Tag Archives: picture books

Using Picture Books to Teach Short Answer Questions

Click here for a PDF of some examples to try this with your middle schoolers.

Ah, the “short” answer question. We all know that the answers to these aren’t short, especially not when you first start getting them and they feel like you’re practically writing an essay in response. They appear on tests, on reading comprehension sheets, on all kinds of assignments starting by the end of middle school and continuing all through college.

A lot of kids (and Mushroom is one) seem to get these from the get go. They understand more or less how to structure an answer to one of them. It still takes them practice. Some of the things kids struggle with when give complex questions include:

  • Not answering all the different parts of the question.
  • Not giving any specific examples from the text.
  • Not giving any quotes from the text,  even when prompted to do so.
  • Having trouble finding evidence from the text.
  • Answering the question in overly vague terms, such as, “Yes, they do,” or, “He’s really good at it,” or other such answers that may be correct, but are too unspecific.
  • Not drawing a connection between the different parts of an answer to make it clear that they go together in one, overall answer to the question.

Basically, learning to do these questions takes practice.

But sometimes, there’s a kid who just can’t do them at all. BalletBoy was such a kid.

I should not have been surprised. After all, this was the same student who could read a detailed children’s book, understand all the information, and then, when faced with writing a summary, write a meandering summary of one detail mentioned on the fourth page and all the things he knew about it, most of which weren’t mentioned in the book at all.

So, what do we do when faced with a student who is stuck? Always, take it backward. Back it up and see if you can make it simpler.

I pulled out the picture books and made him dive in with some questions about those instead. We started with The Sneeches. How does McBean exploit the sneeches and what is Seuss trying to say about capitalism? I pulled out One Morning in Maine next. How does McCloskey highlight the theme of growth and change over and over in the story?

Each time we tried another question, he got a little better at it. He wasn’t especially good at first, but with the books he’s reading for school, he’s often struggling with the content. It’s meant to be a little challenging so that’s fine, as long as the struggle isn’t too much. However, struggling with the content of the books and the questions was too much, especially when these types of in depth questions are still a little new. So instead, practicing the questions on content that he is decidedly not struggling with at all, like picture books, has been a good call.

The best part was that after we had done a few picture books, he said, “That really helped.” Guys, that’s about at effusive as the praise gets with thirteen year-olds, especially for school subjects.

Anyway, if you want to try this, pull the picture books off your shelves and just make up questions. I think fairy tales and folk tales would also work well for this. And, to get you started, I wrote up some of the questions we’ve used and threw in a few more since we’ll likely keep doing this off and on to practice different types of reading questions.

You can download the questions I made by clicking HERE or on the image at the top.

The Rediscovery of Picture Books

Mushroom and BalletBoy, in the last few months, have rediscovered picture books as independent reads.  We have never totally left picture books behind us.  We kept reading them aloud occasionally for fun, as well as many that tied into history and science.  When we did our unit on Africa last spring, the kids read the picture books independently and we have done many US history picture books as independent reads as well.  I think a lot of parents these days shuffle their kids toward chapter books too quickly and try to pass this stage of reading by.

Over the summer, something suddenly clicked where both boys have been reading and checking out picture books more of their own accord.  I think part of it is that they’re now easy enough and both boys have been gratified by many of the history picture books they’ve read for school.  Many picture books have a higher reading level than the early chapter books that kids read, so even though they’re short, they can be challenging for many kids.  But more than the reading level, I think it’s that neither of them feels they have anything to prove anymore about reading.  It’s just something they do, so there’s no stake in trying to read a longer book.  They’ve both done that many times, so they feel free to read a short story now as well.  I think they like finishing a book in a single sitting.

While most picture books are sadly being pigeonholed as for younger kids these days, it hasn’t always been so, and there are many amazing longer picture books for kids to read and enjoy out there or picture books whose humor or style appeal to older kids.  Many of the best books for kids to read in elementary school are picture books.  They have a richer vocabulary and plots than easy readers or series chapter books and are even more sophisticated than many popular middle grades books.  I had a post ages ago about a few picture books that aren’t for babies. Here are a few more of varying length and difficulty, many of which have recently been read and enjoyed here.

