board books

How to Make Sure That Your Baby Shower Book Won’t Get Returned

Don’t follow the leader! Find a way to make your baby shower book stand out from the pack…

There was recently a post on Brightly (a site I’ve been writing for) that I really liked – “8 Baby Shower Books That Won’t Get Returned” by Janssen Bradshaw. Not only did it offer some great gift book suggestions, but it also got me thinking about the subtle politics that go into buying a friend a really great gift book for their baby shower. Because, let’s be frank, you WANT your book to be the favorite. You want your book to be the hit of the shower. And, more than anything, you don’t want your book to suffer that fate worse than death for a gift book – to be returned, with a stack of similar books, for (shudder) store credit.

So, how do you make sure that your baby shower book stands out from the pack? For starters, don’t buy anyone Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, Guess How Much I Love You, or any other standard shower staple. Yes, they’re fantastic books, but they’re PREDICTABLE. Any bookish parent worth a damn is going to get ten copies of those titles from ten different people. They’re the baby shower equivalent of the letters Pat Sajak gives you as freebies during the final puzzle of Wheel of Fortune.

What other advice can I give you? After reading Bradshaw’s article, I took to Twitter the other day to list off some of my favorite tips for buying baby shower books. Some are no brainers, some are super-passive aggressive, and a few are borderline evil. But they should give you a decent idea of how to plan out your baby shower book purchase and ensure that your book finds a place of honor on their child’s bookshelf for years to come.

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If you want any specific ideas for other superior shower books, here are a few suggestions I’ve had in the past:

Five Great Board Books That Aren’t Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny
Building a Library for Friends: Great Starter Books for Your Best Friends’ Baby

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[read the rest of the post…]

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I love the variety of book spines on my kid's bookshelf...

I love the variety of book spines on my kid’s bookshelf…

I’ve never been a big fan of lists like “50 Books Your Kid HAS to Read” or “The 100 Best Children’s Books OF ALL TIME.” Typically, they make my blood pressure spike, tossing me between joy (“Ooh, good pick!”) and rage (“No Sylvester and the Magic Pebble? Those Philistines!”), and I spend more time debating their selection criteria and omissions than enjoying their recommendations. That said, I do think there are certain TYPES of books that every kid should be exposed to, the kinds of books that truly introduce them to the best of what the written word has to offer.

Here are my (very subjective) picks for the EIGHT essential kinds of books that every kid should have in their home library:

BOARD BOOKS

Board books are more of a format than a literary genre, but their impact can be profound. They are the training wheels of literature. They can be given to crazy little toddlers and those ankle-biters can browse them, chew on them, do whatever they want with them, and those thick cardboard pages will ENDURE. They teach kids that books are there to stay AND they allow their chubby little fingers to perfect the art of the page flip, which is possibly the greatest technical innovation in the history of reading. (Sorry, eReaders, but you can’t compete with the awesome power of the perfectly-placed page turn.)

MYTHOLOGY

Our world has a ridiculously rich and involved cultural history and it would be a shame not to introduce your child to it at a young age. And I’m not just talking about Greek Myths, which, granted, can have a bit too much god/animal coupling for young readers. I’m talking about the stories, the BIG STORIES, that everyone in our world knows. The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Cinderella, Noah and the Flood, Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, stories of Anansi, King Arthur, Superman, and Strega Nona – the foundational stories. The stories that are referenced throughout every other story your kids will be reading for the rest of their lives. That foundation HAS to be laid somewhere and it should start at home.

BOOKS YOU LOVED AS A KID

Yes, you can’t expect that your child will have the exact same taste as you do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to share your favorite books with your kid. At the very least, it will show them what it looks like when a book truly has a profound effect on a person, when a book is treasured and loved. And who knows? They may surprise you.

BOOKS THAT SUIT THEIR PERSONALITY

This may be hard to hear, but, if your kids love talking about farts, burps, and boogers, you should buy them some books about farts, burps, and boogers. That doesn’t mean that you should ONLY let them read about what they want, but, if you really want your child to enjoy reading, they have to know that their interests are represented in the books they read, even if those interests are completely incomprehensible.

Reading only one kind of book is boring...

