Friday, November 27, 2009

A New Chapter & the Harper Collins Gift Guide

Hello All. It's been a horribly long time since I've written. Life is crazier than I can describe, and not really in a good way. I'm facing a divorce and dealing with separation from my husband. We've only been married for a couple years, but have been together as a couple for over nine years, and in addition to my own heartbreak (I'm not the one who wants to end things), I'm trying to ensure that my children have stability and feel safe and loved throughout this ordeal.

Part of moving on and trying to stay positive for me is going to involve becoming more active in my writing again. And since this blog is devoted to things I share with my kids, it's all the more appropriate that I turn to it as I enter a new chapter of my life with the Light and Seal in tow.

Today is Black Friday, and frankly I hate shopping on normal days, let alone days when the whole world seems to be willing to kill each other to obtain a good deal. I do, however, enjoy looking at online catalogs and gift guides and am starting to consider what I can do for my kids' Christmas within a limited budget.

I get the HarperCollins newsletter, and today was pleased to spend some time browsing through their Holiday Gift Guide for children's books. You can browse inside the books, which is always fun. I can't believe I'm so far behind in reading the books in the Septimus Heap series. Goodness. Have a look, and start thinking about the new adventures your children can have in the pages of books as they enter a new year.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Magical Book of Poems

If your kids are like mine, they love anything to do with magic, witches and wizards. I love sharing the magic of poetry with them, so what better way to do that and feed their desire for the mystical than with Magic Poems, compiled by John Foster and illustrated by the award winning Korky Paul. This collection of 18 poems deals with all things magical and humorous, from the legend of Quickspell the Wizard (by Jack Ousby), to the story of A Very Modern Witch (by Charles Thomson) with a souped-up broom, you'll enjoy the funny along with the fantastic. Other poems in the collection include:
  • Where Goblins Dwell, a celebration of imagintion by the legendary Jack Prelutsky
  • Harry Hobgoblin's Superstore, by David Harmer that describes a shop I'd love to check out
  • Willy the Wizard's Shopping Trip, by Paul Cookson, which imagines what the chain stores of the wizarding world might be
  • Dinner on Elm Street, by Michaela Morgan, a jab at school lunches that shows the lunch lady in the same vein as the Three Witches from Macbeth
  • The Ballad of the Waterbed by Max Fatchen tells the tale of a piratical boy and his nightly adventures
  • The Marvellous Trousers by Richard Edwards is the story of a magical pair of pants the adventures they gave the one who found them. These are some real traveling pants.
  • The Magician, by Gareth Owen recounts an unfortunate mishap involving a little girl's party, a father palying magician and a disappearing box
  • Maxo, the Magician, by Richard Edwards is a funny story of the revenge of a magician's hat
  • Miranda, the Queen of the Air by Doug MacLeod is the tragic story of Miranda and a levitating panda
  • Wanted--A Witch's Cat by Shelagh McGee is an ad that a witch might place in the paper for a proper familiar
  • Genie by Trevor Millum is a tale of mistaken identity
  • Sir Guy and the Enchanted Princess by David Harmer is one of my personal favorites, tells the tale of a knight in not so shining armor and a princess who rides off alone into the night
  • Mang, Katon, and the Crocodile King by Jennifer Tweedie is a heroic tale of the defeat of a the Crocodile King. It's cute by very hard to read aloud in my experience.
  • Dreaming the Unicorn by Tony Mitton is a lovely celebration of dreams
  • The Moon's Magic by Andrew Collet is a tale of the magical nature of the moon and the fate that befalls the greedy
  • The Lonely Enchanter by Marian Swinger is a sad story about the distance that power places between those with it and those without
If your kids enjoy this collection, be sure to check out the other anthologies by John Foster in this Oxford University Press Series, including Dinosaur Poems, Monster Poems and Dragon Poems.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lessons from Mother Earth

