reading aloud

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?


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…]


PSSST! by Adam Rex

Sloths: Not great candidates for read-aloud video narrators…

Read-aloud videos on YouTube are a mixed bag. There are some where I marvel at how inventive and emotive the reader is, and there are others where I literally spend the duration of the video clip screaming, “OHMYGOD, YOU’RE MISSING ALL THE GOOD PARTS! SOMEBODY STOP THEM!” While looking over my summer reading picks for this week, I did happen upon this read-aloud video for Adam Rex‘s PSSST!, which was created for the first-grade class of a teacher named “Miss Allender.” It’s a pretty charming clip, so I thought I’d share it to give you one reader’s interpretation of the inspired lunacy of PSSST!

And, as an added bonus, I also found this very cool, very endearing video of a puppet show adaptation of PSSST! that was performed at the Salt Lake City Library in March 2009. Enjoy.



Strangely enough, I know children’s picture books that are WAY creepier than this…

We have many, many different kinds of books in my daughter’s home library. Funny books, beautiful books, repetitive books, moralizing books, movie tie-in books, over-her-head books – even though most of those books are either picture books or early readers, just within those two formats, there are so many different subtle variations and sub-categories that it boggles the mind. But, there is one category, perhaps more than any other, which remains constantly on my radar, particularly at bedtime. Those are the books that my daughter absolutely loves, but that totally and completely creep me out.

Last week, Time Magazine critic and author Lev Grossman wrote a great article titled “Hating Ms. Maisy: The Joy, Sorrow and Neurotic Rage of Reading to Your Children” that should resonate with any parent who’s had to suffer through their fiftieth straight bedtime reading of their child’s favorite Berenstain Bear or Magic Tree House book. (BTW, Grossman’s novel The Magicians is definitely on my “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” list.) Grossman talks about the unhealthy relationship that starts to develop between a parent and a bedtime book that’s fallen into heavy rotation – in his words: “The fact that my children’s taste is not my own, while obvious, is one I’ve found strangely hard to accept” – and I know exactly what he’s talking about.

One of my favorite parts in Grossman’s article is when he discusses how, after multiple readings, a parent’s “own unresolved neuroses and secret fears” can start getting wrapped up in their child’s favorite bedtime stories. (“Picture books can be kind of like Rorschach blots that way. You see what you want to see.”) Citing some examples, Grossman mentions that:

I find Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman creepy beyond belief—that snowman reminds me of the frightful Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. The way he tries on the boy’s sleeping parents’ clothing… you can see he’s thinking about doing away with them, right then and there, with his bare, blobby snow-hands.

The Snowman

I don’t find this book nearly as creepy as Grossman does…

My first reaction to that paragraph was to laugh for two minutes straight. My second reaction was “Hey… my kid LOVES The Snowman!”

And she does. The Snowman might be one of our most frequently read bedtime books of all time. I’ve had magical experiences reading my daughter The Snowman after a long day playing out in the cold and building our own snowman. But, despite my family’s reverence for the book, I completely see where Grossman is coming from.

The story IS kind of freaky. A boy’s snowman comes to life. The boy invites it into his house late at night. The snowman and the boy sneak around the house, performing a series of random, mundane activities – staring at his sleeping parents, trying on clothes, playing in the family car, cooking a full sit-down dinner – that all seem fairly sinister in a house full of sleeping people in the middle of the night. The boy and the snowman then fly around the world (?), return home, and the next day, the snowman melts into oblivion. (Please understand that I’m deliberately summarizing the book in an odd fashion. We really do love that book.) And, while the potentially unsettling nature of the snowman’s nocturnal visit has never really emerged while reading the book to my daughter at bedtime, the second Grossman mentioned his own darker take on the book, as a parent, I immediately thought, “Oh yeah, I can see that.”

The Snowman

OK, Bobby, get the bungie cords and ball gags. Let’s show your parents what happens when they send you to bed without dessert.

And why can I see Grossman’s point so easily? Because I have my own list of books from my daughter’s home library that weird me out to my very core. [read the rest of the post…]


How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse

My daughter BEGGED me to find this book at our library.

And we’ve come to the end of our week! (Cue the Rebecca Black song.) Welcome to the FIFTH installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, our new series in which we spend an entire business week profiling the various books that my five-year-old daughter and I checked out from our local library last week. We came home with five books and we’ve been listing the books in the order they were selected, so today we’ll talking about the fifth and final book we chose to take home with us. Our fifth title was a chapter book – How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series by Cressida Cowell, which follows the “heroic misadventures” of a young Viking-in-training named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III.