Reading only one kind of book is boring…

POETRY

I know a lot of adults who don’t enjoy reading poetry personally, but I can’t stress enough how powerful poetry can be for young readers. If normal prose is a Volvo, poetry is a Lamborghini – it takes language, floors the accelerator, and really shows you what words can do. Poets like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein teach kids that, when assembled correctly, even in ways that don’t seem to make sense, words can make a person feel a ridiculously deep range of emotions, and kids LOVE THAT. [read the rest of the post…]

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Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same

Just in case you were wondering, Grace Lin’s “Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same” is one of the best kids’ books about twins I’ve ever read

A few months ago, I found out that two of my best friends in the world were having a baby. And not just “a baby”, they were having twins – twin girls – after years of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant. Needless to say, I was overjoyed, just completely over the moon for them. But then… all my OCD impulses kicked in and I immediately thought, “Oh man, I have to make sure those girls have a decent selection of reading material.” So, for the second time, I embarked on an attempt to “build a library” for a new baby (or babies, as it were).

I used the same methodology I used for my own daughter – I would buy one book a week during the pregnancy and I would try to stay away from books that they’d probably get as baby shower gifts. (Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, anything that’s available at Target, etc.)

However, a few weeks into the pregnancy, my friends turned to me and said, “Hey, remember that whole one-book-a-week thing you did for Charley? We’re doing it too.” I laughed hysterically, said “Good to know!”, and pulled out the eight-or-so books that I’d already bought them. Fortunately, we hadn’t doubled up on any of the books – but they’re twins, so I feel doubling up is OK – and it just reaffirmed my long-held opinion that my friends are AWESOME.

But it didn’t stop me from buying the books. All it did was add another variable to my selection process. So now I buy one book a week, try to stay away from books that they’d probably get as baby shower gifts, and try to stay away from books they’d buy themselves. (And I’m being a little more diligent about saving the gift receipts as well.)

They’re in around their 20th week of the pregnancy, so I haven’t finished my “40-week library for friends” yet, but I thought I’d share what I’d bought them so far to give you some ideas about buying books for expectant parents. (I’ll share the second half of my library list after the twins are born.)

If asked to “build a library” for the children of my very best friends, these are some of the books that would immediately rise to the top of my list. Yes, it’s subjective and selective and built around my own weird variables – there aren’t any Mo Willems books on the list yet because I wanted to see how many Pigeon books they’d get at their baby shower – but I think ANY of these books are great places to start.

If you’re building a library for a friend or even just looking for some great baby shower gifts, these books are definitely worth checking out. (Some of these books have been covered on the blog before, so I’ll provide links to the longer write-ups.)

1. My Friends by Taro Gomi

My FriendsLast September, I called My Friends “an ideal bedtime book. Truth be told, I literally read My Friends to my daughter at bedtime every single night I put her to bed from when she was five months old until she was about 15-months-old.” One of the best board books in history, in my humble opinion.

2. Press Here by Herve Tullet

Press HereLast November, I called Press Here “a fairly amazing book because it doesn’t wow its audience with a story or with particularly flashy illustrations, but rather it draws readers in with interactivity, with humor, and with that drive that comes with all printed books – the drive to see what happens next, to see what’s happening on the next page.”

3. Animalia by Graeme Base

AnimaliaWe actually don’t own a copy of Animalia ourselves – I don’t know if my daughter has ever read it – but it is simply one of the most expansive and beautiful alphabet books that I’ve ever encountered. Graeme Base has created this gorgeous tapestry of images, a collection of widescreen fantastical images of animal life, each accompanied by short alliterative phrases like “An Armoured Armadillo Avoiding an Angry Alligator.” I love the idea of taking the 70mm Cinemascope beauty of Base’s illustrations and plopping it in front of a young child. It will blow their minds. And they’ll think the alphabet is a million times more interesting than it actually is.

