Back to School!

This week, the school year began anew in my town. My children counted down the days with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness. Once the day finally came, it was bittersweet for me – after a summer packed with fun and togetherness, it was time for all of us to transition to our next path.

My kids each begin this year in a new environment – my daughter begins Kindergarten, and my son moves up to a new school for 4th grade. So far, they are excited and happy with these new adventures.

I, on the other hand, am a bit melancholy. As I watched my youngest get on the bus, my heart seized. How were both my kids ready to go out into the world? When did they grow into such independent children with strong, humorous, and energetic personalities? While I recognize that it was my job to prepare them to do just that – take on the world with a bounce in their step – it doesn’t make it any less bittersweet.

So I will take a lesson from my own children. I will accept whatever comes of this new phase of my life with enthusiasm and excitement. And just a little bit of tears.

Author Profile: Bill Martin, Jr.

Today, I am featuring Bill Martin, Jr., an author who wrote for almost 60 years and was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame by the International Literacy Association. After a career in education, he began writing books and several are still being published since his death in 2004.

If you live in the Texas area, you might be able to make a visit to his library on the campus of Texas A&M University in Commerce. According to his website, his many awards, manuscripts, and personal letters are on display there.

Most of Bill Martin’s books that you would be familiar with are picture books, with some illustrated by Eric Carle. Many of his books have a lovely lyrical rhythm to them, which may be why they are some of my daughter’s favorites. Our favorite Bill Martin, Jr. books include:

Brown Bear, Bown BearChicka Chicka Boom BoomChicka Chicka 123Sounds of the Storyteller
My daughter’s favorite of the four is Chicka Chicka 1-2-3. When we read that book together, she demands that we return to the beginning and immediately read it again. The last book may be unfamiliar to you. It is a student storybook collection published in 1966 that was used in my elementary school. I still have my copy among my favorite books that I have kept from my childhood.

If you like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  there are several others in the series with the same cadence and illustrator.

Bill Martin, Jr. wrote over 300 books for children, so this is an author I need to do some more exploring with. Some other books he wrote that are at the top of my list to read: Kitty Cat, Kitty Cat, Are you Waking Up?; Barn Dance; Knots on a Counting Rope; and The Turning of the Year.

What is your favorite Bill Martin Jr. book? Please share in the comments!

Revisiting the Picture Book Classics

In our house, I like to balance classic children’s picture books with modern and new titles. I prefer variety as a reader, and my children like reading lots of different books in the search for the gem that will become their new favorite.

While I am well aware of the changes in the publishing industry over the last 50+ years, I am struck by which of the classics hold up and are still engaging for a modern reader.

Classic Books

Certainly American society has changed over that time (forgive me for my US-centric perspective on this topic). What competes for children’s attention has changed – the prevalence of video games and bright, assaultive entertainment may make plain illustrations uninteresting. Topics that were once taboo such as death and social concerns are freely discussed now, and some topics acceptable in an earlier generation are sometimes “sanitized” to ensure no political incorrectness or cultural intolerance.

However, I think the challenge for authors and illustrators remains the same – write an engaging, creative, and simple (not simplistic) story that leaves readers wanting to read it again (which is quite the daunting task!).

I was also pleased to find plenty of classics that capture the common experience of childhood, which made them more likely to still appeal to me and my children. As my daughter prepares for kindergarten, our local library has collected a wide range of new and old books for her to read this summer. There are so many books that are new to her, or were really enjoyed by my son when he was her age. We have been taking 15-20 picture books out each week, and it has been an interesting experiment in reader tastes and literature quality.

While we have read some classics that underwhelmed us (Caps for Sale, George and Martha, Millions of Cats), there were many that we love (Are You My Mother?; Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?; Chicka Chicka Boom Boom; Curious George; Little Bear; Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel).

My brother and I had favorite books as a child that we had to have serious discussions about to determine who got which books when we left for college. I got Jumping Beans by Judith Martin, and my brother got Seals on Wheels by Dean Whalley. Jumping Beans has certainly held up literature-wise, with just a little tape to help it physically survive another generation.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the classics, and which ones hold up for you. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

Author Profile: Cressida Cowell

Today I am featuring another of our favorite authors, Cressida Cowell. She is a British writer/illustrator who write picture books and chapter books. Her wonderful sense of humor and whimsy have earned her books (and the movies made from them!) international recognition. While her wry sense of humor shines through each of her books, I find them quite diverse.

