must own

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

Did you know that the Easter Bunny was a working single mom? True story.

Easter is an odd holiday. While it has admittedly deep religious significance for Christians, for the rest of the world (and for Christians too), Easter mashes together a very weird pastiche of cultural iconography, presumably all about the celebration of “Spring.” Easter is a holiday symbolized by bunnies who deliver eggs (as opposed to chickens who are normally responsible for egg production), cute little chicks that apparently came from eggs that escaped the bunnies’ dye factories, a metric ton of candy, and really, really big hats. I’m not entirely sure how that all comes together to celebrate the Spring Equinox, but, like most major holidays, it’s just weird enough to work. I don’t understand Easter, but I like it and I really enjoy sharing it with my daughter.

And one of the best ways I’ve found to share Easter with my daughter is reading her The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, a book that I regard as THE definitive Easter book for kids. You can find many Easter-themed books at the bookstore, just begging to be tucked into that weird fake grass in your child’s Easter basket, but, trust me, no book has ever done a better job of creating a more enchanting and engrossing mythology around Easter than The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

The Country Bunny might be the world’s first feminist holiday icon…

Originally published in 1939, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was actually authored by Du Bose Heyward, the author best known for writing the novel Porgy, which was the basis for George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Heyward originally composed the story simply to entertain his nine-year-old daughter Jenifer – the book’s subtitle is “as told to Jenifer” – until Marjorie Flack, a noted illustrator, asked him to collaborate with her into turning The Country Bunny into a children’s book.

(If you want a much more detailed and beautifully written account of the book’s origins, check out the entry on The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes on Anita Silvey’s wonderful Book-a-Day Almanac.)

So, what’s so special about this seventy-four-year-old picture book? For starters, it creates one of the most coherent mythologies around Easter that I’ve ever read. As the book opens, Heyward explains to us:

We hear of the Easter Bunny who comes each Easter Day before sunrise to bring eggs for boys and girls, so we think there is only one. But this is not so. There are really five Easter Bunnies, and they must be the five kindest, and swiftest, and wisest bunnies in the whole wide world, because between sunset on Easter Eve and dawn on Easter Morning they do more work than most rabbits do in a whole year.

In The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, Heyward transforms the Easter Bunny into a shared role held by five different rabbits of varying shapes and sizes, which, as a parent, I think is fairly genius. Particularly because, around Easter time, kids are barraged with Easter Bunny meet-and-greet opportunities and the colors and sizes of those Easter Bunny costumes vary WILDLY. But, thanks to The Country Bunny, when my daughter asks me why the Easter Bunny at the mall was white and the Easter Bunny at the grocery store was brown, I can just say, “Hey, remember The Country Bunny? There are five all together, so…” (I realize that Heyward probably wasn’t thinking about furry character photo ops when he wrote the book, but, hey, it works for me.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Giants Beware

A truly superior graphic novel for kids

My daughter and I have read a lot of books together this year. A LOT. But, as the year winds down and I find myself looking back at our favorite books of 2012 – the instant classics, the bedtime staples, the required road-trip reading – I keep coming back to Giants Beware!, a fantastic, tour de force graphic novel by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, which stands as one of the best examples of comics for kids that I’ve ever read.

And, because due diligence is important, I did check with my daughter before bedtime last night and she did authorize me to, quote-unquote, “tell your blog, Dad, that Giants Beware is my favorite new book I read this year.” So, it’s unanimous – Giants Beware is Building a Library’s Best Book of 2012.

What’s so great about Giants Beware? It’s hard to know where to start. I’ve been trying to review it for most of the year, but there are times when I like a book so much that I almost find it impossible to write about it. I find myself tripping over my words, unable to express how much I enjoy the book in question, until I’m halfway tempted to just type “Book am good. Make me happy” and be done with it. But Giants Beware does so much right, it deserves better and, thus, here we are.

With Giants Beware, Aguirre and Rosado have created a blockbuster reading experience. What I mean by that is – this graphic novel is so smart, exciting, accessible, and entertaining that, if it was a movie, it would make $500 million dollars at the box office. The experience of reading Giants Beware is akin to watching a Pixar movie. (One of the best ones.) You just sit there amazed at being told a story with such obvious genius and craftsmanship and also at how you and your child are both able to appreciate it on multiple levels.

