get crummy gifts you want to throw out. You are totally welcome. After all, we're green around this webzine.

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Good 'n' Plenty

Have you ever been reading a fairy tale, and noticed that the story seemed... familiar?

I have been noticing a few of these themes among folk and fairy tales, as you might imagine - they are, after all, rife with archetype and deeply rooted cultural lore. One that I've been finding attractive in many forms lately is one that seems to speak to the idea of magical freedom from want. Certainly, at any time in history, the idea of bounty without burden has been a dream for many, and these tales, along with such symbols as the cornucopia bear that out. Along with this, though, comes a distrust of such luxury, of not paying the way, and in fairy tales, it comes out as a cautionary moral about the dangers of misusing magic. Each of these stories follows this up-and-down path, but each comes, too, to its own satisfactory conclusion. Eat up, me hearties.

Strega Nona, by Tomie De Paola

This old favourite is a take on the story of the Magician's Apprentice, starring the round, charming witch Strega Nona and her assistant, Big Anthony. When Strega Nona is out of the house, he fires up her magic pasta pot, which soon overwhelms the town, because he does not know how to stop it. Luckily Strega Nona's trip was not a long one, and she gets back in time to save the day. She even makes Big Anthony clean up the mess, and he eats until it hurts. Talk about punishment fitting the crime!

The Magic Porridge Pot, by Paul Galdone

An older precursor to Strega Nona, this tale by a master teller of fairy tales sees a town swamped in porridge when the pot won't stop overflowing. As in the Sorceror's Apprentice tale it is modeled on, the correct magic would stop it, but by the time the pot's owner arrives to perform that spell, there is a huge mess for the townspeople to eat their way out of.

The Full Belly Bowl, by Jim Aylesworth, ill. Wendy Anderson Halperin

When an old man does a favour for a tiny man, saving him, he receives as a gift a Full Belly Bowl, along with a note explaining its use. While he enjoyed some of the riches it brought him, he also causes himself some mischief by forgetting to use it properly a couple of times. In the end, after the bowl is broken and can help or hurt no more, he is not much better off than he started, but was content enough for all that.

Two Of Everything, by Lily Toy Hong

This retelling of a chinese folktale is a favourite of mine, and begins with the finding of an old pot. Quickly, it is discovered that the pot doubles anything that is put in it. The first problem starts when one of them falls into the giant vessel... They sort things out soon enough, though, and lives happily and prosperously ever after alongside their new twins.

Kiss the Cow, by Phyllis Root, ill. Will Hillenbrand

This story by the inimitable Root turns the formula on its ear a bit. Annalisa isn't supposed to try to milk the magic cow that feeds all those hungry children, but she is curious, and she does it anyhow, but she does not kiss the cow after singing for her to stop. Instead of creating more and more milk, though, Luella stops producing any, and the house is soon filled with crying children. It isn't until the stubborn Annalisa gets curious about what it would be like to kiss a cow that she does, and order is restored. Instead of suspicion of magic, this story seems to address a gratitude for bounty that seems magical, and it is a really charming take on the topic (made all the more so by wonderful illustrations).

For more classic food-themed tales, consider also The Gingerbread Man (or Boy or Girl or Baby, depending on the version), The Enormous Turnip (or Carrot, or Potato, again, according to version), or Stone Soup (I love the Jon Muth version).

For these and more magical tales, visit your local library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fall in Love With Stories

Crisp, clear days. Crunchy leaves underfoot. The tisk tisk tisk of skipping ropes hitting pavement. Wind blowing leaves, rakes scraping sidewalks. Kids talking and laughing as they jump in piles of leaves or head down the block to school. The first smells of smoky fireplaces and warm cocoa. Fall has a great many delights, and has, it's no surprise, inspired a few picture books of its own.

Just the Facts Books

When Autumn Falls, by Kelli Nidey, ill. Susan Swan

This book talks about some of the things we can expect when fall arrives: colourful, falling leaves, festivals like Hallowe'en, fall produce like apples, cooler weather, earlier evenings, and so on. Bold collage images make this a standout - in fact, the same artist is featured in the next book, below, but this one is simpler and aimed for younger children.

It's Fall! by Linda Glaser, ill. Susan Swan

The vibrant collage-art in this book makes it a treat to read, illustrating text that informs about many aspects of fall. This book is fairly comprehensive, covering not only leaves, but also hibernation and migration, fall clothing, and the way different vegetation (and gardeners) prepares for the next year. It also includes some fall nature activities for families at the end.

I Know It's Autumn, by Eileen Spinelli, ill. Nancy Hayashi

A young girl tells, in rhyme, what signs point to autumn for her. This seems to be set in a small town, as some of the things she enjoys in autumn are pretty rural delights. It's a nice, simple book, told from the perspective of things a child would notice, which I like.

In November, by Cynthia Rylant, ill. Jill Kastner

This gorgeous book tells about the turning of fall into winter in November, and the preparations made by people and animals as the world tucks "her children in, with a kiss on their heads, till spring." This book does reveal its American origins in the page about Thanksgiving, but it is so beautiful that I think this shouldn't be a major deterrant.