You might be familiar with the name “How to Train Your Dragon” from the successful (and actually very good) 2010 DreamWorks animated movie, which was based on the original book.

But before I start talking about How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, you need to know THREE things:

1. The How to Train Your Dragon movie was a very, very loose adaptation of the original book. (There are some significant differences.)

2. We have not actually finished reading How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse. We’ve only had it out for a few days and it’s a 272-page book. My daughter and I read a few chapters at bedtime most nights (but I don’t out her down every night). So… I won’t be talking about many specifics regarding How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

3. I absolutely love – LOVE – the How to Train Your Dragon series. For me, it will forever be the first chapter book series that my daughter ever fell in love with, which has won it a very special place in my heart.

Are we all set on my three very important things? (Insert self-mocking emoticon here.) I opened with those because I really wanted to establish exactly why my five-year-old was checking out the fourth chapter in a series of juvenile novels for young readers. It’s because she’s over the moon for the adventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and she’s INSISTING that we read every single book in the series.

How to Train Your Dragon series

The first eight books in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series. The ninth book – “How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword” – is not pictured.

So, how did we start reading the How to Train Your Dragon series? Well, long-time readers of this blog will remember that, in the past, my daughter would never, ever let me read longer books with her at bedtime. At the time, the longest title we’d ever read to her at bedtime was probably one of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson books. But several parents we knew were already reading their children chapter books and early YA novels at bedtime, raving about how their kids were just LOVING the first Harry Potter books, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and so on. And my wife and I – we wanted in on that action. It just sounded like way too much fun. [read the rest of the post…]


The Knight and the Dragon

Some books are more important than others...

If the subtle, subversive charms of The Knight and the Dragon aren’t enough to convince you that Tomie dePaola is one of our most important children’s book creators, I dare you to watch the video below, in which dePaola describes the importance of reading and reading aloud, and not fall in love with the guy.

My favorite part of the interview is where dePaola talks about being asked the question “Why do you think reading is important?” and how he prepared a very “intricate sentence” as his response. And his response was fantastic:

Reading is important because, if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.

Isn’t that great?


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…]


The Purple Kangaroo

Believe it or not, but Cormac McCarthy will NOT do stuff like this to promote his books...

I wrote yesterday about how much I enjoyed comedian Michael Ian Black‘s picture books and, as I browsed the YouTube channel of Black’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, last night, it quickly became apparent to me why ANY publisher would want to have an established comedian as one of their authors – they’re INSANELY good at promoting themselves.  Sure, the comedian needs to be good writer, first and foremost, but, if the book is good, the publisher also inherits this wonderful promotional partner, a partner who is really skilled at getting in front of a camera or a crowd and engaging audiences.

Self-promotion skills seem to be a pre-requisite for ANY up-and-coming author nowadays – they’ve got to start their own websites, establish their own social media presence, go on self-funded tours, etc. – but, when you’ve got a performer like Black, who’s had decades of experience at selling people on his persona, you really start to appreciate how valuable it must be to a publisher to have someone this funny trying to sell your books for you.

That’s all a very long-winded way of saying – check out these extremely funny videos Black made to promote The Purple Kangaroo. The first has a kangaroo-costumed Black reading his book and the second is a hysterical look into the creation of the picture book, in which Black plays up his loveable d-bag on-stage persona and wonderfully torments illustrator Peter Brown. Enjoy.


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

Maybe these videos will cheer him up...

As I mentioned in my review, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a universally appealing story for the simple reason that everyone in the world has had the experience of having a really, really bad day. (Right now, your brain is trying to get you to start unconsciously humming Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”. For the love of humanity, FIGHT that urge.) So, since Alexander is such a relatable tale, it’s not surprising that there have been several multimedia adaptations of the book over the years.

The first video I want to share is probably my favorite – it’s Judith Viorst reading Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day on the Barnes & Noble website.  (I always think it’s great to hear an author read their own work.)

Next is a cartoon adaptation of Alexander that aired on HBO in 1990. This video is the first of three parts of this “musical” – yes, musical – version of Alexander’s very bad day. It’s… not great, in my humble opinion. The songs aren’t exactly Book of Mormon caliber, the animation quality is sub-Rugrats… it’s very much an artifact of the 1990s.