I recently shared a lovely picture book with my kids written by Elaine McLeod and illustrated by Colleen Wood called Lessons from Mother Earth. McLeod was born Mayo, Yukon and is a member of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation. This book tells the story of Tess, a five-year-old girl visiting her grandmother's cabin in the mountains. Grandmother decides to show Tess her "garden," which turns out to consist of the edible plants growing wild in the woods and meadows surrounding her home. They go for a walk with bucket and basket in hand, and Grandmother shows Tess where to find the plants and teaches her the proper way to gather from and respect the land. She explains that the plants are ready for harvesting at different times in the year, and that there is a balance to strike between harvesting too much or too little--too much and the plants won't produce for you again, too little and the plants will eventually wither and die. Grandmother also teaches Tess that she must care for the land which provides for her, never littering and being careful not to trample plants. "If you are careful and thankful, my granddaughter, our garden will care for you. There is plenty for everyone to share if we don't destroy the soil." Grandmother whispers her thanks to Mother Earth as she harvests and explains that her mother taught her about the plants, so we see the passing of the tradition to Tess. In the end, Tess has learned to be thankful for the Earth and all it provides, as well as the wisdom of her grandmother. This is a beautifully illustrated book, full of soft curves, warm and bright colors, and details (such as the many animals which follow and observe Tess and Grandmother as they harvest). Wood has a gift for portraying smiling faces--she gets the light and shadow just right. The story teaches a gentle lesson of respect and appreciation for Earth and the resources that we share with other creatures. It also provides a nice model of native spirituality, with reverance for Mother Earth and the Great Spirit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day: Two Lessons on Litter

It's after midnight, so I can officially say happy Earth Day!!!! In the spirit of stewardship, I thought I'd share a couple of picture books with you that can be helpful when talking to young children about something we all deal with every day--trash. Whether we're taking it out, sorting out recycling, trying to figure out how to produce less of it, or lamenting all the trash we see on the side of road, trash is a part of our lives for better or worse. These two books teach children how proper disposal and management of waste is important for everyone's quality of life.

The Day the Trash Came Out to Play by David M. Beadle tells the story of Sutton Nash, the "cleanest town in the land" and how this idyllic town was sullied one day when a young boy named Robin thoughtlessly tossed a candy wrapper on the ground instead of in the trash bin. Laurie A. Faust's clever illustrations animate the "Super Sourpuss" candy wrapper by showing the caped superhero on the wrapper flying about on the wind, dismayed and disheveled as his wrapper blows all over town annoying wildlife and inadvertently encouraging other bits of trash to leave their proper receptacles and "come out to play." The story is told in rhyming verse, making it more fun to read aloud, and also a good selection to simultaneously celebrate National Poetry Month. The story teaches that it is important to consider how our trash affects others. At first Robin thinks it's funny to see to the wrapper blowing about and believes he need not worry about it once it is out of sight. "What Robin forgot to think about, is that it has to go somewhere." There's also a lesson about setting a proper example by doing the right thing. When other bits of trash see the wrapper flying around, they decide to come out and run all over town (the illustrations for this are cute as each bit of trash is animated, and it all looks mischievous). "Because they saw someone else go first, they thought it was okay." Of course we're really talking about people here. People will be more likely to litter or be apathetic about their own waste when they see others behaving that way or evidence that others have done so before them (i.e. litter on the ground). This lesson is underscored by the town sign, which is shown at the beginning and end of the story. At the end, an addition to the sign has been made: "Trash begets Trash." The citizens of Sutton Nash are dismayed by the rampant litter problem, and Robin realizes his mistake. He leads the town in a cleanup, and after the incident, the town builds a recycling center.