That is all to say, I really, really like Giants Beware and so does my kid.

The story revolves around Claudette, a headstrong tomboy who’s always clutching a wooden sword and who can’t wait to one day leave her provincial village and prove herself as a mighty giant slayer. Her father, the town blacksmith, used to be a renowned adventurer (and is now missing a few limbs due to those adventures), and Claudette is aching to follow in his phantom footsteps. She especially wants to set off on a quest to a local mountain range to hunt down a legendary local giant with a reputation for eating babies’ feet. (Aguirre and Rosado are able to make the alleged baby-feet-eating into something that’s really funny as opposed to downright chilling.)

Giants Beware

Don’t cross Claudette if you know what’s good for you…

Claudette is just a fantastic creation – she’s so singularly obsessed with killing monsters that she can barely see anything else in the world. She’s funny, clever, earnest, and loyal – her loyalty particularly shines through when it comes to her best friend Marie and her little brother Gaston. (One of my favorite Claudette lines comes after she dispatches some bullies who were picking on Gaston – “Violence is not just efficient. It feels good, too.”)

Giants Beware

Words to live by…

However, Claudette is so obsessed with slaying the feet-eating giant that she tricks Marie and Gaston into accompanying her on a giant-slaying quest – a quest that was expressly forbidden by both her father and the town’s ruling Marquis (who happens to be Marie’s father). As the kids set off across the countryside towards their date with a giant, pursued doggedly by their annoyed parents, they encounter witches, haunted trees, mad river kings, and a wide variety of fairy tale oddities, experiences that help them test their meddle, conquer their fears, and learn a lot more about the strange world around them.

Giants Beware is a very fun read that really connected with my daughter. It’s a longer graphic novel – around 200 pages – but, the first time I finished reading it to her, my daughter asked me to immediately re-read it, which has never happened before. But the re-read factor isn’t the only reason why I regard this as our favorite book of 2012. While, I’ll admit, there were books we read this year that packed a deeper emotional punch (a tear-jerker, this ain’t), Giants Beware is just an exceptionally accomplished piece of work, a work that shouldn’t be trivialized just because you could accurately describe it as “a fun adventure.”

Giants Beware

This is a seriously funny and beautiful book…

And, personally, one of the main reasons why I think I’ve responded to Giants Beware so strongly is that it expertly plays with so many of the children’s literature themes and tropes that I keep obsessing about on this blog (to the point where it almost feels like it crawled out of my subconscious at times). For example, let me list FIVE areas where I think Giants Beware really, really excels:

1. It’s an Ideal Comic Book for Kids

Recurring readers know that I’m a big proponent of exposing kids to comic books and graphic novels, but, as I’ve complained about before, most comic books aren’t designed in a way to make them accessible to developing readers. The vast majority of so-called “kid’s comics” have miniscule font sizes, hectic layouts, and little-to-no concern with helping new readers follow their way throughout the story. Giants Beware, on the other hand, excels at making itself both accessible and appealing to younger readers. The text is extremely readable, the layouts are clean and clear, and the visual storytelling is top-notch. Even though it’s 200 pages long, Giants Beware is a very quick, readable work for kids. I’d almost equate it to a beginning chapter book, along the lines of a Mercy Watson book, and there just aren’t that many kid’s graphic novels out there that pay such careful attention to the needs of new readers. [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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The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth

Perfect for Tollbooth obsessives…

Back on September 20th, we celebrated Building a Library’s first anniversary and announced that, the following week, I was finally going to start reading The Phantom Tollbooth – the book that inspired this blog – to my almost six-year-old daughter. And then… I took the following week off. Anti-climatic, I know, but it was a crazy week with swim classes and TWO soccer games and I was exhausted and blocked and I apologize. But, now that all my excuses are out on the table, I DID start reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter last week and, so far, it’s been a pretty positive experience.

