24 August 2010

The First of Many

Isaac starts school tomorrow. Here is a poem for all of the boys out there who are going to kindergarten this year.

"The First Day of Kindergarten"
by Robert Pottle

Today was it. I went to school.
It was fun and kind of cool.
We did the hokey-pokey dance.
Peter cried - he wet his pants.
Miss Libby said to make a line.
I got paper. I drew mine.
But all the kids were in a row.
Miss Libby said, "Come on, let's go."
I sang and drew and had some fun.
I've gone to school and now I'm done.

What did you say?
I've got to go another day?
I am not done this afternoon?
I've got to go until mid-June!
I thought today I was all done.
I guess today was just day one.

from Moxie Day and Family

18 August 2010

My Name Is . . .

Matt and I are a perfect examples of "opposites attract." He is a typical extrovert and I am a typical introvert. When he and Isaac go out of town, I stay at home with my books and some movies and could go days without seeing another human. When Isaac and I go out of town, Matt begins making plans to go out with friends to dinner, movies, anything that will provide him with some human interaction. Isaac so far seems to be a blend of our personalities -- a little bit extroverted and a little bit introverted. Sometimes, I like to believe that he has gotten the best parts of each of us. Other times, I fear that he is the worst of us rolled into one.

When we read Hello My name is Bob by Linas Alsenas tonight, instead of seeing the bears I imagined Matt and myself as the characters. It wasn't much of a stretch. Bob is a self-proclaimed boring bear. He likes to sit and do quiet things. He is low-key and fades into the background. Jack is colorful and bright and energetic. He stands out in a crowd and finds fun wherever he is. But they are best friends. They complement each other, as I like to believe Matt and I do.

I wondered as we read the book which character Isaac relates to more, or if he sees a little of himself in each of them. He definitely tends to make friends with children who are more extroverted than he. His closest friends, Aidan and Sam, are much more dominant personalities, and I worry sometimes that Isaac gets kind of lost in their shadow. But I also see how animated he is when he is around one of them. They seem to help him come out of his shell and be more courageous in social situations.

This book illustrates that friends don't have to be just like each other. Best friends are the people who accept us as we are, even if they don't always understand us. I hope that Isaac gets that message when he observes his father and me interacting. If not, Bob and Jack are good alternative role models.

17 August 2010

Hippo Talk

A lot of children's book are stories about friendship. Many times the pair of friends in the story are opposites in some way. Sometimes the friendships are strained by the differences between the friends. Most times these differences lead to humorous situations.

I pulled My Friend Rabbit by Eric Rohmann off the shelf to read last night. This book is a Caldecott winner from 2003 about a pair of friends, a mouse and a rabbit. As Mouse states on the opening page, "My friend Rabbit means well. But whatever he does, where ever he goes, trouble follows." The trouble in this story being Mouse's toy plane that is stuck in a tree after Rabbit's attempt to fly it. But the real trouble follows in Rabbit's plan to retrieve the plane.

The story is told mostly through the pictures, with sparse text adding context. The reader sees Rabbit pulling animals onto the page to create a living ladder which he plans to climb to reach the plane in the tree. But even after stacking an elephant, a rhino, a hippo, a bear, a deer, an alligator and squirrel on top of each other the plane is out of reach. You can imagine what happens next. After chaos ensues and the animals are heaped on the ground, looking very disgruntled and ready to squash poor Rabbit, Mouse rescues his friend only to end up in more trouble. But Rabbit means well and he always has an idea.

I would write more about how this book is an illustration of the kind of friendships that I am sure Isaac will have as he goes through school. And that I am sure he will at times be most like Mouse and at other times be more like Rabbit. Instead, I have to share a cute moment.

Bedtime began late last night. Summer is winding down and we had been out as is usual on Monday nights playing frisbee and having dinner with friends for probably the last time. Matt and I told Isaac he could have two stories before bed rather than the usual five, just to expedite the ritual a bit. Isaac told me to pick the stories, and then predictably didn't like my choices. As I started reading My Friend Rabbit despite Isaac's protests, Matt picked up Isaac's stuffed hippo that he sleeps with every night and started animating him as I read. It did the trick and Isaac was amused, but was also paying attention. Matt left the room briefly just before the part where Rabbit pulls the hippo onto the page to add to his pile. Isaac got so excited that he screamed for his father to come back to see and then grabbed the hippo and started animating him, making him talk and comment on the story. Just to help you imagine this scene, this is not a small stuffed animal. It is about 2 1/2 feet long and Isaac was holding him up, moving his mouth and talking back to him. It was hilarious. And one of my favorite bedtime moments of the last five years.

