Friday, December 28, 2007

Pumpkinpie's Picks

I haven't shared our reading list for a while now, so what better way to celebrate the sharing and the warmth of the season than by inviting you to join us in our Story Chair? Here are some of the top picks from our December storytimes.

We have been, for one thing, really into the Christmas books, which are found on this list. But we have also been reading some standards, some old favourites of mine, and a few newer hits.

Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, by Mo Willems
Along with his earlier two pigeon books (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!), Mo Wilems has the market cornered on silly and interactive, in the vein of my old favourite The Monster at the End of This Book. Which is fitting, since he was a sesame Street animator before becoming the darling of the kidslit world a few years back. These are, taken all together, a little formulaic, but kids love them. Pumpkinpie is no exception. (We are also loving his "Elephant & Piggie" books - beginning readers, including Today I Will Fly! I bought her a couple of these for Christmas and they were immediate favourites.)

Officer Buckle and Gloria, by Peggy Rathmann
Officer Buckle loved safety tips. He was always thinking up new ones and each year, would share them with the students of Napville School. No one ever really payed attention... until Gloria came along. The new police dog has a remarkable talent for making safety speeches interesting, but officer Buckle isn't aware of the source of his newfound popularity - until he watches himself on the news one night. In the end, though, he realizes that they make a good team. Rathmann is a genius for the unsaid detail, making this book work right up to about grade 3, but the visual jokes make it accessible for younger kids. A real treasure, this is a longtime favourite of mine.

Grover and the Everything In The Whole Wide World Museum (Sesame Street)
This is one I remember from my own childhood, and it still cracks me up because, well, Grover is fun-nee. Blundering through rooms like "The Things You See On The wall Room" and the collection of "All The Vegetables in the Whole Wide World Besides Carrots," he also manages to return a few things to their proper places, check out the Small Hall and the Tall Hall, and even star in the "Things That Are Cute and Furry" collection. In the end, a big door out leads to "everything Else." Cute, fun, and lots of grouping to talk about.

Danny and the Dinosaur, by Syd Hoff
This is an old standby in the way of beginning readers, an area we have been moving into more and more on our way to chapters. In it, Danny meets a dinosaur in the museum, and the dinosaur takes the day off to have adventures and play with Danny and his friends. At the end of the day, though, he has to go back to the museum. It's a simple, but enjoyable story for the little ones, with illustrations to match.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Joffe Numeroff, ill. Felicia Bond
This, and its companions (If You Give a Pig a Pancake and If You Give a Moose a Muffin), are fairly formulaic, but follow a circuitous route back to the start that kids seem to really enjoy. They are fairly predictable, which makes them nice for talking through and letting the child guess what might come next, yet have enough quirky details to make the first ten reading or so fun. (After that, well parents, all I can say is: repetition is good for them and their preliteracy skills.)

The Subway Mouse, by Barbara Reid
This is a newer favourite of mine, from Canadian kidslit star Barbara Reid. In this tale, a mouse who hates the drudgery and noise of subway station life decides to strike out in search of the mythical Tunnel's End. Along the way, he meets a mouse who joins his quest, faces bullies, and becomes tired and hungry. Still, they press on until they find a new life in the roofless world outside the subway system. This has all the qualities of a fairy tale or quest story, yet is told simply enough to appeal to younger children, too. Reid's true genius, though, lies in her stunningly detailed plastiscene illustrations. This gorgeous book is no exception, and the fact that her storytelling skills are starting to match her artistic skills is no small feat, indeed.

Find these and other storytime favourites at your local library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Imaginary Friends

Like Calvin has Hobbes, children sometimes have imaginary friends. It can freak parents out, a child talking about someone who isn't there, about things their "friend" said, because let's face it - we want our children to have imagination, but where is the line between that and, say, voices? Relax, it's pretty common. And a helpful tool for them, too - I had imaginary friends to play games with, as an only child, and I turned out okay (hush up, you over there!).

But how do we handle it? Indulge them? Ignore it? Tell them not to be silly? How about asking them to let us in on their imaginary world, so we can get a sense of what's going on in there? After all, their minds are pretty interesting. You will, no doubt, be shocked to hear I have a few stories about imaginary friends that might be nice shared reading, but also just might open up the discussion for you.

Jessica, by Kevin Henkes

(Hey, I haven't had a Kevin Henkes on here for a while, plus, it's a good one about Just This Thing. Be quiet. Or should I say - Shhh!) Ruthie Simms has a best friend Jessica. She may be imaginary, but she's a terrific companion (and occasional scapegoat). Even though Ruthie's parents insist she's not real, she is to Ruthie. And so she goes to kindergarten with her, where Ruthie is suddenly faced with a dilemma. The problem is solved, however, when the real live girl in front of her introduces herself - as Jessica. And now she really does have a best friend.