You may know Ms. Cowell from the Hiccup the Viking series, most notably How to Train Your Dragon. However, she is also the author of one of my children’s (and mine) favorite characters, Emily Brown.

Her books range from board books for toddlers (What Shall We Do with the Boo-hoo Baby?) to picture books for the 3-8 year old range. Her Dragon books are longer and more complex, and therefore may appeal to the 7-9 year old target audience.

Our favorite Cressida Cowell books are:
Cressida Cowell BooksThat Rabbit Belongs to Emily BrownEmily Brown and the ThingEmily Brown and the Elephant Emergency

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown is the clear favorite, but we have read all of the Emily Brown books multiple times. Read my previous reviews here and here. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, we did the reverse of our normal approach and discovered the book after enjoying the movie. I also found a copy of How to Be a Viking (a picture book introduction to Hiccup) at our library, which also came with an audio companion CD with extra story elements read in a lovely Scottish brogue. Check it out if you can find it!

Some other books from this author that I have not yet read: Claydon Was a Clingy Child, Super Sue at Super School, Little Bo Peep’s Library Book, and Don’t Do That Kitty Kilroy. I also haven’t read past the first How to Train Your Dragon book, but my kids and I may in the future!

What is your favorite Cressida Cowell book? Please share in the comments!

Review: Are You Ready to Play Outside?/ Max’s Review

Cover- Are you Ready to Play Outside?Are You Ready to Play Outside?

Written and Illustrated by: Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, 2008, Hardcover

Target Audience: Ages 3-8

Genre: Fiction

Theme: Friendship, Creative Problem Solving

How We Discovered This Book: I went looking for a summer themed book, and this is one of our old favorites. It is also a Theodore Geisel Award winner.

Summary: Piggie and Gerald can’t wait to play outside, but it begins to rain. Gerald helps Piggie have fun in the rain, but then it stops. What will they do now?

What I Liked: The Elephant and Piggie books are charming, simple, and funny. This book is no exception. With just simple illustrations and text, so much is expressed. My kids and I just noticed (after many years of reading these books) that the setting is just some nondescript place outside. We had never noticed!

What Did My Kids Think? My kids vie for who gets to read each of the voices. The text leaves so much room for expression. The books are short reads, so there is plenty of time to go back to the beginning and read it again!

Resources:

Brainstorm with your kids/students a list of things you can do inside and outside. And then flip the list and talk about what would happen if you had to do an outside activity inside (and vice versa). What creative solutions could you come up with to make each activity work?

There are many possible Elephant and Piggie companion activities: Try these or these. Mo Willem’s Pigeon even has an Elephant and Piggie party kit!

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And heeeeere’s Max! He’s back with his own review of Are You Ready to Play Outside? Max has taken a break from hanging out at the pool to give us his review this week.

Email subscribers: Please click over to this post on the website to see Max’s complete video.

Summer Camp Memories

My kids have been in morning camp for several weeks now, and have several more weeks ahead of them. They go to a wonderful camp held at one of our local elementary schools, which combines learning something new with general outdoor fun and arts/crafts.

I have fond memories of my own camp experiences. I had a pretty diverse experience – I attended a playground camp, Girl Scout camp, and a intense camp at the local college where I took courses in programming and mime. And I loved every minute of each of them.

I think summer camps should be somewhere that provides a change of pace, and an opportunity to look at your world a little differently. There isn’t the daily pressure of homework or other lessons – just a relaxed environment where you can try some new things, have fun, and perhaps learn something about yourself. You might find you really like the arts, or that tennis really isn’t your thing. It’s all about self-exploration.

So how do we capture that in our adult lives? We can certainly try new things – a new skill, a new project, a new sport. We can also try to look at things with a new perspective. In the spirit of summer, I am trying to take a more relaxed approach to the summer. There may be some changes and transitions to my life in the fall (more to come on that later), so this may be my last fully engaged summer with my kids. I am taking it one day at a time versus making structured plans for each day. As long as we have a good mix of fun, quiet play, reading, and time together, I consider the day a success.

So for this summer, I am narrowing the focus down to the bare essentials. Time with my family, time with some books, time to work on my novel, and time for the outdoors.