Zathura by Chris Van Allsburg
Most of Van Allsburg’s books are like perfect little short stories for this age group.  He’s a great illustrator, obviously, with extremely detailed black and white illustrations in most of his books.  He’s also an imaginative storyteller.  This is a perfect example of one of his more appealing books.  We had not read it in a long time and the boys suddenly found it again and reread it with excitement.

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman
I just love this little book about a misfit boy who spends summer creating his own culture, complete with language, staple crop, sports and clothes.  The illustrations are bright and colorful.  The plot, with its themes of bullying and detailed imagination, seems perfect for slightly older kids who aren’t ready to leave playing pretend behind yet.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
This is one of those classic stories.  Many of Steig’s animal tales have an almost disturbing element to them.  The predators are actually all cruel predators in his tales, after the sweet donkeys, mice, and so forth.  We’ve been reading this one aloud since the kids were very young, but it’s now the sort of story they like to read on their own.

Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin
This series of sweet bug tales is practically an easy reader series in picture book format, but I’ve seen my kids keep going back to it, chuckling at the jokes and enjoying the story.  Unlike some of the others on this list, they could probably read several all at once, but they still enjoy them.  The illustrations are cartoony and the format of the diary makes them perfect for independent reading.

Meanwhile by Jules Feiffer
This is another very short picture book, but like other “meta” stories about books, such as Interrupting Chicken and David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, my kids keep going back to this one as an amusing little tale.  Feiffer brings his frantic cartoon style to this story of a boy who keeps changing the story by jumping from one panel to the next via a “Meanwhile…” in order to get out of chores.

Dear Mrs. LaRue by Mark Teague
This series, about a smug dog, is a perfect quick independent read for this age.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Mark Teague’s.  He’s one of the great illustrators in my mind and his stories are always excellent.  One of the best things about this series is the way that the dog is betrayed as a terrible liar by the illustrations.

Pirate Diary by Richard Platt
This oversized picture book series, which also includes one about a castle and one about ancient Rome, is nearly as long as a short chapter book, but packaged with great illustrations, including two page spreads throughout.  It’s incredibly detailed and historically useful, so they make good history tie ins.  However, they’re also just fun reads, especially for any child interested in history.

Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco
Polacco is one of those authors, along with Eve Bunting, who write picture books so detailed  and deep that they can be touching reads even for adults.  We’ve used Polacco’s book Pink and Say for school recently and I took this one out as well.  In both, she mines her own family history to create stories with layered characters and plots.  She tackles cross-cultural friendships and issues in ways that are just right for kids.  Hers are the sort of picture books that no one can say are for toddlers.

Amazing Africa Picture Books (and a few other resources)

We ended up having our Africa unit based mostly around picture books.  However, in the end, I feel like I found a nice variety of resources.  I still lament that there are other resources that don’t seem to exist.  I can think of a lot of African figures whose lives could make great picture book biographies, for example!  But alas.  I’m not unhappy with what I found.

In addition to the resources I’m listing below, which don’t represent every book I read, just the best ones, I found the book Amazing Africa Projects You Can Build Yourself by Carla Mooney to be a perfect resource.  The projects suggested are just okay.  However, the text of the chapters that go with it is actually what turned out to be the best part.  It gives a nice overview of everything you can imagine – geography, ancient and recent history, animals, houses, music, dance, art and a number of other topics.  It’s all very readable and accessible.  Honestly, it turned out to be the best survey of Africa for children that I found.

We also found some other things very useful.  We’ve had on the Pandora Afro-pop station and have enjoyed grooving to some Miriam Makeba and Zap Mama, among others.  We’ve found several good nature documentaries about African animals, which is probably no surprise.  However, the best video resource I found was the show Africa’s Child, which is available if you have Discovery Streaming.  Each episode is fifteen minutes long and follows a different child (usually a young teen) in a different African country.  A boy in rural Cameroon talks about his love of the rainforest, a girl in Ethiopia talks about her church festival, a girl in Ghana vies to get on a TV youth talent show with her traditional drum and dance troupe.  It’s really a neat little show and very current as it’s only a couple of years old.