Sometimes the best memories of sharing books have nothing to do with the story. In a few years, my memory of last night will fade and I may not recall what book we were actually reading. But I will remember Isaac playing and enjoying the time that we spent together with a book. It is memories like these that I want him to grow up with -- books being fun to share and the time we spent sharing them as being special.

15 August 2010

Speaking Out

Children spend a lot of their existence trying to find their voice. Not literally in the sense that they cannot speak, of course. They search for their voice in the sense that they are trying to discover who they are, what their existence means for the world around them, what they want to say to that world. This search can be confusing for them and those they spend a lot of time with. And this search is ongoing; many of us are still searching as adults.

Isaac's search for his voice can be a frustrating process. His father and I often ask a simple question and get contradictory answers in the space of thirty seconds. Part of finding his voice is becoming comfortable with the decision making process -- coming to a decision and committing to it. His first response is often reflexive, then after his brain has actually processed the question his logic and intellect come to a different conclusion. This process is slowest in the mornings. It can make breakfast decisions teary affairs.

I thought about how children go through this search for their voice as I read Bark, George by Jules Feiffer to Isaac. In it, a mother dog is trying to teach her pup to bark. Each time she prompts him to practice, he emits a different animal noise, as if he is trying to find the one that fits him the best. After a barnyard chorus of sounds, the mother dog takes George to a vet to find out what is wrong. It turns out that George had somehow swallowed a cat, a duck, a pig, and a cow. When all the animals are finally removed, George barks, to his mother's delight. He had found his voice.

This story could have been called "There Was A Young Dog Who Swallowed a Cat." The images of the vet reaching deep into George's throat to pull out yet another animal will have the kids laughing, and the mother's relief when he finally barks will resonate with all parents who have wondered if their children would ever accomplish a basic skill that it seemed like they would struggle with forever.

But it will also connect with children who are searching for their voice -- who are trying out new things to find the one that is comfortable on them. And just when we think the search may be over, George demonstrates that you can keep on experimenting because there are always new experiences to be found.

13 August 2010

To Infinity and Beyond

I can't think of a more fun pair to create a children's book than Jon Scieska and David Shannon. I have written about Scieska and Shannon separately in this blog because they both write books that boys love. Their collaboration on Robot Zot is pure boy brilliance. It combines Scieska's quirky humor with Shannon's characteristically child-like drawings. We loved it.

Robot Zot and his mechanical sidekick Bot arrive on Earth intent on conquering the planet. Their tiny size, however, makes that a bit difficult and when they end up in a kitchen fighting a blender and a toaster their dreams of world domination come to an end as they are chased away by the family dog. But Zot takes away a prize and leaves to find another world to conquer.

As we began reading this story, I assumed that Robot Zot was a toy and a little boy was off the page somewhere controlling the action. But, by the end, we realized that Robot Zot is, in fact, an intergalactic space traveler who has landed on earth in an unfortunate location.

Robot Zot is not what I would consider a sympathetic character, especially when he leaves broken appliances strewn over the kitchen floor and the dog gets blamed. But he is funny and endearingly naive. And he is a robot -- boys love robots.

This book will spark a young boy's imagination and get him dreaming about space travel and other worlds. And, best of all, it will make him laugh.

12 August 2010

The Meek vs. the Mighty

I wrote about a wordless book in an earlier post and mentioned that they can be hard for some parents to share with their children. For those who want to try one, let me suggest starting with Jerry Pinkney's adaptation of Aesop's fable The Lion and the Mouse.

Pinkney won the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations in this book this past year. He retells the fable without words, using his beautiful drawings to show the precarious relationship between the two opposite animals. The story is a simple one and has traditionally been told with very sparse text, according to Pinkney in his author's note, which is why he decided to try telling it through pictures rather than words.

