Monday, February 25, 2008

Sing, Sing a Song

Singing with our children is something experts agree is terrifically beneficial. Not to mention that is makes little moments faster and more fun, something any mom can appreciate.

What makes singing so great? Well, songs have a few preliteracy benefits, for starters. They are often based on rhyming structures, as well as breaking words up over notes into the syllabic parts. These things make us pay attention to the sounds of words, and help with what we call phonetic awareness, or being aware of the sounds in words. They can also help you remember to put vocabulary to what you are doing, singing about things around you. Hearing words has huge impact - and is a large factor in future reading success. And of course, the tune can help you remember words for rhymes and songs better than a rhythm alone can.

You may also have noticed how a song will draw an immediate response from a baby or child in terms of attention, which can be helpful when parenting. When Pumpkinpie was a baby, I liked using songs to fill the wide-open void in conversation, to put words to what we were doing, to pull us along through a task or a walk, to hold her attention, and to basically, keep myself a little closer to sane.

But what if you don't know a host of songs?

Well, there are a few things you can do. First, I always encourage people to make up songs or alter tunes they know. This may mean turning Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush into This Is the Way We Put On Our Shirt, or making up entirely new words to something like Brahms' Lullaby, describing the day as you get ready for bed. It may mean making up things that go with your current activity, which is great. Remember, you can use any music you know and love, too. It doesn't have to be Raffi-approved, though it is nice for them to know those songs, too.

And if you'd like to learn some of the traditional songs sung by young kids in Canada? Libraries and music stores carry bundles and bundles of CDs, and even some DVDs, so you can sing along until you know it. You can find songbook collections of them, if you can read music. Some of these books below even come with CDs, and many have the music at the back of the book. What I love the most about using these song books is that they give you the words, which can help you learn them, help you if, like me, you sometimes get stuck, and give you something to point and look at with your child.

And finally, I'd like to note that there are a host of wonderful lullaby books and song collections, but I will save them for another post or two in future for the sake of keeping this post manageable. Sort of.

Raffi series

Raffi has a series of song books that partner well with the kind of songs that are typically found on CDs of sing-along songs for toddlers and kids, including his own. These include favourites like Down By The Bay, If You're Happy and You Know It, Baby Beluga, Shake Your Sillies Out, and so on. There are a variety of illustrators, so the results vary, but overall, these are a great bunch of standards.

Nadine Bernard Westcott

Westcott has a fun, jaunty, style full of silly details that are fun to find. She has illustrated several song books, some of which are also available in board format, such as The Lady with the Alligator Purse and I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. She has also spun some songs into longer versions to include a bit of narrative, as she did with Skip to My Lou, a favourite of mine. For more fun, check out her takes on some less-used songs like I've Been Working on the Railroad, Peanut Butter and Jelly, There's a Hole in the Bucket, and Miss Mary Mack.

There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, by Simms Taback

Another version of this old standby comes from Simms Taback, who brings to it a style very similar to that employed in his Caldecott winner, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. The paintings are darker, with black backgrounds and ochres, rusts, and greens heavily employed, but the die-cut holes in each page add a fun element, as we can see the growing menagerie in her belly as we move from page to page. Unlike Westcotts' version, though, this one doesn't sugar-coat it, and she dies in the end, a clear case of one bite too many.

My Favorite Things, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, ill. James Warhola

This lovely old Sound of music favourite has been illustrated in warm browns and roses, with the treasured objects flying through the air in a whirl as the song picks up pace. It's a beatiful book, and parents like me who can't remember all the words can use it to share this song with their own. Pumpkinpie loved it, and was sad to see it go back to the library.

Little White Duck, by Walt Whippo, ill. Joan Paley

This is one of my favourite song books, illustrated with richly coloured, gorgeous collage, and giving me the words I can never quite master. It's a great one to share with even smaller kids. It took me one look to fall in love with it and buy my own copy. If, like me, you don't read music, find or borrow the CD of the same title by Burl Ives.

Turn Turn Turn, by Pete Seeger, ill. Wendy Anderson Halpern

This classic folk song, sprung from words in the Book of Ecclesiastes, is reimagined as a picture book, and comes with a CD of both the spoken word and the song. The book inlcudes music and some notes from Pete Seeger. For a younger child, this is a lovely song, but for an older child, there are worlds of detail in the illustrations, and months of deep discussion in the concepts opened up in the song.

Rosemary Wells board books

Wells, of Max & Ruby and McDuff fame, is the illustrator of my favourite nursery rhyme books, and has extended her considerable empire into the area of early literacy, including several picture books of simple nuresrey rhymes and songs. These includes simple old standards like Twinkle, Twinkle, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Old Macdonald, and BINGO. There are few words on a page, charming illustrations, and a nice small board book format to recommend them. They make a great baby gift, too.