Nature and Animals

 African Critters (Hardcover) ~ Robert B. Haas (Author) Cover Art

The Seven Natural Wonders of Africa by Mary and Michael Woods
(entire continent)
This is a nice long picture book with lots of good photos that gives a nice opening survey of the highlights of Africa’s geography.  Each of the seven chapters covers the natural wonder it discusses from different angles, so there’s a lot of history as well as geology and biology in there as well.

African Critters by Michael Haas
(entire continent)
This National Geographic book has an almost conversational narrative style.  I liked the way it delved into different kinds of animals from all over Africa, instead of only focusing on the “big ones.”  The book design is also inviting for kids to browse.  There were a few books about African animals that we found, but this one was both comprehensive and engaging.

Folk Tales

A Story, a Story (Paperback) ~ Gail E. Haley (Author) Cover Art Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales (Paperback) ~ Nelson... Cover Art

A Story A Story by Gail E. Haley
(West Africa)
Sometimes I’m a sucker for an old Caldecott winner and a bunch of woodcuts.  I do love woodcut style illustrations.  No unit on Africa would be complete without reading at least on Anansi tale.  We read this version of the classic tale where Anansi gives people the gift of stories.

Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales
(entire continent)
This book has stories from all over Africa.  The illustrations are done by various people in different styles.  I like the variety of stories in this book.  It’s a nice storybook to own in general.

Ancient History and Culture

African Beginnings (Hardcover) ~ James Haskins (Author) Cover Art Village That Vanished (Hardcover) ~ Ann Grifalconi (Author) and ... Cover Art Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (Picture Puffin Books) (Pape... Cover Art

African Beginnings by James Haskins
(entire continent)
This is a great short introduction to African history before colonization which I’m very glad to have found.  I think I found it right as some kind reader suggested it!  It covers several civilizations from ancient times, such as Axum and Meroe to early modern, such as Kongo.  Each civilization has lush illustrations and one or two pages of text.  The final pages describe the slave trade and colonization in short.

The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi
I loved the detailed illustrations in this book.  It’s a story from the Yao people, who live primarily in Malawi.  The story shows how a village manages to escape slavers based on their ingenuity and faith in the spirits their tribe believes in.  It’s not specifically a history book, but we used it as a gentle jumping off point to look at how slavery affected the entire African continent.  One needs only to find Malawi, far from the Atlantic coast, to understand how much slavers took from Africa.  The author has several other titles about Africa which I’ve seen suggested more often.  We took them out of the library too, but I thought this one was especially beautiful.

Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove
(entire continent)
I know I picked on this book a little while back.  It’s not that I don’t like it.  It’s actually a beautiful book, with amazing illustrations.  Each page shows a different African ethnic group and describes a tiny sliver of their traditions.  The groups are in alphabetical order, with one for each letter of the alphabet.  Mushroom and BalletBoy don’t tend to retain much from these sorts of books, but I think this one gives an idea of the vast diversity on the African continent.

Stories of Everyday Life

Bintou's Braids (Paperback) ~ Sylviane A. Diouf (Author) Cover Art The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela: A Tale from Africa (Hardcover) ~... Cover Art My Rows and Piles of Coins (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor... Cover Art My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (Paperback) ~ Maya... Cover Art

Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane Diouf
This simple story about a girl who wants braids like all her grown-up cousins is very sweet with lively illustrations.  It’s quite short, but it gives a small peak into village life, food, and customs in a way that most kids can relate to.  Don’t they all want to be like the grown-ups sometimes?

The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela by Cristina Kessler
This story is about a girl who is determined to become a beekeeper, despite being mocked by the men of the village for her ambitions.  She has to be inventive and persistent.  I’ll admit that I’m not in love with the illustrations, but the story is wonderful.

My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa Mollel
This was easily Mushroom and BalletBoy’s favorite of the stories we’ve read.  It’s about a boy who saves up his money to buy a bicycle to help his family.  He doesn’t save quite enough, but there’s a happy ending.

My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me by Maya Angelou
(South Africa)
This book by the famous American poet is poetically written in first person and illustrated by bright photographs and bold typography that echoes the art that the narrator’s mother paints on her house.  This book inspired the best activity in our house, as we painted an enormous mural in the Ndebele style shown in the book.