My Dinosaur, by Mark Alan Weatherby

A young girl waits for her dinosaur at night and has a wild and magical romp through the forest, dipping into the river, reaching past the treetops, and playing games of hide-and-seek. As day breaks, she returns to bed, and morning finds her yawning over her Cheerios. The pictures in this book are just wonderful, suffused with moonlight, the dinosaur just gentle enough not to frighten, and the girl's face alive with joy.

Clara and Asha, by Eric Rohmann

Clara's imaginary friend Asha plays with her in a range of scenarios, including in the bathtub, at Hallowe'en, and at her tea parties. She is just the friend a girl needs, though we learn at the end that she is not Asha's only pretend friend... Gorgeously illustrated and sweetly low-key in tone.

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Holiday Stories to Share

I love a good holiday book. What makes a good holiday book for me? Well, I am not into sharing religious stories at the library, so if the rare occasion arises for me to read a holiday book, I like to keep it as secular as I can. It's the same at home, really, because I'm just not ready to discuss the other business with Pumpkinpie quite yet. So for me, I like stories about sharing and giving and goodwill, or else fun, silly stuff. I enjoy a classic Santa tale, too. And as always, I love illustrated books of songs to sing with her.

For those that would like a nativity story, there are lots of lovely ones around. There is a beautiful, simple one by Dick Bruna, an old standby by Tomi DePaola, and a new one out last year that was simple enough that even I took it home. (Room for a Little One, by Martin Waddell, with gorgeous, luminous illustrations by Jason Cockcroft. It tells the tale of the animals coming to the barn and welcoming the title's "little one.")

I would also note that yes, I am sticking to Christmas here. While I put out a nice selection of many holidays at the library, I don't think I'm really qualified to talk about which stories are good ones for lots of holidays. For starters, I will leave Hannukah to Mamaleh, who has a nice post up to start the celebrating. Shalom, Mamaleh!

Santa Comes This Time Each Year

Santa Baby, by Janie Bynum

This book could easily have been overly cute, moving into icky, but instead, it's a sweet, jaunty reworking of one of my favourite Christmas songs, featuring all the highlights of a baby's first Christmas.

Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, by Fred J. Coots and Haven Gillespie, ill. Steven Kellogg

This book is the full version of the song - if you don't know all of it, you are not alone. Ella Fitzgerald sings the whole thing in her rendition, so I if you don't read music (provided at the back), try listening to her to pick it up. And, of course, everything steven Kellogg touches is genius, and this is no exception. It's filled with detail and his trademark warm colours and broad, smiling faces.

The Christmas Orange, by Don Gillmor, ill. Marie-Louise Gay

This is the tale of spoiled Anton Stingley, and what happened when he teamed up with lawyer Wiley Studpustle to sue Santa for breach of promise. Promise? Why, he didn't bring him the things on his lengthy and imaginative Christmas list. Instead, he brought him an orange. A stunned courtroom full of people discover that Santa's job isn't to bring what we want, but what we need. And when he quits, it's up to Anton to fix things. This book is hilarious, if a bit sophisticated, but Pumpkinpie gets it, so I think it's not too far above the heads of the young. Plus, I always love this author/illustrator pairing.

Here Comes Santa Claus, by Gene Autry, ill. Bruce Whatley

This is another illustrated version of a standard Christams song, but beautifully wrought in Whatley's rich painting style. One note: I was surprised to find allusions to god and peace in what sounded like quite a secular song, but I suppose Autry was writing at a time when every family was going to church. While my own feelings on this would make me uncomfortable with much religion in the song to start talking about with Pumpkinpie, this is not too much, even for someone as squeamish about it as myself.

The Night Before Christmas, by Clement C. Moore, ill. Bruce Whatley

This being a major classic, there are dozens of versions by dozens of illustrators. While Anita Lobel's has been called a classic for the city child for it's illustrations of Brooklyn-esque townhouses, I like Bruce Whatley's best.

The Spirit of Giving, The Season of Goodwill

Franklin's Christmas Gift, by Paulette Bourgeois, ill. Brenda Clark

I am not generally a fan of serialized storybooks, but I must admit to really liking this story of Christmas and a spirit of generous giving. In it, Franklin's class is collecting for a Christmas toy drive, and Franklin doesn't have anything he wants to part with. Once he starts thinking about how little others have and how much he loves his aunt's meaningful, thoguhtful gifts, he reaches deep and gives a treasured toy to the drive. Pumpkinpie has added the word "generous" to her vocabulary thanks to this new favourite.