The Great Trash Bash, written and illustrated by Loreen Leedy, is a similar story about a town called Beaston--appropriately named because it is populated by anthropomorphic animals. As in the previous book, the story begins by describing the beauty of Beaston as we see a sign welcoming us to the town, but it is noted that "something is wrong." This is clear from the illustration, which shows an old abandoned car by the trees, litter along the side of the road, and a series of signs, spaced Burma Shave-style, that tell motorists to "Buy More More and More." The book is much like a comic book because in addition to the main narration, the story is told via speech balloons on the illustrations. Mayor Hippo feels that something is amiss but can't put his finger on it. He is shown interacting with citizens that toss litter on the ground, discuss throwing out their old possessions after buying new items and lament over a polluted body of water where no swimming is allowed. Finally, after slipping on a banana peel and landing in a pile of litter, the mayor realizes that there is too much waste and wasteful behavior in the town. He leads the reader on visits to the dump, the incinerator and the landfill, and he and other characters note the benefits and drawbacks of all of these alternatives for waste management. After discussing their trash problem, the citizens decide to make lifestyle changes that will reduce waste, such as buying in bulk, avoiding excess packaging, and reusing items. They learn to fix their possessions to make them last longer, to recycle and compost, and not to litter. In the end, we see the "Welcome to Beaston" sign again and have the beauties of the town reiterated, but this time we can see that everything is cleaner and all the citizens are out enjoying the landscape and celebrating. On the last page of the book, Leedy offers 13 simple tips for reducing waste. Due to the speech bubble format and the more complex ideas dealt with in this book, it's a bit harder to read aloud than The Day the Trash Came Out to Play, but it can lead to some interesting conversations with kids as you discuss the lessons the mayor learns about waste and what happens to items when you recycle them or compost them.

For more suggestions on books to read with kids as you celebrate Earth Day, see's search results on Earth Day,'s list of suggested Earth Day books for children and teens, and the Green Reading for EE Week list on the National Environmental Education Week website.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Read Me a Story, Mr. President

I just had to take a minute to share this article from the April 14, 2009 edition of the Huffington Post (article from the Associated Press, written by Natasha T. Metzler). The story is about the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, held on Monday, April 13. During the gathering, President Obama read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak to the children (an excellent choice). The article includes a video of the President reading, making sure all the kids can see the pictures and pointing out details in the drawings (which was a thoughtful touch for those who weren't sitting in the front row). He does a good job of getting the kids to try certain actions from the story (like staring without blinking and roaring like a wild thing), which is always an effective way to keep a child's attention. According to the article, the First Lady and her mother also read to the children, though the slide show depicts Sasha and Malia also getting involved (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff).

I always find it endearing to see world leaders taking the time to read to kids, even though the cynical response is to recognize that this is a lovely PR moment. I can't help but think that even if there are ulterior motives, if someone like the "Leader of the Free World" can take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to read a book to some kids he doesn't even know, then there's no reason at all why any of us can't take a few minutes out of our day to read a book to our own children. You're the leader of your own home, and the Commander in Chief of your child's first experiences of the world, his or her outlook and attitudes toward reading and learning, and the fostering of his or her imagination. So let the red phone ring a minute---they'll call back. Ok, so you can't always drop everything to take a book from your child's insistent hands, but if you can't read that book now, promise to read it later and keep your promise. And never think that your child is too old to want to be read to; everyone likes to be read to (even you do, admit it!). If they're older they might roll their eyes and refuse your offer of storytime, but make the offer anyway. They'll always remember that you did.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Pair to Share for National Poetry Month

It's National Poetry Month, and in my continuing effort to bring you resources for sharing poetry with the young folks in your lives, I thought I would highlight a couple of poetry collections that I've been reading with the Light and Seal.

Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry is a delightful selection of poems perfect for sharing with preschoolers. Collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, with illustrations by Polly Dunbar, this set of 61 poems focus on different aspects of a day in a child's life told from the child's perspective. The poems are organized into four sections: "Me, Myself, and I"; "Who Lives in My House"; "I Go Outside"; and "Time for Bed." Adorable round-faced and rosy-cheeked children populate Dunbar's drawings, bringing life to poetry from such pens as Margaret Wise Brown, Langston Hughes, A. A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack Prelutsky, Gertrude Stein and Spike Milligan to name a few. Both my children (who are 4 and 2 at the time of this writing) loved this book, and have wanted it read to them multiple times. It's great fun to read aloud because the poems capture the spirit of children. Some of our favorites include "The Swing" by Robert Louis Stevenson (my daughter relates to the description of flying high), "Cat Kisses" by Bobbi Katz (both Light and Seal squeal with glee when these are bestowed upon them), "Brother" by Mary Ann Hoberman and "Rickety Train Ride" by Tony Mitton (I love those last two because they're such tongue-twisters!).