Matt shared this book with Isaac at bedtime a few nights ago. They talked about what was happening in each picture and slowly wove their own story as they went page to page through the book. When they had finished there was silence for a moment and then I heard Matt say, "That was a really great book," to which Isaac responded, "Yeah." They then proceeded to go back to some of Isaac's favorite pictures a second time.

Pinkney is easily one of the best children's book illustrators ever. And The Lion and the Mouse is a beautiful book and deserved the Caldecott Medal, hands down. But what I think is really wonderful about this book is Pinkney's decision to leave out the words and let the reader tell the story. Each child who experiences this book will personalize the fable and internalize the story. The lesson children take away will be one that they create and that will change as they re-experience the story at different points in their lives.

Great books do not have to have words. Great books are ones with which you connect on a personal level. Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse is a great book.

Strike One!

Isaac loves baseball. For his birthday he wanted baseball shoes (a.k.a. cleats) since he is playing t-ball again. I put my foot down and would not let my mother buy them. As far as I am concerned we did not need to spend the money on cleats for a 5 year-old for t-ball. Instead she bought him a bat, some baseball pants and socks. But, wouldn't you know it, Isaac managed to spot a pair of cleats his size at a yard sale. They were $3 and they fit. So the boy has cleats for t-ball this fall. I have had to forbid him to wear them in the house.

Anything baseball fascinates Isaac. He doesn't play many video games, but for Father's Day we bought Matt an old GameCube game, "Mario Baseball." Isaac clobbered Matt the first time they played it. It is even a game that I can tolerate playing, and Isaac has requested it a couple of afternoons a week this summer. I have to say that I have gotten pretty good.

Knowing his fascination with the game, I picked up The Jungle Baseball Game by Tom Paxton at the library on our last visit. It is based on Paxton's song, "The Monkeys' Baseball Game." The basic plot of the book revolves around a challenge the hippo team gives to the monkey team to play a game of baseball. The monkeys think they will win easily, and at first the game goes their way. But then the hippos dig in their heels and give it all they have and are victorious at the end. The monkeys are left shaking their heads wondering what happened.

This is a classic story of the underdogs triumphing over the champions. Normally, I am a sucker for this type of story. This book is fun to read, and if I could still read music I may even try to sing the song that is included on the end pages. But I am not sure I like the way it portrays the champions or the ultimate winners. The monkeys are stereotypically cocky as the game begins, assured that they would win. At the end, the hippos rejoice and throw their victory in the monkeys faces.

I like stories that celebrate the triumph of will and effort over talent and natural ability. I want to teach Isaac that even if he is not naturally athletic or good at something the first time, he should continue to practice and try his hardest to succeed. I also want to teach him that success is not always the same as winning. I do not want to teach him that being naturally good at something makes him better than someone else or that coming out on top, even against the odds, gives him the right to be ungracious to a competitor.

I am probably being overly sensitive about the message in this book. The author probably didn't even mean for there to be a message, he just wrote a fun song that he turned into a fun book. But Isaac is reaching the age that winning is beginning to have meaning for him, and sometimes he is not a gracious winner. And he is always a sore loser. He is also getting more involved in sports as we continue with t-ball and have started Tae Kwon Do. I want to make sure that the images he sees of competitors, winners or losers, are positive ones that he should emulate.

Our current round of library books will go back next week, and Isaac will probably ask to read The Jungle Baseball Game again at least once. When we read it, I will be sure to include some conversation about what the characters did that was good and what they did that they should change. Then I may try to sing the song.

08 August 2010

Hog Heaven

There are some books that are so visually complex that words are not necessary. Hogwash by Arthur Geisert is one of them. With his signature pigs as characters, Geisert creates a fanciful machine that washes, rinses and hangs the dirty swine out to dry.

Wordless books can be difficult to share with children. You need to have a knack for storytelling to really do them justice. And for children to "read" them, they have to be old enough to narrate them for themselves. Wordless books are very useful when it comes to developing a sense of story structure and in writing practice. But many people are intimidated by them.