Let me state up front that I was a little worried that my daughter was too young for The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton Juster expertly plays with language and various abstract concepts throughout the book and I was concerned that aspects of the text would go over her head. As far as I can remember, I probably first encountered The Phantom Tollbooth when I was eight or nine, so I will admit that I am (still) concerned that I might be trying to introduce the novel to my daughter at too early an age. But, regardless of those concerns, I wanted to give Phantom Tollbooth a shot in our coveted bedtime reading slot last week and I’m going to periodically give updates on how the reading is going so far.

I’m calling this series “Phantom Tollbooth: First Read” and I’m planning to structure the updates in a similar style to the re-read or rewatch series that you can find on Tor.com or The Onion‘s AV Club. For those unfamiliar, in those series, the websites pick a book or a movie and a person episodically blogs their reaction to revisiting those works. For example, the blogger might post their ongoing reaction to rewatching all three seasons of Arrested Development or re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, chapter-by-chapter.

For Phantom Tollbooth, I’m going to adopt a chapter-by-chapter model, although some nights, we’ll be reading multiple chapters. For our first week, we started slow, only making it through the first four chapters. In the future, we may be moving through the book at a different pace, largely determined by what we’ve got going on that week. (Fair Warning: A trip to NYC will limit our progress this weekend.) I’ll give a quick summary of the chapter, my thoughts, my daughter’s reactions, and I might even toss in a few pieces of trivia from Leonard S. Marcus’ fantastic The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth as well.

Are we all set? Excuses made and plans delineated? Great. And, with that, let us begin…

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH FIRST READ: CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 – “Milo” and “Beyond Expectations”

CHAPTER ONE: “MILO”

“I do hope this is an interesting game, otherwise the afternoon will be so terribly dull.” – Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, Chapter One

Santa got my letter!

The opening passages of The Phantom Tollbooth were what sold me on the book as a kid. In a few short paragraphs, Norton Juster wonderfully captures the itchy, nagging boredom that can easily consume a child in the wrong frame of mind. I love comedian Louis C.K.’s inspired riff on how “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” and it shares some nice thematic parallels to initial mindset of Milo, the protagonist of The Phantom Tollbooth. To quote Juster:

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’s bothered. Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have.

It’s an incredibly powerful opening and, after reading into it a few paragraphs, I turned to my daughter and asked, “Do you ever feel like that?” “Yes,” she replied. “I get bored a lot.” [read the rest of the post…]

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My Brave Year of Firsts

This is pretty much what it felt like to drop our daughter off to first grade….

Before we get to Bink & Gollie, if you’ve been wondering if Building a Library was on hiatus, I totally understand. Things here at Library Headquarters have been beyond hectic now that my daughter has just begun FIRST GRADE, a big life milestone that (if I’m being honest) I’m still a little weepy about.

The race up to the beginning of her school year was overwhelming with school supply shopping, orientation meetings, and desperate attempts to squeeze in a few final day trips to museums and zoos before first grade finally began.

The weekend before school started, I took my daughter to a local bookstore and told her that, in celebration of her new school year, she could pick out ANY book she wanted. An hour and a half later, I almost regretted that decision. We looked at EVERYTHING. New books, old books, picture books, easy readers, chapter books, audiobooks. Yes, I did have to reiterate SEVERAL TIMES that the toys and stuffed animals in the children’s section did not, in fact, count as reading material and, thus, was not eligible to qualify as “any book you wanted”, but, on the whole, it was fun to watch my daughter browsing her head off, completely lost in the stacks trying to find the perfect book.

My Brave Year of Firsts

This is actually a “perfect” book for any kid about to start first grade…

After trying to steer her towards some good-looking chapter books – she’s interested in Judy Moody, but won’t take the plunge yet – I spent twenty minutes advocating for My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs, and High Fives, a new picture book by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell. Even though I had been previously pushing for my daughter to pick a chapter book, I’ve written about my affection for Curtis and Cornell’s picture books in the past (I find them sentimental in all the right ways) and the book just seemed PERFECT for a kid about to start first grade.