Stories for the Season

Mouse's First Fall, by Lauren Thompson, ill. Buket Erdogan

The mouse series covers pretty much every season and major holiday nicely for preschoolers. Cute, simple, and featuring great boldly-painted illustrations, they fall just the right side of cutesy. This one about fall is no exception, and the vibrant oranges against blue skies make it a visual treat.

Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, by Julia Rawlinson, ill. Tiphanie Beeke

Fletcher the fox has never seen autumn before, so when his favourite tree starts to turn brown and lose its leaves, he is worried. He tries to fix it or stop it, to no avail, and as the other animals take the leaves for their own purposes (like nesting), he feels terrible. In the end though, the tree is covered in icicles that seem to tell him everything is just fine. The vision of sparkling beauty that accompanies this ending never fails to elicit some big eyes and the kind of gasp usually heard at a fireworks display.

The Stranger, by Chris van Allsburg

An abstract advanced picture book, in which a mysterious visitor stays a touch too long, and summer seems to stay with him until he leaves, and the wind sweeps in behind him. Beautiful, a mite haunting, a lovely book for sharing with a slightly older child, maybe 5 or 6 or more.

Wild Child, by Lynne Plourde, ill. Greg Couch

A lovely allegorical take on autumn as a child going to bed, and Mother Earth giving the child a song of crackling leaves, a snack of apples, a flaming red nightgown, and a cool, frosty hug. In the end, as Autumn drops off to sleep, her child Winter wakes... This is beautiful, but sophisticated, and maybe best appreciated by a little bit older child, too.

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Beginning Chapters Without Tears (of boredom)

Overheard at a blogger party last weekend: "We are starting to read those easy chapter books, you know the ones? And oh my god, I hate them, they are sooooo boooooring!" Save the yawns for your long-winded neighbour's latest ramblings, parents. There are better things out there.

First off, I would like to point out that picture books run such a large gamut of simple to sophisticated that you can skip these beginning-to-read books entirely if you are so inclined, without worrying that you are missing a step. That said, they are a nice introduction to the chapter format for a reader who might not yet be up to some longer readings. They also often come in series, making it easy to find more of something you and your child have enjoyed. So if you are looking for some fun stuff, here are a fistful of suggestions that are a little more fun or substantial that the early readers you might have been encountering.

Friendship Stories:

This is a major theme among this level of book, because they are aimed at kids whose main concern at that point is about leaning to navigate social relationships at school, in daycare, and in other settings where they might run into other children. A few great series are:

  • Houndsley and Catina and Houndsley and Catina and the Birthday Surprise, by Marie-Louise Gay
  • Frog and Toad Are Friends (and many others in the series), by Arnold Lobel
  • Poppleton (and others in the series), by Cynthia Rylant, ill. Mark Teague. Cynthia Rylant also writes Beginning-to-read series Mr. Putter and Tabby and Henry and Mudge, both of which are also friend-themed.
  • Big Dog, Little Dog (and other "Fred and Ted" books), by P.D. Eastman. He is hilarious, and I love all his stuff, but these have more story than the popular Go Dogs Go and so on.

***I would also like to add in James Marshall's George and Martha stories here, even though they are picture books. Hey, it's my column. You'll forgive me when you read them. They are hilarious.

Early Mysteries:

  • "Young Cam Jansen" series, by David Adler
  • Nate the Great (and others in series), by Marjorie Sharmat, ill. Marc Simont
  • "High Rise Private Eyes" series, by Cynthia Rylant

Funny Ones:

  • Amelia Bedelia (and others in series), by Peggy Parish. I know, I know, there are people who think these are stupid, but there is something about the long windup for a bad pun that cracks me up.
  • "Elephant and Piggie" series, by Mo Willems. These feature the same kind of light-on-text cartoon-y style as his famous pigeon books, drawing on his animation background.
  • Harry and the Lady Next Door, by Gene Zion, ill. Margaret Bloy Graham. The other Harry stories are, oddly enough, in picture book format.

Dr. Seuss has, of course, a million offerings in this category of book. Some are crazy-making, but some are truly great. Green Eggs and Ham is a perennial favourite, for example. These are best for true fans of silliness.

Everyday Adventures:

  • Little Bear (and others in series), by Else Minarik, ill. Maurice Sendak. I hope the TV show hasn't ruined these for you quite yet, because the books have an old-fashioned, sweet charm to them.
  • Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
  • Owl at Home, by Arnold Lobel

Wild Imaginings:

  • Danny and the Dinosaur, by Syd Hoff.
  • Mouse Soup and Mouse Tales, by Arnold Lobel (collections of crazy little tales)
  • Commander Toad in Space (and others in series), by Jane Yolen, ill. Bruce Degen Ridiculous, funny, and pun-ny adventures in outer space.

For these titles and more, check out the "Beginning To Read" section in your local library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.