Recent History

The Day Gogo Went to Vote (Paperback) ~ Elinor Sisulu (Author) Cover Art Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World (Hardcover) ~ Jen C... Cover Art Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Hardcover) ~ Chris Van Wyk... Cover Art

The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Sisulu
(South Africa)
This is a lovely picture book about an older woman who is able, not only to vote for the first time after the end of Apartheid, but also to go out of her own home in freedom.  It’s told from the point of view of her granddaughter and captures a sense of hope.

Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
There are a lot of picture book biographies of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  They all look good, but I ended up getting this one, with bright, batik-like illustrations.  That’s right, I chose by the illustrations!  However, the text is well done too, and has the inspirational feel that you would expect about a woman who overcame that much adversity and planted that many trees.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
(South Africa)
I’ve recently run into several picture book formats of longer adult memoirs and nonfiction and I think it’s a really neat trend.  There are many picture book biographies of Mandela out there, but I liked this condensed “in his own words” version.  The illustrations are simple but add a lot to the book.

We Geek Out at the Book Festival

I’m catching up on some old business, but I’d be remiss not to write about the fun we had doing two days at the National Book Festival.  In case you don’t know, this is a massive festival on the National Mall where authors of all genres as well as book supporting organizations like C-SPAN, PBS and Reading is Fundamental all turn out to give talks, sign books and promote reading books.  Past talks are already up on the website of the book festival and I’m sure this year’s will be as well before too long.  Check it out here.

The Good…

We saw a bunch of authors for a short spell in various places and got to hear Michael Buckley read a bit of the newest (unpublished) Sisters Grimm book, Harry Bliss draw a bunch of cute pictures, Jon J. Muth talk about Zen, and Bob Shea talk about becoming a writer and illustrator.  For the kids, one of the Saturday highlights was seeing Tomie de Paola, who talked about becoming an artist and taught everyone to blow three kisses the way Strega Nona would.  They also enjoyed getting free Magic School Bus books and meeting a costumed Ms. Frizzle.

The Best…

One of the best things quite surprised me.  I dragged the kids in to hear the first part of Rita Williams-Garcia’s talk.  I adore her books.  I reviewed One Crazy Summer awhile ago here.  She was so sweet and clearly a little nervous.  Then she told a couple of stories from her childhood – about growing up without enough and having to draw on her inner resources.  I pulled the kids away for something else I thought they would enjoy more.  Later on though, they talked about her speech and were clearly very affected by it.  I was impressed.

The next highlight was William Joyce.  He came in dressed in some excellent gear – a helmet, goggles and a fake jet pack.  Then he proceeded to give an wonderfully nutty speech about crazy relatives, becoming a children’s book author, and all the guardians of childhood from his new series.  He walked a fine line where he never gave it away that he didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so forth.  In fact, I’m sort of convinced he does.  I don’t review fiction picture books often for this blog, but we had already read Joyce’s brand new book The Man in the Moon and were simply amazed.  It’s beautiful.  The illustrations and the zany elements of the story are pure Joyce, known for his Dinosaur Bob and the Family Lazardo and Rollie Pollie Ollie.  However, it’s also got a magical quality to it and the illustrations are slightly gothic and steampunk influenced.  I highly recommend it.

The final highlight was definitely Kazu Kibuishi, who writes the Amulet series.  BalletBoy asked him at his talk about the fifth Amulet book, and he told us he was working on it right now, then he pulled the binder out of his bag and showed off the pages before quickly closing it up!  Wow!  Mushroom asked about his characters and we got another cool answer.  I appreciated hearing him talk about his Miyazaki influences and hearing that his great Flight series is going to be rebranded under the Flight Explorer label for younger readers.  Overall, it was just a true geek out moment.  Later on, we stood in line so BalletBoy could get his copy of the third book signed.  We’ve already read the fourth one, but from the library, so it probably wasn’t okay to get that one signed.  He drew BalletBoy a picture in the front and I gushed my thank yous to him for doing what he does for young readers.  I really mean it too.  He said immediately that there’s not enough out there and it’s so true.  There’s more coming out, but kids need high quality graphic novels like his, books that respect the readers.