The Oxford Book of Story Poems, edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark is more appropriate for older children (though my little ones still enjoy it), and includes both classic poems and more modern selections, all of which tell a story, of course. Classics from Lewis Carroll ("Jabberwocky," "The Walrus and the Carpenter" and "Humpty Dumpty's Recitation"), Edgar Allan Poe ("Annabel Lee"--one of my favorites!), Walter de la Mare ("The Listeners") are alongside Ray Bradbury's "Switching on the Night" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late." Nonsense, tragedy, suspense, mystery, cautionary tales, shipwrecks, witches, dragons and ghosts--the gang's all here. This is a truly rich anthology, and if you're an educator hoping to cover several bases with one book, this is an excellent one to check out. Colorful and imaginative illustrations from various artists pepper the text. Helpful indices of themes, artists, authors, titles and first lines are included in the back of the book.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Walk into my Parlor for National Poetry Month

I recently read Tony DiTerlizzi's picture book rendition of The Spider and the Fly with my kids and thought it was wonderful. If you're looking for a picture book to include in your celebration of National Poetry Month, be sure to check this one out.

The text of the book is Mary Howitt's famous poem, The Spider and the Fly, first published in 1829. You probably are familiar with this poem to some extent, though many folks misquote the first line as "Come into my parlor, said the Spider to the Fly." (It's actually "'Will you walk into my parlor?' said the Spider to the Fly." See the Wikipedia article on the poem, which includes a link to the text of the poem, as well as the text of a Lewis Carroll parody called The Lobster Quadrille that was included in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.) The poem is a cautionary tale about a cunning Spider that cajoles and flatters a Fly who has, in fact, heard of the Spider and knows better (at first) than to listen to his promises of a lovely visit and restful stay. Eventually, however, the Fly succumbs to the Spider's flattery (just as the Spider knew she would) and of course, never again returns from the Spider's lair.

DiTerlizzi's detailed black and white illustrations are wonderfully dark and old-fashioned feeling, with clever touches, such as furniture and curtains in the Spider's home made from dead bugs and butterfly wings, ghostly bugs trying to warn off the Fly (one pointing out a copy of The Joy of Cooking Bugs), and the fact that the Spider's home is inside a doll house. DiTerlizzi's visual interpretation of the poem was impressive enough to make the book a Caldecott Honor Book in 2003 (the Wikipedia article on Mary Howitt, linked to above, incorrectly states that the book won this honor in 2007).

DiTerlizzi includes a letter from the Spider at the end of the book, cautioning readers about the fact that "spiders are not the only hunters and bugs are not the only victims." Just as the poem itself says, "And now, dear little children, who may this story read,/To idle, silly flattering words I pray you ne'er give heed:/Unto an evil counselor, close heart and ear and eye,/And take a lesson from this tale of the Spider and the Fly." So besides being a treat to listen to (and look at in this version), the poem teaches a valuable lesson to kids about not allowing themselves to be lured by strangers or by crafty people in general. With older kids, it is worth pointing out that it is likely not by chance that Howitt made her Fly female and the Spider male--there are more complex lessons for girls and women that might be learned from Howitt's words.

Though great for any time of year, the dark nature of the tale and illustrations might make this a nice selection to share with kids at Halloween.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April is National Poetry Month

April is a busy month. There's Earth Day, of course, Easter (I don't celebrate it, but the kids and I feel compelled to color eggs), Arbor Day, and most importantly, my husband's birthday (35, if you're wondering; I'll get there myself in another six months). It's also National Garden Month and National Poetry Month. I'll probably touch on all of these topics at some point this month, but the focus of this post is National Poetry Month.

Poetry, in my opinion, is a magical thing. A lot of people, particularly young people, seem to think that poetry is stuffy or boring or somehow highbrow, but poetry is for everyone, and is possibly the most fun anyone can have with language. Most of us just don't realize how much poetry affects our lives--what is a song, after all, but a poem set to music? If you love music, then you love poetry. (If you don't love music, I'd love to hear more about your home planet sometime.) A well written poem creates its own music when you read it out loud. Poetry can be a great way to express yourself, and reading poetry with kids can spark creativity. Writing poetry is a challenge; expressing feelings or observations in a few words, with or without a specific rhythm, teaches brevity and clarity. Choosing just the right word helps build vocabulary.