What Will We Do With the Baby-O?, by Theo Heras, ill. Jennifer Herbert

This collection of fun and sometimes unusual songs and rhymes makes my list even though I'm not talking song collections for the fact that it has a couple of songs I love but haven't often seen in books, such as Ally Bally Bee, which Pumpkinpie loves and requested night after night for months. I'm not in love with the illustrations, to be honest, but the content is strong enough to make it nearly irrelevant, and some may love the bold style. The book also has an available CD of Heras singing the congs she chose to include. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, Theo is a Toronto librarian that I know and love - she is wonderful, so even though it would normally make me uncomfy to talk about the product of someone I know, I am going ahead here.)

The Wheels on the Bus, ill. Paul O. Zelinsky

This is the go-to version of the common song for most librarians - it has pop-ups and movable bits, it's fun and rollicking, the kids know it, love it, and chime in willingly. It's a great book for sharing. I do recommend it with one caution, though: being a movable book makes it both more expensive and more fragile than your average book, so save it for shared reading or for children old enough to handle books with care.

Find these and other wonderful books of songs in your local public library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The New Yorker Connection

Since the 1920's, consistently, some of the great lights of American literature have been counted among the contributors to the great literary magazine, the New Yorker. So, too, with the world of children's literature in America. Turns out that the same sense of humour and drawing style that works so well in the magazine's famous cartoons, decorative illustrations, and covers is a perfect match for children's books. They are intelligent, funny, and just wry enough to make the kids' parents laugh, too. Perhaps that's why some of my very favourites are counted among the contributors. Here is a roundup of some names you may recognize if you've been a fan yourself.

E.B. White
Hired in 1921 as editor, he was one of the magazine's most famous editors and the co-author of the iconic guide to writing style known as Strunk & White (though actually titled Elements of Style). He is also the author of a trio of the most beloved of children's novels. Responsible for the sweet and simple joys of Stuart Little, the bittersweet take of Charlotte's Web, and the lesser-known but not lesser Trumpet of the Swan. He has a wonderful way with touching detail, with great characters, and with creating deep connections.

William Steig
Well, you know, I've mentioned Steig before and love him dearly, but have I mentioned that he is not only a brilliant children's author of more than thirty picture books and novels (including the Caldecott winner Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and kids' fave Doctor DeSoto), but also a cartoonist and regular contributor of both cartoons and covers to the New Yorker? His work appeared beginning as wearly as 1931 and he continued to work with the magazine until his death in 2003. Well, it seems his gently comic stylings span the ages, darlings, and he wins at any point, if you ask me. It seems I'm not alone, as New York's Jewish Museum is running an exhibition of his work that is on until March 16th. Man, I wish I could get there.

James Thurber

James Thurber was kind of an accidental addition to the magazine, a discovery of E.B. White's who ended up contributing a goodly body of work in the form of cartoons and covers in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, he became so beloved a fixture that a section of wall covered in his drawings was moved with the magazine's offices more than once. In children's literature circles, though, he is best known for his Caldecott-winning fairy tale Many Moons. Lesser known but no less delightful are the equally wonderful tale of The Great Quillow, The Night the Ghost Got In, The 13 Clocks (fiction), The Wonderful O (fiction), and many adult titles, as well.

James Stevenson

James Stevenson joined the roll of contributors in the 1950s, quickly becoming so prolific that one editor said he turned in more material than they could print, and could easily have filled a whole magazine on his own each month. Indeed, he continued to contribute for decades, in cartoons, written pieces, and covers alike. His picture books reflect this fertile mind, and cross-pollination occurs, as he used a lot of comic book techniques in many of them, with frames and speech bubbles adding another layer to the text. I find his picture books hilarious, though hard to share with a group because of the comic strip elements. Included are The Worst Person In the World, What's Under My Bed?, Monty, Clams Can't Sing, Don't Make Me Laugh, and about a hundred other picture or poetry books, all illustrated in his inimitable style.

Robert Kraus

Robert Kraus was a noted New Yorker cartoonist in the 1950s and 60s, sketching out over 400 cartoons and some 21 covers before turning more of his attention to picture books. He is the author of beloved childhood standards Whose Mouse Are You, Musical Max, and Leo the Late Bloomer.

Sydney Hoff

Hoff brought his recognizable bold-lined style to numerous cartoons in the 1930s to about 1960. He is also an old favourite among children's authors, one whose books remain as popular today as they were when our parents were children. They include Danny and the Dinosaur, Sammy the Seal, Julius, Barkley, Stanley, and host of other goodies, mostly found in the beiginning to read section.