After we left, BalletBoy clutched his signed book all the way home (yes, even the Metro ride).  Then he paid the series one of those ultimate compliments from a kid.  He declared he wanted to be Emily, the protagonist, for Halloween.  So, now I need to come up with an awesome costume.  He has also declared that he needs me to be Miskit, the giant pink bunny robot.  Hmm…

The Bad…

Not exactly bad, but we were pretty amused by this organization, which tries to get parents to read aloud 15 minutes a day to their kids.  When they asked the kids if the parents read aloud for 15 minutes a day to them, Mushroom rolled his eyes at them and BalletBoy looked very confused.  “You read way more than that,” he told me.  And Mushroom added, “Everyone reads aloud more than that.”  Oh, would that it were so, kiddo.

This year the festival introduced a “Family Storytelling Stage” sponsored by Target and featuring a mix of storytellers, authors and bands, including Justin Roberts and other kid friendly musicians.  Great idea, right?  Well, I guess it could have been, except when we were there, the emcees were Disney channel emcees and they spent the whole time trying to encourage kids to watch Disney, Disney Junior, Nickelodeon and Discovery Channel.  You all know I’ve got nothing against TV.  I love TV.  My kids watch TV, including things I think are excellent that were produced by those outlets, such as Phineas and Ferb and Avatar: The Last Airbender.  But do kids need a pep rally to watch TV?  I was pretty disgusted by it all.

The Ugly…

This year at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, they provided water for people for the first time via big water dispensers where you could refill your bottle or cup.  But the Book Festival folks decided to go with untold boxes tiny plastic bottles for everyone.

That was nothing compared to the “prize” you see above from the PBS Kids tent.  It’s a piece of sticky plastic with an online only PBS Kids character on it that you put on your phone to keep it from sliding around.  I just…  am speechless.  Who is this really for?  Why did they give thousands away?  Why do children need a thing for phones?  Why would adults want a phone sticker with a very obscure children’s character?  You guys, I’m not much of an environmentalist.  I recycle, I bring my bags to the grocery, but that’s about it.  But this is really bread and circus level waste, right?  And at a book festival.  I’m just sort of ashamed for us as a society.

Food, Glorious Food!

One of our co-ops decided to do cooking as our current topic, so I had a chance to delve into the world of books about food and I found so many interesting and surprising options that I thought I would share.  Every time I think I’ve gotten to know the nonfiction stacks at the library we frequent, I find something new I didn’t know about.  This was definitely one of those times.

How Sweet It Is (And Was): The History of Candy

Fannie in the Kitchen: The Whole Story Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements by Deborah Hopkinson
That title sure is a mouthful.  This is one of those lovely picture book biographies that there have been so many of in the last decade or so – books about unexpected figures in history, written with children in mind.  From a quick search, it appears that it may be the only single book that actually is devoted just to being a biography of Fannie Farmer (though, if you’re a cooking nut, you may know America’s Test Kitchen chef Christopher Kimbell’s recent book Fannie’s Last Supper about recreating a feast from Farmer’s classic cookbook).  This book has illustrations that play on the sort of old fashioned catalog style illustrations from the time period and tells the story of Farmer’s simple but ingenious improvement to cooking through the perspective of a little girl who learned to cook from her.

How Sweet It Is (and Was): The History of Candy by Ruth Freeman Swain and John O’Brian
This picture book history of candy was so much fun.  Plus, it was informative to me!  It takes the reader from Egyptians keeping bees for their honey, past maple syrup and sugarcane, penny candy and all the way to modern confections.  The illustrations are silly and cartoonish, which certainly fits the topic.  There’s even a timeline and some very old recipes for candy of times past.

Make Me a Peanut Butter Sandwich and a Glass of Milk by Ken Robbins
This was a slightly older picture book with tinted photographs that traces the story of how a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk get to your table as an afternoon snack.  It had the feel of an old filmstrip, though the book is a bit more recent than that.  I liked how it helped raise the question of where our food comes from.  The version of that trip the books gives is extremely simple.  Would that our food was as unprocessed as this book would have us believe!  Which brings me to one more book…

The Omnivore’s Dilemna: Young Readers Edition by Michael Pollan
Okay, I admit it.  I did not actually get this book for my young kids, but I read parts of it in the library and seriously considered whether it was worth it to read them any of the sections while we’re on this topic.  I read Pollan’s adult version of this book when it came out and was pleased to see how the young reader’s edition adapted the book and framed the information for kids without dumbing it down.  I’ve been so pleased with how many young readers editions of popular adult nonfiction have been issued in the last few years and I can only hope there will be more.