If you're a teacher, librarian, or parent, I hope you'll take some time to celebrate National Poetry Month with the kids in your life. The Academy of American Poets have some great resources on their National Poetry Month web site, including curricula and lesson plans; tip sheets for teachers and librarians; Poem-A-Day; and the Free Verse Photo Competition (really fun--if I were a teacher, this would be an assignment for my class). You should also check out Poetry 180, a Library of Congress web site that provides "a poem-a-day for American high schools" and the Children's Poetry page of the Poetry Foundation.

I'll be writing some posts on resources to share with kids. Do any of you have favorite books of children's poetry that you remember from childhood? If so, leave a comment about it on this post. It needn't be a formal book of poems--perhaps you remember a favorite picture book that had text written in verse?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gifts for a Blueberry Girl

It's been quite a year for Neil Gaiman. I'm a fan, and really loved Coraline the first time I read it. I didn't read it to my kids first time around because I thought it would be a bit too scary, but my girl has grown up a bit since then. She was intrigued by the movie trailers and I decided I would read the book to her before allowing her to see the movie--I'm always afraid the movie won't be as good as the book (and alas, I'm often right). So we recently finished that, and she really enjoyed it. I know because whenever she enjoys a book or show, she runs around the house pretending to be a main character; she occasionally pretends to be Coraline now (I wonder if this makes her little brother the black cat?).

The Graveyard Book, his intriguing sounding novel about a young boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are killed, is definitely on my always growing "to read" list and recently won the prestigous Newbery Medal.

Given that Gaiman gravitates toward the creepy, fantastic and otherwise odd, it is perhaps surprising to some that he wrote Blueberry Girl, a lovely picture book that presents what an expectant parent might wish for a baby girl. But Gaiman is a father himself, and the poem which provided the impetus for this book was written for his friend Tori Amos when she was expecting her daughter. I read a nice article about this book today, which in turn introduced me to a wonderful animated trailer for the book produced by HaperCollins for YouTube. Charles Vess's magical illustrations come to life as the text is read by Gaiman himself. If you can watch this without wanting to get a copy to share with your kids or to give to an expectant mother you know, then I'm not sure what's wrong with you; it's enchanting.

Incidentally, HarperCollins is conducting a Blueberry Girl sweepstakes, which you can enter for the chance to win a free copy of the book. There will be 25 winners--let's hope you and I are among them!

Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Patrick's Picture Books

St. Patrick's Day is a special day for me and the kids, not only because of our Celtic heritage, but also because my mother was born on St. Patrick's Day. I've been sharing some relevant picture books with the kids over the last few days and thought I would take a moment to share them with you.

The Leprechaun's Gold by Pamela Duncan Edwards is a delightful tale of two harpists--kindly and generous Old Pat and greedy and boastful Young Tom. The two are both talented, but have different values. Young Tom wishes to become rich, and charges his neighbors a pretty penny for his harp playing services. Old Pat plays the harp out of love as much as anything, and is willing to play for free for folks he knows can't afford to pay. Tom thinks Pat foolish, but is willing to benefit from his generosity. When the king announces a contest to choose the finest harpist in Ireland, both Pat and Tom are eager to participate--Pat for the potential honor, and Tom for the potential prestige. Tom decides to travel with the older man in the hopes that Pat will share his food, thus saving Tom a bit of money. Along the way, Tom begins to worry that the talented older man will defeat him in the contest, and wickedly breaks one of Pat's harp strings while Pat is not looking. Shortly after this treachery, the two men hear a voice calling for help. Afraid of scheming leprechauns, Tom refuses to investigate, but kindly Pat cannot ignore the plea. The call is indeed from a leprechaun, and the aid that Pat provides is repaid in an unexpected way. This charming tale about the value of good deeds is richly illustrated by Henry Cole, complete with a game of hide-and-seek included in the detailed pictures--within the illustrations, 16 four-leafed clovers are hidden.