J.J. Sempe

Sempe may not be familiar from the children's literature you grew up with unless you were in a more intensive french programme. He is the author of the French children's favourite series about Petit Nicholas, along with Goscinny (of Asterix & Obelix fame). As well as cartoons, he contributed a regular humourous travel piece for some time, as well as many covers. In fact, I saw one of his on an issue just last month, and he is still going strong.

Frank Modell

Modell was a prolific cartoonist for decades, with pieces published from the 1950s to the 1990s. He illustrated children's books for other authors as well as his own, which include picture books such as Seen Any Cats?, Skeeter and the Computer,and Ice Cream Soup. He also created books celebrating New Year's, April Fool's Day, a book for Valentine's Day that remains one of my favourites, One Zillion Valentines.

In addition to these prolific and long-time contributors, several major children's figures have been regular creators of covers and smaller inside artworks. They include:

Ludwig Bemelmans

You do know this name, don't you? Let me refresh your memory: In an old house in Paris, all covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. The smallest one was Madeline. His stunning artwork has graced covers and added charming accent to many a page over the years.

Jules Feiffer

A contributor of cover art, Feiffer is also the author of picture books Bark, George! (a favourite of mine), I Lost My Bear, and Meanwhile ---, as well as fiction for older children, plays and humour for adults, and so on. The man has range, people. Plus, he's hilarious.

Maurice Sendak

Another major star in children's literature, Sendak was a contributor of covers and decorations, as well as occasional collaborations. Sendak, of course, being the author of everything from The Night Kitchen to Where The Wild Things Are, as well as illustrating everythign from Little Bear to Swine Lake. The man is a mcuh-hailed genius.

Edward Gorey

Gorey was another contributor of artworks, as well as the illustrator of many books both for children and adults. He has written some books as well, though many of them have a slightly more adult sensisbility, or at least will suit a child somewhat older or more sophisticated then your average preschooler. His illustrations for many of Edward Lear's nonsense verses work brilliantly, and perhaps my favourite among his picture books is The Shrinking of Treehorn, while the middle-grade mystery The House With a Clock In Its Walls benefitted from his atmospheric penwork, as well.

Douglas Florian

A fantastic comic poet, Florian also has lovely simple picture books perfect for early vocabulary or rhyming, not to mention contributing a cartoon or two to the magazine.

Ian Falconer

The author of the much-loved Olivia books has also contributed a handful of covers over the past decade or so.

William Joyce

The wonderfully warped mind that created Dinosaur Bob, George Shrinks, and Rolie Polie Olie has also turned out a number of New Yorker covers since the mid-nineties. I love his retro-futuristic sensibility.

William Wegman

His hilarious and instantly recognizable wiemeraner photo art was used for the cover of the 75th anniversary issue. Somehow the sense of humour exhibited in his kids books fits like a glove here.

Maira Kalman

The illustrator of Ooh La La! Max in Love! and other fun children's books brought her wild and kinetic painting style to New Yorker cover art several times in the past dozen years.

Roxie Munro

Munro's detailed, precise style is what makes her a great illustrator for kids books like The Inside Outside Book of New York and others. Detail is also something that has been a feature of those cover artists who have really drawn people in and contibuted over and over again through the years. With over a dozen covers to her credit, she's no exception.

J. Otto Siebold

Siebold has one of those styles that is impossible to mistake for someone else's. Kooky, cool, and somewhat disjointed, he often brings his offbeat sensibility to children's books like the newer holiday favourite Olive, the Other Reindeer, as well as a suitably bizarre recent pop-up of Alice in Wonderland.

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Manners for Minors

If you are like me, you think manners are important. But children are, by definition, uncivilised little beasties, and it is our job to teach them. We teach by example, of course, and by demanding that they follow suit. But what about bringing some into your reading? Showing them that the world at large thinks etiquette counts, too?

Myself, I thoroughly dislike a books that addresses the teaching of children in a didactic tone, an earnest manner. These may be designed to teach, but they are a total turn-off, and I can't imagine the child who would actually want to hear them. Instead, I look for books that teach in a gentler, often sillier, way. Here are a few that I think get the message across without the two-by-four.

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?
How Do Dinosaurs Play With Their Friends?
How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Room?
How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?, by Jane Yolen, ill. Mark Teague

This collection of titles is great fun, while teaching children about better behaviour for a variety of situations. Buoyed by Teague's fantastic illustrations (he is one of my favourites), they suggest some crazy, outrageous behaviours, and then go on to remind of what correct conduct would look like. This approach is a savvy one, winning the kids over with the silly (like the one sticking beans up his nose, which I punch up even more with a silly voice for Pumpkinpie), and then coming back down to reality. If, you know, reality involved dinosaurs with human parents eating at the table.