Finally, here’s a brief look at the LIVE musical production of Alexander that Judith Viorst teamed with the Kennedy Center to produce in 1998. This adaptation has toured around the country and it looks silly and fun… even though the trailer does use Powter’s “Bad Day”… shudder…. [read the rest of the post…]


Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace

The detective wore sneakers....

My wife has been having a lot of fun recently reading some older chapter books with our daughter at bedtime (Lulu and the Brontosaurus, The Tale of Despereaux, Roald Dahl’s The Witches), and, I’ll admit, I’ve been stone-cold jealous. My few recent attempts to read longer works with our daughter have failed rather spectacularly, either degenerating into her telling me how much she dislikes “black and white only” books or with her working herself up into a frenzy because “Harry Potter is too scary for me, Dad! Don’t! DO NOT read it to me!!” (In my own defense, I’d barely lifted The Sorcerer’s Stone off the shelf before the freak-out commenced.) I love reading picture books and beginning readers with her, but I was anxious to see her reaction to being exposed to slightly longer, slightly more mature reading material. Plus she sat and listed quietly for her mom, so it’s not fair. (Crosses arms and pouts.)

My salvation ended up coming from an extremely nostalgic place for me – Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series.

When I was a kid, our home library didn’t have a FRACTION of the books that my daughter has available to her every day. We used our local library a lot and I only have a vague recollection of a few specific books that we actually owned ourselves. (Just FYI – I have a notoriously lousy memory.) I remember our house having copies of The Giving Tree, Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, a metric ton of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and an almost complete collection of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace

This might sound odd, but the illustration of this sign is easily one of the most iconic images from my childhood...

I picked up a copy of Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace, volume six of Sobol’s original series, while on a family vacation two weeks ago and got almost giddy with nostalgia and long-forgotten memories as I flipped through the collection. Encyclopedia Brown gets mocked a lot in popular culture – getting jabbed at in everything from possibly my favorite Onion article ever to the fantastic cult comedy, Mystery Team, by Donald Glover and Derrick Comedy – BUT I legitimately, totally, and unironically love and respect the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

I think some people dismiss Donald Sobol as formulaic, which I understand, but give the man his due for creating a really wonderful formula. Sobol PERFECTED the procedural mystery for early readers. The “procedural mystery” is an incredibly powerful storytelling format, which has dominated television programming for years now in shows like CSI, NCIS, Castle, Psych, Law & Order, and House, among many others. People find comfort and structure in the procedural mystery. The stories are quick, detail-packed, and normally engaging since the reader will spend the duration of the tale wondering “whodunit”. And, if you have really great writers, you can tell some amazing stories in the procedural mystery format too.

Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace

Pre-teen Sherlock vs. a very dim pre-teen Moriarty

I actually think Sobol is a great writer, and his mysteries are perfectly structured for early readers with potentially short attention spans. He uses recurring characters to make the reader empathize with his cast, he tells his stories in quick 6 to 10 page bursts, and he even gives his young readers a physical activity – flipping to the back of the book to read the solution to the mystery – to keep their interests.

Yes, Leroy Brown solves crimes WAY too easily and most of his cases can be cracked thanks to his obsessive knowledge of odd bits of obscure trivia. (“That sword isn’t from the Civil War! If it was, why would the inscription read the FIRST Battle of Bull Run… yadda, yadda, yadda.”) But, given the age of his target audience, I think all those are moot points. Sobol wasn’t trying to be Agatha Christie. He was making creative problem solving entertaining for kids through a nice mixture of relatable characters and the tried-and-true mystery format.

And, yes, the Encyclopedia Brown collections are fairly repetitive – but so is most series’ fiction. I think the constant, continually rebooting world of Brown’s hometown of Idaville is a welcoming, familiar place for young readers. Kids know how the world works in Idaville and, when reading an Encyclopedia Brown mystery, they’re using their aggregated past knowledge of how Sobol’s procedurals traditionally work to see if they can mentally jump to the solution hidden at the end of the book before they physically have to turn the pages and see if they’re right. In my opinion, it’s a really winning formula that encourages kids to be active, questioning readers and I don’t think Sobol gets enough credit for the simplicity and elegance of the Encyclopedia Brown format. [read the rest of the post…]