St. Patrick's Day Alphabet by Beverly Barras Vidrine was not as much fun in my opinion. I love alphabet books, and hoped that this one might help teach my kids about some Irish culture. It did to some extent, but in some instances seemed to focus too much on religion. To be fair, we are talking about St. Patrick's Day, and Patrick is a Christian saint, so this focus is certainly understandable. My kids did learn some interesting new words, such as bodhran (pronounced BOW-rawn), which is a traditional, flat, one-sided drum and céilí (pronounced KAY-lee), a traditional social dance. I felt some of the selections for letters were a bit lame as well. For example "E is for 'Everybody is Irish, a favorite saying on St. Patrick's Day." would have been more interesting as "E is for Erin, a word for Ireland. People often say 'Erin go Bragh' on St. Patrick's Day, which means 'Ireland forever.'" Still, I have to commend Barras Vidrine for what I think is a clever and educational idea for an alphabet book, and the colorful and detailed drawings of Patrick Soper are appealing.

Finally, Fergus and the Night-Demon by Jim Murphy isn't really a St. Patrick's Day book, but it is an amusing "Irish Ghost Story" with a moral about the value of hard work. Plus, it's great fun to read aloud with an Irish accent, if you can do a decent one. Fergus O'Mara is a lazy young man, always finding an excuse to get out of work and chores. One evening while going off to Skibbereen to party, he encounters a frightening, giant spirit that declares "It is your time, Fergus O'Mara!" Not willing to put the effort even into fearing for himself, Fergus at first tries to write off the towering vision as the result of indigestion. But the red-eyed vision persists and grows larger as the story progresses, eventually demanding the Fergus dig his own grave. Always allergic to labor, Fergus manages to talk his way out of the situation, but has a change of heart at the end of the story, vowing to be a hard working person for fear that the night-demon might return. Fergus's attitude and roguish charm, as well as the menace of the night-demon are skillfully conveyed in John Manders's illustrations. The author also provides some educational notes regarding Irish legendary creatures that helped to inspire the tale. An interesting twist is that while there is a moral regarding the value of hard work, we also come to recognize that everyone, even slackers like Fergus, has his or her own special talents. Fergus has a gift for wheedling out of difficult situations, and it actually saves his life. He doesn't often use this gift for good purposes, but we can recognize it as a skill he possesses. So, there's an extra lesson about learning to see the positive qualities of people and their habits, even if there isn't much positive about the people and their deeds.

Leabhair go bragh! (I hope this means "Books forever!" My apologies to anyone who speaks Irish Gaelic if I've messed up.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Pair of Janes: Fairy Tales With Yolen & Dyer

I'm a big fan of Jane Yolen, and was pleased recently to share two of her lovely picture books with the Light and Seal. These two books are made all the more magical by the pairing of Yolen's wonderful stories with the exceptional paintings of Jane Dyer. If you're in the mood for fairy tales, these two books are sure to please.

Child of Faerie, Child of Earth is a beautiful rhyming poem of Yolen's which tells of a human girl meeting a fairy boy--thus this is a real fairy tale, complete with fairies (my favorite kind). The two become friends and the boy asks her to stay with him in the fairy realm, but she knows she cannot give up the human world. Similarly, upon visiting her world and being invited to stay and work upon the farm where she lives, the boy knows he would miss his own kind. Instead, the two decide to remain in their own worlds while visiting and maintaining a friendship that lasts all their lives. This sounds perhaps a bit cliché, but the rhythm of Yolen's poem is hypnotic, and combined with the richly detailed works of Dyer, the book is absolutely enchanting. Dyer's work looks as if it comes from a vintage children's book of fairy tales, and is full of whimsy, color, and emotion. Check out some of her work here; unfortunately I couldn't find an official web site for her. Here is an example of Yolen's lovely verse: "He looked around the human world,/A world of gold and brown./A world where farmyard turns to village,/Village into town;/A world of colors pure and bright,/Of open sight,/Of warm sunlight,/Unlike the shadowed world of night,/Of moon and thistledown." To create that sort of lovely verse within such a rhyme scheme is difficult, and it is particularly impressive considering how long this poem is.