It’s all about a young girl taking the leap and trying a myriad of new things for the very first time. She starts first grade (perfect!), she tries to ride her bike without training wheels (we’re doing that right now!), she makes new friends (just like my kid!), she helps her dad (I’m a dad!), and her name is Frankie (my daughter is named Charley!). My Brave Year of Firsts is a fun, wonderfully illustrated rumination on the benefits of being brave and trying new things and, thematically, it couldn’t have been more perfect for my kid.

So, of course, she didn’t pick it.

(Sorry Jamie and Laura. The book IS pretty great, though, and my daughter has a birthday coming up, so guess what she’s getting?)

Give a kid the power to pick out their own book and they will take full advantage of that privilege. And, after I vetoed a few more toys and at least one Barbie book, I heard my daughter gasp in the stacks and come running towards me.

“THIS is my book.”

Bink & Gollie: Two For One

My kid could’ve picked ANY book in the store, but this is the one she wanted.

The book was Bink & Gollie: Two For One, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee with illustrations by Tony Fucile. It’s an illustrated early reader/chapter book hybrid, a sequel to the original Bink & Gollie, the New York Times bestseller and Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Winner, which happens to be one of my daughter’s favorite books.

I love it when my daughter exhibits good taste.

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? It’s just an amazing title and Bink & Gollie: Two For One definitely lives up to its reputation. [read the rest of the post…]

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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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Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, a literary giant whose works impacted children of all ages (even the grown ones), died today at the age of 83, due to complications that arose from a recent stroke. I write a lot about “essential” books that every child should have in their home library, but, when I look at my past posts, I realize that I haven’t written that much about Sendak and I think I know why. I think I sometimes forget to mention Sendak or recommend his books, because it just seems like a foregone conclusion to me that EVERYONE knows that you MUST read Maurice Sendak. They don’t need me convincing them to pick up a copy of Where the Wild Things Are or In the Night Kitchen. There is something – or there SHOULD be something – just imprinted in our animal DNA that draws us to Sendak’s works. We recognize the emotions, the expressions, the empathy that are all clearly apparent on the faces of his characters and we connect to them on a deeply resonant level.

Where the Wild Things Are

My daughter, at age 1 1/2, at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at Philadelphia's Please Touch Children's Museum. You might recognize this image from the header of this blog.

I keep mentioning that The Phantom Tollbooth was the first book that I ever bought for my daughter, but, what I don’t mention is that I didn’t have to buy her a copy of Where the Wild Things Are because I already had a copy, a copy that I’d bought for myself. As I prepared to leave home for the first time to head for college, for whatever reason, after I was done buying myself bedsheets, a TV, and a computer, I bought myself a hardcover edition of Where the Wild Things Are to keep in my dorm room. And I don’t really know why. Maybe it was something to help me remember my childhood. Maybe it was the equivalent of a literary security blanket. Maybe I was hoping to look deep to college girls and subtly let them know that I was ready to let the “wild rumpus start.” But, my strange motivations aside, I think it says a lot that I couldn’t picture living alone, in my own living space for the first time in my life, without a copy of Where the Wild Things Are ready and available to me whenever I needed it.

That’s the real magic of Sendak. He has so woven his stories into our collective unconscious that it now seems bizarre that there ever were generations in the past that didn’t have Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, or Outside Over There available for their children. While I’m happy that the world will always have his books to cherish for eons to come, I’d admit, it does feel very strange to no longer have the man himself, creating new and vibrant works and constantly reminding children to “Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

As a small tribute to the memory of the great man, I assembled this brief collection of videos that, I think, do a nice job of really showing the universal impact, importance, and grand, unfettered joy of Maurice Sendak and his wonderful works. He will be missed.

Tell Them Anything You Want is a fantastic 40-minute documentary on Sendak assembled by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs, which was released to accompany Jonze’s 2009 big-screen, live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are. This is long, but beautiful – with some wonderful interviews with Sendak himself. [UPDATE: Earlier today, I embedded a link to a full version of Tell Them Anything You Want on YouTube. That link has since been removed due to a copyright claim. In its place, until they take it down, I present this still-pretty-cool, 5-minute excerpt from the documentary.)