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski, ill. P.J. Lynch

This gorgeous book opens with Mr. Toomey as a gloomy, grumpy recluse who happens to be a gifted woodcarver. A new mother and son in town ask him to carve them a nativity scene to replace one they once had, and the son asks if he can watch and learn how to carve. The mother, meanwhile, brings treats each day. Their relationship warms gradually, and we learn about Toomey's past, which haunts him. By the end of the tale, they have grown together. It's a beautiful tale that could have been sappy if told differently, but is simply heartwarming instead.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

I know, this is obvious. But really, it's one of the greatest stories of Christmas spirit around, still, and I'm not about to exclude it because it's not new and hip! It's a real treasure, and I'm considering buying the old animated movie version this year.

And a decidedly odd but very funny one that I just had to add in somewhere...

The Christmas Crocodile, by Bonny Becker, ill. David Small

The Christmas crocodile didn't mean to be bad, not really... But he just can't stop himself from eating everything. and once he nibbles on a relative's toes, he is banished to the basement firmly by the youngest girl, who is much more sensible than anyone else in the house. Gradually, each person in the full house sneaks down to the basement with something warm for him, feeling badly about his exile. In the end though, there is still the problem of what to do with him - until the right people show up to claim the misdelivered gift.

Find these and other great holiday stories at your local library!

Libraries in Toronto will close at 1:00 pm on Dec. 24th. They are closed on Dec. 25th and 26th. For New Years' Eve, libraries will close at 1:00 pm on Dec. 31st and remain closed on Jan. 1st.

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Holiday Gifting: Advice on Giving and Getting

On The Getting of Gifts

Brace yourself – it’s holiday season. Or more to the point, prepare yourself to get busy with the gifting and then the writing of thank you cards for tacky socks and stinky candles. Unless. Unless! Unless you plan ahead – and there’s still time.

It might seem like this should come after the gifts, but if you want to launch a preemptive strike against the gloppy, unwanted preserves, awful recall-pending toys, and regifted needlepoint bookmarks, you have to do it before the shopping starts for the others. Tell them what you want before they buy you what you don’t!

My husband’s family has a tradition that I hated at first because it took all the element of surprise out of getting gifts. They exchange lists of what they want, and for the most part, shop from them. But the upside is that I no longer get Body Shop gift baskets, horrid old-lady slippers, or picture frames I wouldn’t put in the back of my closet. So try this on with your family.

Even better is the advent of the online wish list. Oh yes, I am a big fan. If you’re a reader (and I know you are), then you are likely aware of the wish list function at Amazon and Indigo. The great news is that Indigo also carries toys, and they too can be added to the wish list! This means you can send this wish list to your family members and they can shop with ease for stuff you’ve already handpicked for yourself and your kids. Indigo even offers their usual fantastic (and much-used, ahem) incentive of free shipping over $39 for toys, too. You bet I’ve sent this list out to everyone. No singing reindeer sweater for me.

On The Giving of Gifts

I am, of course, a huge proponent of giving books as gifts (see my list from last week as an example). But I’d also like to give you some hints about the other stuff. What other stuff? The toys, silly! Yes, I play with kids too. It’s a good job I have.

My first hint, when people ask me for help buying gifts (as they often do, actually), is to think of things that you know about the person. My friend, for example, is bought my daughter some Dora stuff for Christmas last year because she knews Pumpkinpie loved Dora and I am unlikely to be buying her any. That’s a great gift because it’s something she’ll like. I’m getting her Madeline’s dog and a game about adopting a puppy because she loves dogs. See how that works? But perhaps you don’t see this kid much, or you know their parent better than them, so this avenue is not really an option. Okay. Let’s look at some possibilities by age, shall we?

The baby. I am all for board books here, but I also love the classic toys. Blocks, shape sorters, soft rolling balls about 6” in diameter. I love chunky, round-edged Viking Toys cars, trains, and planes. Stacking rings and nesting boxes. Sophie the giraffe, a chewy toy made of natural rubber and painted with non-toxic vegetable paints (most good toy stores carry this, since it's a big hit with parents). Musical instruments of varying types are always fun for kids, even if the parents won’t necessarily love you for buying their little tyke a drum (hey, who’s the gift for, anyhow?). I also love plastic shopping baskets for them to stash their treasures in as they become mobile, to be pushed or carried with them. Older, walking babies almost uniformly love carts or baby strollers to push around with their newfound ambulatory abilities. And yes, Whoozits and other stuffed whatsits work too, though I’m not usually such a fan of the stuffies, as they are sure to get a ton without my help.