I hope your summer is going as you have planned (or not planned, as the case may be!)

Happy 4th of July!

I hope all of our U.S. readers are enjoying the long Independence Day weekend. In addition to all of the BBQ, beach, and outdoor activities you have planned, I thought I’d take a minute to share some of our favorite books about America.

This list is by no means comprehensive – it is just reflective of what we enjoy that is on our shelf. Perhaps there are one or two here that might be a new discovery for you. Also, a thank you to family friends of ours who have a wonderful taste in books, and are responsible for giving us many of these books about America (you know who you are!)

Many of these books capture the spirit of what it means to be American, captured in the stories of famous people and places. Some of our favorites:

  • Our 50 States: A Family Adventure Across America, Lynne Cheney
  • American Symbols and Their Meanings Series – Ellis Island, The Statue of Liberty, The American Flag (Joseph Ferry), The Liberty Bell, and The White House (all others by Hal Marcovitz)
  • Meet George Washington, Joan Heilbroner
  • The People Pick a President, Tamara Henneman
  • Benjamin Franklin: Amazing American, Margaret Davidson
  • Childhood of Famous Americans Series – Helen Keller (Katherine Wilkie), Thomas A. Edison (Sue Guthridge), Crazy Horse (George E. Stanley), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kathleen Kudlinski), and Abraham Lincoln (Augusta Stevenson)
  • A Book About Benjamin Franklin, Ruth Belov Gross

The last book is one from my childhood, published in 1975. I still enjoy reading it. The illustrations were done by J.B. Handelsman, a cartoonist for Punch in England and The New Yorker in the US. These cartoonish illustrations pair with the text to make Benjamin Franklin’s life very engaging to children.

Best wishes for a lovely weekend! If you have any other favorites about America, please share in the comments.american-flag-1280

What Are We Reading This Summer?

Now that summer is in full swing, me and my kids are very happy to have more time for reading in our schedule. We all have varied reading interests, so our lists cross genres and types. So what are we reading?

Aidan (8 years old):

  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
  • Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  • Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DeCamillo
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room, Lemony Snicket
  • James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, Jeff Kinney
  • How to Train Your Dragon, Cressida Cowell
  • Geronimo Stilton: The Kingdom of Fantasy

Elizabeth (5 years old):

  • Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet, Jane O’ Connor
  • Blue Hat, Green Hat, Sandra Boynton
  • How to Be a Viking, Cressida Cowell
  • Red: A Crayon’s Story, Michael Hall
  • Little Bear, Else Holmelund Minarik
  • Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes, Eric Litwin
  • Lots of Early Readers!

Me (did you think I would tell you my age? Ha!)

  • The Chaperone, Laura Moriarity
  • The Garden of Letters, Alyson Richman
  • All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett
  • Some of the books on Aidan’s list
  • All of the books on Elizabeth’s list!

I’m sure we’ll be adding and changing books as the summer goes on, plus adding some audio books. What are you reading this summer? Please share in the comments!

 

 

Schools Out!

Schools across the country are letting out, to the joy of children everywhere. My children’s last day of school for the year is today, and while they enjoyed school and are both looking forward to moving up to new schools in the fall, they have many plans for the summer.

Every summer we try to learn new things, both children and adults alike. This summer my daughter will try learning to be a better swimmer, tying her shoes, riding her bike with training wheels, and starting to read independently (whew!). My son wants to try some new sports for him – running, swimming, and tennis. For me? I’m going to work on learning to be a better runner, writer, and mom.

For all of us, reading is a central part of summer. We have longer stretches available for reading books – whether it is during road trips, cuddled up on the couch in our PJs, or while sitting on the front porch in between bike riding adventures.

I’ll share more next week about what we are each reading this summer, but I will tell you that Aidan and I will be doing another reading challenge. We are challenging ourselves to read 20 books again this summer. We took this challenge last year, but didn’t quite make it. We learned from that experience that while we enjoy reading to each other (and will still do so from time to time), we both read faster independently. So this summer we are taking more of a book club approach (if you can have a book club with only 2 members) – we are each reading a book at the same time, and then we’ll have a special sit down at the bakery or elsewhere to discuss it. We are already 2/3 of the way through Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, so we’re off to a great start. I’ll keep you posted on how we progress.

Happy summer reading to all of you!