Little Piggy's Books of Manners, by Kathryn Madeline Allen, ill. Nancy Wolff

This little piggy put her playthings away. This little piggy pouted. This little piggy spoke kindly to others. This little piggy shouted. Bold, quirky drawings show a bunch of behaviours in action, as well as the reaction of others around them. I like the jaunty rhyme, the simple telling, and the extremely fun illustrations in this one.

What Do You Say, Dear? by Sesyle joslin, ill. Maurice Sendak

You are picking dandelions and columbines outside the castle. Suddenyl, a fierce dragon appears and blows red smoke at you, but just then a brave knight gallops up and cuts off the dragon's head. What do you say, dear? (Thank you very much.) This and a host of other silly situations teach youngsters the proper words for polite response. As ever, Sendak's illustrations bring a whole new dimension to the already-funny text. Classic.

Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf, by Judy Sierra, ill. J. Otto Siebold

B.B. Wolf receives, in the mail, an invitation to tea at the library. His friend helps him brush up on his manners and prepare himself, and he spins the tidbits into a little song he sings on the way. Once there, he is doing well, and even slips into the etiquette section to remind himself of what to say at one point. He charms the librarian and the other attendees, including Bo-Peep, Red Riding Hood, and the Gingerbread Man. Siebold's trademark loopy illustrations (think Olive, the Other Reindeer) keep things crazy and a little confusing, but overall, it's a cute reminder that anyone can learn to be polite, even if it only covers a couple of specific rules. The bigger picture is in the payoff, when he manages to totally revamp his image in one afternoon of good behaviour.

I Want My Dinner, by Tony Ross

The Little Princess (yes, the one from the TV show) wants things. But she can't have them without a please. Once she absorbs this lesson, she turns around and teaches it to a beastie, topping it off by requesting a thank you. It's a simple book, and shows her learning just as most kids do - by not getting what she's after until she remembers to add a please. Even royalty is obliged to have manners!

Are You Going To Be Good?, by Cari Best, ill. G. Brian Karas.

Older kids will identify with this one if they have ever been invited to a grownup party. Robert's enthusiasm rides up and down as he is dressed up (good), instructed on how to behave (boring), faced with weird food (gross), told "Don't do that!" innumerable times as he tries to entertain himself (frustrating), and gets to dance with his grandma (super-fantastic). Everything here rings perfectly true to how tiresome a grownup party can be for a kid, but also how special some moments can be. I would suggest this for a kid of 5-10 years old who has gone to these parties or will be soon.

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.

Monday, February 4, 2008

As Seen On TV

Most of my favourite television shows tend to be those that were originally based on picture books or book series. Why? It's not just book snobbery. The fact is that books are designed for narrative, and the shows follow the same pattern set out by the books. They may be formulaic, they may be repetitive, but they are still based on a narrative structure intended for young children.

Shows created from scratch to entertain or educate preschoolers, on the flip side, are based on certain goals, and always feel a little contrived to me. Somehow, if there even is narrative flow, it is constantly interrupted by other aims, and the narratives never feel natural.

The nice thing is that if your child does watch television, you can bring some of his or her favourite characters to story hour, and nestle them among the other great books you might be reading. Especially for a child who is not naturally very drawn in reading, this can help create what we call "print motivation," or an interest and desire for reading books, by helping make books familiar and tapping into things s/he already likes. (I will say this, though - I am a total snob about books based on TV shows - the quality tends to be very poor, and aimed at marketing rather than narrative. I am a bit of a snob, after all!)

Here are some books that inspired shows we have watched over the last year or two:

Max & Ruby - books by Rosemary Wells

Timothy's School Days - books by Rosemary Wells

Franklin - books by Paulette Bourgeois

Arthur - books by Marc T. Brown

Curious George - books by H.A Rey and Margaret Rey

Rolie Polie Olie - book by William Joyce

George Shrinks - book by William Joyce

Little Princess - books by Tony Ross

The Mole Sisters - books by Roslyn Schwartz

Thomas the Tank Engine - books by Rev. Awdry or Christopher Awdry

Little Miss Spider - books by David Kirk

Clifford, the Big Red Dog - books by Norman Bridwell

Kipper - books by Mick Inkpen

Madeline - books by Ludwig Bemelmans

Dragon - books by Dav Pilkey

Find these and lots more off-tube tales at your local public library!

Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.