Cooking Art: Easy Edible Art for Young ChildrenMessing Around With Baking Chemistry (Children's Museum Activity Book)

The Math Chef by Joan D’Amico and Karen Eich Drummond
Now we reach the activity books.  Most of the ideas in this book are the sort of things you could probably brainstorm up yourself if you really thought about it.  How do you triple a recipe?  How can you learn about temperature by making candy?  How can you learn about pi with actual pie?  How about area using brownies?  This book just compiles them nicely together.

Cooking Art by MaryAnn Kohl
Kohl’s various art books are all wonderful resources for teaching elementary school art.  This book shows you how to make all kinds of crazy (usually healthy) treats by shaping food to look like cars, faces, trees, and so forth.  It’s not exactly my style, but I appreciated the effort.  Another one that falls into this category is Mollie Katzen’s Salad People and More Real Recipes.  Katzen is the author of The Moosewood Cookbook and generally a hero to vegetarians everywhere.

Messing Around with Baking Chemistry by Bernie Zubrowski
This older book is exactly what the title says.  It’s real kitchen chemistry and it’s extremely well done.  The experiments all have multiple questions and possibilities for exploration, which is exactly what you want from a science book.  Some of the suggested activities are pretty elaborate, though many are simple.

Ten Favorite Christmas Books

This year we’ve had piles and piles of Christmas books out from the library.  All year the Christmas books stay hidden in the basement and they’re always the first thing to come out.  This list probably reflects more about our favorites in the moment than all time, but that’s okay.  In no particular order, a few of our Christmas favorites:

The Twenty Four Days Before Christmas by Madeline L’Engle
I wrote about this book before.  In some ways, I think it is the most perfect Advent story for children ever written.  Depending on the edition you get, it’s either an extremely long picture book or a very short chapter book.

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillio
Kate DiCamillio is one of the most magical writers to emerge in the last decade.  This longish picture book captures something about the spirit of charity at Christmas in such a gentle, touching way.  The illustrations are also enchanting.  They’re traditional, but manage not to seem old fashioned.

Cranberry Christmas by Wende and Harry Devlin
We somehow weren’t able to get Cranberry Thanksgiving during its rightful season, but I did snag this one from the library and we’ve read it several times over.  It’s a completely secular tale, for anyone looking for such a book, but still manages to get the spirit of giving and family.  I love how the Cranberryport books have humor and story both captured perfectly.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
This classic hardly needs a description.  We’re not a Santa family, which is to say that while we all love to play the game of Santa, the kids know it’s just a fun pretend exercise.  Therefore, this book’s message about faith and belief in regards to Santa always makes me a little uncomfortable.  However, Van Allsburg’s illustrations and the general beauty and imagination of the story help make up for any misgivings I might have.

Christmas Tree on the Mountain by Carol Fenner
This mostly unknown book from the 1960’s is written in melodic blank verse and was published in a tall, narrow format, which highlights that it’s a poetic little story.  Three children climb a mountain by their house to find the perfect Christmas tree and encounter a few adventures along the way.  The pen and ink illustrations are nothing special, but the language, with many repeated phrases and beautiful turns of phrase is worth the time.  I was glad to discover it.

Morris’s Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells
I love this short picture book that shows the bunny cousins of the more famous Max and Ruby.  Morris has a disappointing Christmas until he manages to reimagine his gift.  As a side note, Rosemary Wells really gets what it’s like to be the ignored child, doesn’t she?  If BalletBoy makes the husband read him this one again I think he’s likely to lose it.  I told BalletBoy he could read it himself easily now, but apparently it’s not the same.

When Santa Fell to Earth by Cornelia Funke
I read this one last year to the kids and I think we did it a little too soon because they didn’t appreciate how awesome it is.  It’s a funny little chapter book tale that imagines a world full of Santas as just another piece in the fantasy landscape.  Cornelia Funke, as always, uses great imaginative language.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
We read this one to the kids for the first time this year.  The Herdmans are such terrible children that I think Mushroom and BalletBoy could hardly conceive of them.  However, that final chapter, where the Herdmans bring a sense of realness to the Christmas story is one of the most touching and hilarious things in children’s literature.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
Yep.  It’s on my list of favorites too.