4. Jamberry by Bruce Degen

JamberryEasily one of our most read board books of all time. I don’t what makes Jamberry so appealing to young children, but my daughter loved it. The story follows a boy and his bear best friend berry-picking and wandering through a variety of berry-inspired landscapes. We start with “One berry, two berry, pick me a blueberry” and, as the boy and the bear head out “looking for berries / berries for jam”, the verses quickly pick up steam. The whole book is a crescendo, throwing the friends into one bigger situation after another, escalating to the point where their travels involve marching bands and elephants figure-skating on jam. And every page of Jamberry is just teeming with berries in every way, shape, or form. It’s a lovely, energizing book to read out loud and, in my experience, kids love Bruce Degen’s visuals of his odd little berry universe.

5. The Little Red Hen and The Three Little Pigs by Paul Galdone

Little Red HenLast November, I wrote an article about “The Difficult Task of Introducing Your Kid to Folk Tales and Fairy Tales” and one of my recommendations was to steer kids towards “anything in Paul Galdone’s Folk Tale Classics series.” Galdone is a tremendous author and illustrator and his “Folk Tale Classics” represent some of the best retellings of “classic” stories that I’ve ever seen. If you want your kid to grow up with a firm knowledge of everyone from The Gingerbread Man to Red Riding Hood, Galdone is your man. For this library project, I went with two of my daughter’s favorite editions of Galdone’s folk tales – The Little Red Hen and The Three Little Pigs.

6. Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile

Bink and GollieBack in September, I waxed rhapsodic over the second Bink & Gollie book, Two for One, but the original is just as good, if not better. With Bink & Gollie, the authors – Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, and Tony Fucile – have created a George & Martha for a new age. It’s a beautiful, hysterically funny look at friendship. As I mentioned in my review of Two for One, “I’ve been meaning to write about the original Bink & Gollie for months now (and I still probably will one day), but it’s one of those books that is SO good that it’s actually intimidating to write a review of it. How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post?” That’s all still true. This is a home library essential.

7. Frederick by Leo Lionni

FrederickI have never, ever encountered a book that does a better job of explaining the importance and value of art and artists than Leo Lionni’s Frederick. It takes all of these abstract concepts like art and emotion and, through the travails of these brilliant little collage mice, makes them easily understandable for young readers. This is a STAGGERING book with an amazing message, and it’s fun to read too. My daughter loves it. [read the rest of the post…]

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

We see an old guy overanalyzing the heck out of a 26-page book for babies….

In my last post about Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle‘s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, I talked a lot about how reading the book aloud to my daughter became this shared meditative experience between the two of us. It’s a book that, to me, really comes alive when you read it out loud. I also mentioned that Gwyneth Paltrow had narrated an audio version of the book and debated whether the book could sound as powerful coming from a recording. Well, thanks to magic of YouTube, we can test that theory.

There are several different readings of Brown Bear, Brown Bear available on YouTube, so I picked THREE different versions and, dear readers, I’d like you to take a listen to all three and let me know what you think. Is there a version that particularly resonates with you? Do any of them fall completely flat? Would you actually play any of these for your kids? I’m interested to hear your feedback.

The first version is the author, Bill Martin Jr., reading the book himself. He definitely brings his own musical rhythm to the text, singing the lines like they were the lyrics of a children’s song from his youth.

The next reading of Brown Bear is the aforementioned Gwyneth Paltrow version. I’m including a video that has the highest-quality audio I could find, but, just a heads-up, it doesn’t follow along with the book. (There is a version that pairs Paltrow’s reading with a flip through the book – you can see it here – but the audio quality in that video is really bad, so I didn’t think it was fair to feature it.) Paltrow actually reads the book closer to how I read it. She takes her time, she doesn’t sing the words – I never read the book as a song – and she actually does voices for the animals. It’s an interesting take.

The third reading totally turns Brown Bear, Brown Bear into a song. In fact, it sings the entire book to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” If I’m being honest, it would be an understatement to say that I @#$%ing hate this version.

Which one is your favorite? Or would you rather just stick with live readings?

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

I see a book that should be a fixture in any home library…

Ever since I started this blog almost a year ago (our first anniversary is rapidly approaching), I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a post along the lines of “The Ten Essential Children’s Books You MUST Have in Your Home Library.” It’s the kind of article that’s easy to write, it attracts traffic, and it can be a great discussion starter, if done right. (If done wrong, it can be trite, repetitive, and disposable.) However, every time the idea occurs to me, I find myself paralyzed when it comes to trying to define the criteria for the list. What makes a book essential? Will my definition of “essential” correlate to other parents’ definitions? How can I say that these ten books have more inherent value than every other book ever published? I’ve just never been able to tackle the topic in a way that makes me comfortable.