Hogwash is a wordless book that has fascinating pictures. Geisert's illustrations of his imaginary machine will captivate children, boys especially, who like to look at how things work. There is a story to go along with the amazing artwork -- some young pigs go out to play, they get dirty, they go through the hogwash to get cleaned off before heading home. But the story is secondary to the pictures. Isaac would pour over each page of this book, having no idea what the story was about, just examining the machines.

Geisert's other books are equally well illustrated with detailed drawings. And most of them include his signature pigs. Another that we like is Pigs From A to Z. It is an alphabet book about a family of pig siblings building a tree house. The letters of the alphabet are hidden in the detailed drawings. Again, this book is so visually stimulating that the story could have been left out and not missed.

I have to admit, Hogwash is not my favorite book. I am not interested in machines and how things work like Isaac is, so I could easily set this book aside. But it is the perfect book for boys. There is so much to look at and examine they will never get bored with it.

06 August 2010

Bouquets of Pencils

This weekend we bought school supplies. We came home with pencils, crayons, scissors, glue sticks, markers, colored pencils, a towel for rest time, folders for homework, and a new ice pack for Isaac's lunch box. It looks like a frog.

I love buying school supplies. I am drawn to the colorful collection of brand new markers and sharpened crayons and the perfect symmetry of a pack of new pencils. The calendar year may begin in January, but a teacher's year begins at the end of August and the aisles of supplies just waiting to be put to use almost gets me excited about going back to school in a couple of weeks.

Since Isaac starts kindergarten this year we have been reading books about going to school. One that he particularly likes is Froggy Goes To School by Jonathan London. I hadn't read many Froggy books before last school year. But then I found a use for Froggy Gets Dressed for a lesson at school and Isaac discovered Froggy Plays T-Ball. Now I feel like a veritable Froggy expert.

The Froggy books are formulaic, but the stories are centered around problems children will relate to. They are humorous and simple and the familiar characters draw children in. In Froggy Goes To School, Froggy stumbles through his first day but, in the end, he looks forward to returning.

Froggy's problems with paying attention and listening will resonate with many children and parents. He gets into trouble, but he is not a trouble-maker. He is simply an excited kid who sometimes makes the wrong choices. He has a bit of every child in him.

Isaac's new bookbag is packed with school supplies and ready to go, just like Froggy's. The anticipation is building as the first day of school draws near. And just like Froggy, I hope that Isaac will be jumpy with excitement when it gets here.

05 August 2010

5 Years of Laughter

"Happy Birthday, Dear Dragon"
by Jack Prelutsky

There were rumbles of strange jubilation
in a dark, subterranean lair,
for the dragon was having a birthday,
and his colleagues were gathering there.
"HOORAH!" groaned the trolls and the ogres
as they pelted each other with stones.
"HOORAH!" shrieked a sphinx and a griffin,
and the skeletons rattled their bones.

"HOORAH!" screamed the queen of the demons.
"HOORAH!" boomed a giant. "REJOICE!"
"HOORAH!" piped a tiny hobgoblin
in an almost inaudible voice.
"HOORAH!" cackled rapturous witches.
"Hoorahhhhhhh!" hissed a basilisk too.
Then they howled in cacophonous chorus,

They whistled, they squawked, they applauded,
as they gleefully brought forth the cake.
he thundered with pleasure
in a bass that made every ear ache.
Then puffing his chest to the fullest,
and taking deliberate aim,
the dragon huffed once at the candles --
the candles
all burst

04 August 2010

Five and Counting

Isaac turns 5 tomorrow. When I started this blog a little over a year ago I included a list of books that Isaac had liked or that had been important to him/us up to that point in his life. I thought I would revisit that list today and pull out a few to highlight.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown: Matt or I read this book to Isaac just about every night during his first couple of years. It was the first book that he could "read" along with us. We were very impressed when he started pointing things out in the pictures that we had not even noticed in all the times we read it. I especially liked reading this book in a dimly lit room with Isaac cuddled on my chest. The last few illustrations practically glow on the dark page.

Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman: This was Isaac's favorite for a looong time. It was also the first live stage production he ever attended when a traveling children's theater group performed an adaptation at the local university. He and Matt had a lot of fun reading this book over and over and over. He likes books with more complicated story lines now, thankfully, but this book will always hold a special place on our shelf.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen: I can recite this book, we read it so many times, not that the text is difficult to remember. What I really loved about this book was how it translated into other parts of our lives. Instead of taking walks, we went on bear hunts through the neighborhood. We still start off any new adventure or trip asking "Do you think we will find any bears?"

Curious George by H. A. Rey: This precocious little monkey (ape) is still a favorite. Our collection of books has grown in the past year, but occasionally we still find one that we have not read. And we are still looking for a copy of Curious George and the Chocolate Factory. That is one that we need to own.

Hulk: The Incredible Guide (and other super hero collections) by Tom DeFalco: Isaac introduced me to comic books and these books helped us both catch up on what was going on in the super hero world. They were books that Daddy read with him at bedtime, but I was caught more than once reading through one to find out who was who in Hulk's or Spiderman's or Wolverine's universe.

There are many more that I could mention that have been important books in the past five years. Most of them I have already written about. Some we will be reading for years to come, others will be put away and not taken out until some future point when we are "remembering when."

As I look forward to the next five years of watching Isaac grow, I hope that books will remain an important part of our lives. There are many more I want to share.

03 August 2010

A Perfectly Ordinary Day

I have to admit I am a bit distressed. I had to drag Isaac to the library today. We have not been this summer (I know, I can't believe it either) because our schedule has been kind of crazy. The few times I have planned to go Isaac was not in the right mood and I did not want what should be an easy trip to turn into public parental humiliation. Today, I told him we were going and there was some grumbling, but he came quietly and actually behaved himself. He didn't look at the books and everything we brought home I chose, but I got him there so I am calling it a "win."

Isaac used to love going to the library. But in the past six months he has not been interested. That is probably our fault because who has time to go when you are running to church and t-ball practice and guitar lessons and frisbee games and have meetings after school and just want to collapse after you have managed to throw some dinner on the table? It's so much easier to pull bedtime stories from Isaac's already rather large collection than to make the trip. So my goal for the fall is to visit the public library with Isaac at least once every two weeks. Every week would be ideal, but why set myself up to fail?

One of the books I pulled last week to write about helped push me to make a library trip. Isaac may not want to visit the library, but he does like to read the book Lola at the Library by Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw. For a few weeks some months ago this book was in the nightly rotation. It has been pushed to the back of the stacks, but is not yet consigned to the "I'm over it" pile. As the title implies, it is a story about a little girl's weekly visit to the library, from putting her books in her backpack to story time to getting a treat with her mother afterward and walking home. There is nothing earth shatteringly unique about this book. It is a cozy read about an ordinary experience.

The everyday-ness of the story is probably why Isaac relates to it. He could be Lola, if he actually liked going to the library. I may take a cue from the story and end library visits with a trip to Feeney's Frozen Yogurt Bar (I like their variety of frozen yogurt toppings) or Chick-Fil-A (Isaac likes their milkshakes).

I will admit that when we got home from the library Isaac started digging through the bag and asking me to read to him. And that's what library visits are really about, discovering new books. It doesn't really matter if I pick them out or he does. But that doesn't mean I will stop trying.

02 August 2010

How Much Is That Doggie In the Window

Boys love dogs. That's why they call dogs "man's" best friends, right? Not "woman's" or "person's" best friends. When we were in Florida, Isaac mentioned often that he missed his daddy and Max, our dog. Max is an old mutt with a great disposition who has been sadly neglected during the last five years. But Isaac loves him.

Typically if a book has a dog on the cover you can assume that it is going to be sad. A colleague and I were sharing war stories the other day and she mentioned her group of girls that love stories that make them cry. She tells them to look for books with dogs on the front.

The Stray Dog by Marc Simont comes close to following this pattern, but stops just short of sniffling, which is why it makes the cut for this post. It is a great pet story and, while it is very sweet, it is not so gushy that boys can't enjoy it.

Isaac doesn't love this book, but he does like it. If you are thinking about getting a dog or just looking for a book to satisfy an interest, this is a good choice. However, if you are trying to squash you boy's pleading entreaties for a puppy, stay away. This book may weaken your defenses.