Dream Snow by Eric Carle
Like many of Carle’s simple stories, my kids sort of outgrew this one this year so I wasn’t terribly upset when I couldn’t find it at the library this year, but I still mark it as one of my favorites, especially for younger kids.  The illustrations are Carle’s style at his best.

Twenty Four Days Until…

One of my favorite Christmas books, by far, is Madeleine L’Engle’s The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas.  It’s part picture book, part chapter book, with old-fashioned illustrations and the sort of feel that a book issued by a lesser publisher often inevitably has.  I understand there’s a newer edition with new illustrations, but I admit that I’ve never seen it.  As a kid, I lived within walking distance of an independent bookstore that ordered any book I asked for.  Bless them.  Seriously.  They let me grow up as if I had Amazon before there was Amazon, back when they had to lug out big catalogs to discover if the book I was asking for could be supplied by their distributors.  When I got on a Madeline L’Engle kick in middle school, I ordered her entire back list, up to and including all her adult nonfiction writings about religion and philosophy.  I got this one and I can remember my joy that I could share it with my brother, who was probably about Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age then.

The story follows the Austin family, a family just a little too perfect and yet L’Engle always made them vividly real.  Anticipation, the right sort of theme for Advent, recurs throughout the story.  As with many of her books, L’Engle weaves in the religious themes subtly, but they’re unmistakably present.  First, there is the excited anticipation that Vicky and her brother John feel for Christmas, played out by how the family does something special to prepare and decorate every day.  There is also a feeling of anticipation for a real winter snow that might come with Christmas.  There is the nervous anticipation Vicky feels for her role as an angel in the church Christmas pageant.  Finally, there is the anticipation the family has for the new baby who is due soon after the holidays.  You can probably guess at least part of the outcome from that mix of events, but L’Engle’s writing is so elegant and poetic that it elevates what otherwise might be a predictable ending.

Goodbye, Tooth

Mushroom has recently lost his very first tooth!  I got oddly weepy and sentimental when I realized it was loose.  Milestones of growing up come so quickly during the first two years of life.  Mushroom and BalletBoy are still pretty little, but already those milestones have become much more spread out.  As silly as it sounds, he’ll never lose a first tooth again.  Sniffle!

Belatedly, I realized that we had the perfect book for this momentous occasion.  One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey is the story of Sal’s first lost tooth, which gets gets completely lost so that she can’t find it after it falls out.  She must deal with the loss and with growing up.  There is a sort of depth to the story and to Sal’s reflections on the seagulls molting and new spark plugs for the boat and even ice cream.  The book’s sense of what it means to grow up perfectly matches my emotions when Mushroom lost his tooth.  It’s an added bonus that the book isn’t all about the tooth fairy, which works well in our house of nonbelievers in Santa and his gang of magical present deliverers.

The husband had to read the book.  I might have teared up.


Two Dozen Picture Books for Twos and Threes

This post is for my friend Sarah (sorry it took me so long to get around to it!) who asked me if I had a list of some of my favorite children’s books.  So I thought I would make one for her and share it with everyone.  I don’t know that these are my favorites, but they were favorites of Mushroom and BalletBoy were about two and three years old, before they could appreciate longer stories, but when they had outgrown the very simplest board books.  They’re all books I fondly remember reading many times from that age.  Interestingly, while I can remember that we began reading longer books at that age – books with more plot such as fairy tales and picture story books – many of the ones we liked best were the simplest.  Books that focused on imagination were some of our especial favorites.  In making a list, I tried to pick favorites that were classics and many are very well-known, but I also tried to remember a few of the lesser known titles we enjoyed just as much.

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

Swimmy by Leo Lionni

Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Owen by Kevin Henkes

Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff

Duck on a Bike by David Shannon

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo by Rosetta Stone

Bears in the Night by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel

When Sophie Gets Angry Really Really Angry by Molly Bang

Titch by Pat Hutchins

Clara and Asha by Eric Rohmann

Breakfast for Jack by Pat Schories

Whose Mouse Are You? by Robert Kraus

Piggies by Audrey Wood

Voyage to the Bunny Planet by Rosemary Wells

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak

Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young edited by Jack Prelutsky