But, with all that said, I will say that, if your kid doesn’t have their own copy of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle, there is something truly significant missing from your home library.

Is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? an “essential” children’s book? To me and my subjective definition of “essential”, yes, it is. Why? There are a lot of reasons, but if I had to pick one, it would probably be this – it is a magical picture book to read aloud to a young child.

For younger readers (and I’m talking mostly about kids ranging from newborn to around three years old), it seems like most of the books targeted at their age group fall into one of FOUR main categories.

First, there are STORY books. These are books that – surprise, surprise – tell a story. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They follow the arc of a character from point A to point B. Maybe they have a message or moral to convey. Most books fall into this category – fairy tales, legends, Red Riding Hood, Madeline, Strega Nona, etc.

Second, there are (what I call) STIMULUS-RESPONSE books. These are books that are less structured around a story and are more structured around eliciting some kind of response or feedback from your kid. Pat the Bunny is an example – it’s a book that wants you to (wait for it) pat the bunny. Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is another example. That picture book isn’t setting up a big character transformation or narrative adventure for the Pigeon. Rather, it wants its readers to yell out “NO!” and to answer the Pigeon when he begs to be allowed to drive the bus. These are books designed to encourage interaction. (Press Here is another great stimulus-response book.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Baby Reading a Book

Question: What's cuter than a baby reading a book? Answer: Almost nothing.

The upside to having your own kid lit blog is that now, when friends’ kids have birthdays or when a new baby is born, the expectation is that I should be the one who gets to go out and buy new books for the kids. This fact delights me, since I really enjoy buying books, and vaguely annoys my wife (which also kind of delights me). Granted, the existence of the blog also adds some added pressure to my book picks as people now expect that I’m only going to select profoundly great titles for their children, which is a hard expectation to live up to. So, it was with this mixture of joy and anxiety that I headed out to the bookstore last night to buy some new books for friends who just had a new baby. (A girl named Scout – how cool is that?)

I decided to stick to board books because there are years and years to make sure that your kid has a great library of paperback and hardcover classics at their fingertips, and I love actually giving babies books that they can start abusing right away. Board books are solid, sturdy, and, if your baby HAS to chew on something, I’d rather have them chomping on some high quality kid lit as opposed to just some old binky or blanket. Plus I think one of the best things you can do to encourage your children to read is to just have lots of books around and available for them to experience. Books need to be a part of their daily environment, and board books are very safe, very accessible reading material for developing kids.

I did a feature a while back on “Five Great Board Books That Aren’t Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny and, while those are all great board book titles that I recommend HIGHLY – don’t get me wrong, Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny are still must-own canon classics – I decided to pursue a few different options this time, picking out a mixture of classic and newer titles. If you’re in the market for some new board books or if you’re about to buy a gift for a friend with a young baby or toddler at home, here are the five board books I bought last night, all of which I’d definitely recommend.

Board Books

Note the gift receipt as I hedge my bets....

1. The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone, illustrated by Mike Smollin

OK, after yesterday’s post, I kinda had to buy this one, didn’t I? But it’s still one of the best board books ever.

2. Dinosaur vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea

Dinosaur vs. Bedtime

Always bet on bedtime...

We actually don’t own any Bob Shea books ourselves, but he’s been on our radar for a long while – my daughter read I’m a Shark at a friend’s house and loved it – so I decided to pick up Dinosaur vs. Bedtime and give it a read at the store. I’m glad I did. Shea’s illustrations are fun and bombastic, and the whole book just has this wonderful anarchic energy that I think kids will really respond to. (Also, Dinosaur reminded me of the six-year-old older brother of the new baby I was buying for, so that was an added bonus.)  In the book, Dinosaur throws him up against obstacle after obstacle – a pile of leaves, spaghetti, his parents, etc. – and, after tackling his opponents, he throws his hands up and declares “Dinosaur WINS!” However, at the end of the book, Dinosaur discovers the one opponent he can’t defeat – bedtime. [read the rest of the post…]

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