Anyone who ever debated Sendak‘s cultural importance should watch this great video of President Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are at the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll.

A longer excerpt of some spirited interviews with Sendak talking about his life and career, which is taken from a DVD released by the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, which is the “sole repository of the original artwork of famed author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and a foremost authority on all things Sendak.”

Anita Silvey, the children’s lit expert behind one of my favorite websites, The Book-a-Day Almanac, gives a wonderful overview of Maurice Sendak‘s personal history and literary career. This is a nice introduction to Sendak for those who don’t know much about the man behind his famous works.

[read the rest of the post…]

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The Monster at the End of This Book

One of the most essential kids' books of all time... seriously

I’ve mentioned several times (probably too many times) on this blog that the very first book I bought for my daughter was The Phantom Tollbooth. But, dear readers, do you know what the SECOND book I ever bought for her was? It was The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Mike Smollin.

So, with the entirety of children’s literature in front of me, why did I choose to purchase a Sesame Street book, a book based on a TV show,  as the second foundational text of my unborn daughter’s home library?

It’s a simple answer – The Monster at the End of This Book is an AMAZING book. It’s a groundbreaking book. In my humble opinion, it is one of THE greatest read-aloud books ever written, it is one of the best “books about books” in the history of literature, and, personally, I have a hard time of thinking of more than a few other titles that do such an effective job of showing kids how breathtakingly FUN reading a book can actually be. And, yes, it’s a book about Grover, a small blue puppet from TV. It’s freakin’ great.

The Monster at the End of This Book was the first “meta” book I ever remember encountering as a child. I know hipsters throw around the word “meta” almost as frequently as they line up for overpriced brunches, but, for the rest of you, a good working definition of “meta” is: “a term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.” In other words, The Monster at the End of This Book is a book that is wonderfully aware that it is, in fact, a book. And that’s a really, really fun and potentially mind-blowing concept to introduce to a young reader.

The Monster at the End of This Book

This book might have my favorite typography of all time

The lead character, Grover – lovable, furry old Grover – is one of Sesame Street‘s friendly monsters and, as the star of this “meta” picture book, he can talk to the readers, he knows that we’ll be turning pages… unlike most characters in children’s literature, he is fully aware that he is a character in a book and he understands the mechanics of reading books. He knows that, in the act of reading a book, we as readers turn pages until we get to the end of the book. And that’s a problem for Grover because, in his post-modern “meta” world, he was able to read the title of his own book and he now knows that “there’s a monster at the end of this book.” And poor old Grover is afraid of that monster and, to prevent us from ever encountering the rumored beast, he wants us to stop reading RIGHT NOW.

That sounds like such a simple idea, but it’s as complexly absurd as anything Lewis Carroll ever proposed in any of his Alice books. Who ever heard of a character asking you to stop reading their book? And he’s not just asking you – he’s BEGGING you. Grover realizes that, every time you finish reading a page and turn to the next one, you are bringing him that much closer to this so-called monster. So there is this tangible countdown, this almost inherent drama at the core of The Monster at the End of This Book, in which, more than in reading almost any other kids’ book, you are in-your-face AWARE that you’re moving towards SOMETHING. And, by asking us to stop reading, Grover has ensured that any curious kid worth their salt absolutely MUST reach the end of this book. [read the rest of the post…]

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Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Some days you eat the bear. Some days the bear eats you

There are SO many “great” children’s books out there. Books that make you laugh, books that capture your interest, books that tell amazing stories – this blog is full of recommendations of “great books” that anyone should be able to enjoy either at home or at the library. However, there are far, far fewer children’s books that I would actually describe as “important.” Because “important books” are extremely rare. Important books are titles that deliver an experience that 99% of other books just can’t match. These are books that challenge worldviews, open eyes, or supply your children with some piece of essential social perspective or vocabulary that they will use for the rest of their lives. And, in my humble opinion, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz is a very “important” book.