The toddler. I love that they enter the age of imaginative play as toddlers. For toddlers, I love play food and plastic or tin tea sets, small rubber animals (like Schleich's), toy machines, trucks, and trains. Accessories start to become interesting additions to play as they observe more too, so that a doll might start to require clothes or bottles, a toy dog might need a bone, and those play tools might really cry out for a hard hat to be worn with them. Doctor’s kits, vet kits, kitchen sets, and tool sets all play into this nicely and can encourage playing together. Puppets can be fun, too, but a fearful child may find them a bit freaky (also beware the spider puppet, which caused Pumpkinpie to lose it on my birthday, though I love Folkmanis’ other puppets). Puzzles are another great toy at this age, with complexity increasing as they get older so that a year-old child might enjoy wooden puzzles with knobs, while a two-year old can move onto wooden puzzles with more and smaller and knob-free pieces (an alphabet is great), and a two-and-a-half- or three-year old is likely ready for large floor puzzles with big, jigsaw-cut pieces. And, um, picture books, of course.

The preschooler. Many of the same toys that are good for toddlers still apply here, with greater variety and complexity. They have better coordination and an even greater imagination, so dress-up is getting easier to do and more appealing. Many children are learning more about gender roles and trying to fit in with peers at this time, so girls may gravitate towards more girly things and want jewelry, fancy crowns and princess dresses, and dolls, while boys may reach for trucks and dinosaurs, though I in no way believe toys need to be so gender-fied. I’m a big believer in Lego, puzzles, trains, Playmobil, and animals being treated as gender-neutral so there’s more common ground. These also happen to be some of my favourite toys. I also love art supplies for this age – crayons, stickers, large plastic beads with plastic lace to string them on, coloured papers, stamps, cookie cutters, playdough, and washable markers.

The school-ager. It gets trickier as they get older to get what they want (and it matters more and more each year that it be what they want!). If you can ask a parent what they’re into, it sure helps. If not, there is still hope. Many of them still enjoy Lego and Playmobil, as they are complex enough systems to bring imaginative play into a much higher level. Kits abound for this age, too. Klutz kits (found in most book and toy stores) can teach kids everything from cool crafts to juggling and playing the harmonica, and are nice and simple to follow. Art supplies are still a hit, for the most part, too, and science kits are great for the right kid. This age is also the beginning of the awareness of what’s cool, so consider gear with cartoon or movie tie-ins, where they don’t turn your stomach. As to books, these kids are into series, so even a non-reader is likely to be somewhat into receiving the newest in a hot series or a flashy movie tie-in for the “in” factor, if nothing else.

The teen. Cool rules here, but what’s cool varies a lot, and nothing is more grating than a teen’s eyeroll, so this is usually the toughest age to shop for. Crafty stuff can still be cool for many teen girls, as well as journals, while art supplies and sketchbooks are good for an artsy kid of either sex. If they have a hobby, it’s great to show that grownups do pay attention and get them something related, as long as it’s not, you know, lame (like, say, stationery or a cheesy mug or T-shirt). A safe bet, though, is the gift certificate. I know, I know, they feel like a copout. But teens love to control their own world as much as they can, so giving them the choice can be a nice thing, too. Try big music stores, movie certificates, big electronics stores, or, if the kid’s a reader, a big bookstore. Yes, I know it’s nice to support smaller independent stores, but they’ll have a better shot at getting what they want at a bigger store, and you want them to use it, right? So you may have to just grit your teeth this once. Sorry.

A final note about ages on toys

I was surprised to find out that the "age 3+" cutoff that is applied to the vast majority of toys in the world is not so much about the appropriateness of the toy as the standards that the manufacturers must meet. This means that last year I did, for example, buy Pumpkinpie trains and play food and rubber animals that were not technically approved for her age yet, but for her, they were okay. This will of course, depend on the kid. A child who is in fact likely to break a toy so that its small parts separate and could be swallowed might not be a good bet for this, nor is one who is likely to chew off the paint, which may not be non-toxic. If the kid’s not yours, I’d go with the safe bet.

Want more inspiration? Check out Becks’ great ideas from last Christmas or Indigo’s searches for toys by age or type of play (no, they are not paying me! I just find these sort options pretty helpful and fun to browse.).

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.