Am I overdoing it a bit on my assessment of Alexander? Possibly. It’s a book that I enjoy a lot and remember fondly from my childhood, so there is a definite nostalgia element to my overall opinion of Alexander. But, my personal baggage aside, I really do think that Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is one of the top ten ESSENTIAL books that any kid just HAS to read. It’s a book that I think should be one of the cornerstones of any kid’s home library.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

100% essential reading for kids

Why? Because it’s one of the best books ever written for kids about what it’s like to be a kid. Most books that feature child characters have very set and established modes of storytelling. Some just try to be funny, some try to tell short, sweet adventures, some (more than some) are thinly veiled morality tales – Kid A made Mistake B, learned Lesson C, and never made Mistake B again. Young readers get hit with the same types of story structures again and again and again. They wait for the punchline, the end of the quest, or the very special message and, once everything is wrapped up per usual, they move on to the next title.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a very significant and unusual children’s book because it rejects a lot of those familiar storytelling tropes. There isn’t really a plot to Alexander – we essentially just watch Alexander suffer through having a really not-great day. Everything is narrated from Alexander’s perspective and, from dawn to dusk, we witness things not going Alexander’s way. His opening rant sets the stage perfectly:

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell that it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The very definition of "wrong side of the bed"

Alexander is a hilarious narrator, particularly because, thanks to Viorst’s clever prose, his rants often inadvertently reveal that Alexander isn’t just a victim of bad luck on his very bad day. Sometimes he’s the one creating his own bad luck. [read the rest of the post…]

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I was planning a different post for today, but this morning I realized it was February 29th, i.e. Leap Day, the day that only comes once every four years. Previously I only really enjoyed Leap Day as an excuse to indulge in the bad, old running joke “What if your birthday was on Leap Day? After 16 years, you’d only be 4 years old!” – a joke that has popped up in everything from Pirates of Penzance to Parks & Recreation. But, in recent years, there has been this movement to recast Leap Day as a day where you’re supposed to try new things. It’s the day that doesn’t count, the day that comes around so infrequently that it’s the PERFECT day to finally take big chances. (This new vision of Leap Day was hilariously lampooned on an episode of 30 Rock.)

And I actually love that new definition of Leap Day. It makes February 29th more than just a calendar abnormality. It makes it into something aspirational and optimistic, which are two wonderful qualities for a holiday to have.

Tuesday by David Wiesner

The best Leap Day book EVER.

So, to celebrate Leap Day, I spent my drive into work trying to think of the perfect book to read my daughter tonight to celebrate the Leap Day spirit and then it hit me – David Wiesner’s Tuesday.

Let me get this out of the way – Tuesday by David Wiesner might be the coolest picture book I’ve ever read. If I was making a list of the ten essential books that ANY home library MUST have (ooh, I might actually do that soon), Tuesday would definitely make the list.

David Wiesner is one of the most talented children’s book illustrators that has ever lived, a fact backed up by his unprecedented three Caldecott Medals and two Caldecott Honor citations. He’s the master of the wordless or near-wordless picture book, where he uses his vivid watercolor paintings to tell beautiful stories, capture subtle emotions, and entertain the heck out of parents and children alike. Our family has a short-list of “must-own” authors – children’s book creators whose work we will buy sight-unseen every single time – and Wiesner is definitely on that list.

I’ll do a longer tribute to Wiesner’s oeuvre another day, but, for right now, let me address the question – Why is Tuesday the PERFECT Leap Day book?

Tuesday by David Wiesner

Um, Larry…. what’s happening?

First, it’s all about frogs and reading about frogs on Leap Day is too good of a pun to pass up. Second, the premise of Tuesday really taps into the Leap Day spirit. The book opens with the text “Tuesday evening, around eight” and we then pull in on a turtle in a pond witnessing an awesome sight.

For some unknown reason, EVERY frog in the pond has started to FLOAT up, up, up into the air. Actually, they’re not just floating. They’re full-on flying. They’re soaring through the trees, they’re chasing birds, and, from the expressions on their faces, you can tell that the frogs are LOVING IT. They’re having a blast. They’re doing tricks, they’re sneaking into houses to watch TV, they’re playfully chasing a dog that was previously chasing them – a whole new realm of experience has been opened up to them. [read the rest of the post…]

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