The Girl in the Golden Bower is a story rather than a poem, and though it is an original tale, there are elements that remind me of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, as well as typical fairy tale characters and motifs--a woodsman, an evil sorceress, a person with an unknown or mysterious past, a magic spell, friendly animals, etc. The story begins with a woodsman who serves a royal family. The king dies an untimely death and the castle falls into ruin, with rumors that a beast lives within its overgrown walls. One day the woodsman finds a frail young woman lost in the woods; the two marry and have a child they call Aurea. In time, another woman comes to the house in the guise of a cook looking for room and board in exchange for her services; the couple take her in because the wife is frail, but the cook is in fact a sorceress on a quest for a treasure hidden the woods. She believes a charm that can lead the way to the treasure is in the area of the woodsman's house. As you might expect, the sorceress proceeds to do away with the wife, but before her passing, Aurea's mother givers her a special hair comb that she says will protect her. When the child places the comb in her hair and it changes color to become indistinguishable from her hair, the reader knows that this is the charm the sorceress seeks. The story unfolds as the sorceress continues her destructive quest for the charm and ultimately uses her powers to try to kill the child and gain the comb. But the power of the comb, the truth behind the girl's special relationship with the woodland creatures, and the identity of the beast combine to provide a suitably happy ending for Aurea (and an unhappy one for the sorceress). Again, Dyer's paintings are richly hued, full of detail, and set the perfect fairy tale atmosphere.

Both of these enchanting stories are a delight to read aloud, and apparently to hear aloud, considering how many times I've been asked to read them since checking them out from the library. Check them out with your little ones for some good old fashioned magic.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Imagine a Night Full of Optical Illusions

Imagine a Night is one of those visually rich books that are best read with your child sitting in your lap so you can pour over the details of every picture together. Inspired by the magic realist paintings of Rob Gonsalves, author Sarah L. Thomson has paired her evocative verse with several examples of Gonsalves's gorgeous artwork. His paintings remind me of M.C. Escher's work in that each piece includes an optical illusion that forces the viewer to consider a mundane part of the world from a new perspective. For example, the cover art shows Gonsalves's painting, "Ladies of the Lake," in which the reflections of the moon, trees and clouds in a body of water are compared to women in long white gowns lead out of the water by lantern light. Within the book, this piece is paired with the following verse: "imagine a night.../...when moonlight spills/across the water/to make a path/for the lightest of feet." In other images, Thomson leads the reader in discovering, among other images, quilts that look like fields and forests as seen from an airplane, a field of sunflowers that look like blonde-haired women in green cloaks and gloves listening to a farmer play his fiddle, drifts of snow that look like crisp white bedsheets and moonlit clouds seen through archways that resemble solemn monks in their robes. This is a wonderful book to share at bedtime and can be used to spark little imaginations at any time of day. My kids love looking at these pictures, and I help point out the meanings of the illusions as we read this book together, though sometimes no help is required. "Look! The flowers look like people!" the Light exclaimed during one reading.

This book has introduced me to a new artist and made me a fan. Though Gonsalves is often called a Surrealist, he prefers the term "Magic Realism" because his images are "deliberately planned and result from conscious thought" and his images provide a magical quality to realistic scenes (see Wikipedia article on Gonsalves). You can check out more of Gonsalves's paintings on the Saper Galleries web site. Thomson provides a a helpful key to the paintings included in this book at the end so you know the actual names of the paintings. This book could be a wonderful addition to an art class or art lesson for homeschoolers. Children could be challenged to create their own illusions from scenes in their lives with water colors or crayons.

I was delighted to learn from Sarah L. Thomson's web site and the aforementioned Saper Galleries site that this book has two companion books, called Imagine a Day (Byron Preiss Book) and Imagine a Place. I'll definitely be looking for those to share with my kids.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Roads to Hell and Lead-Free Toys are Paved with Good Intentions

As a mom and someone who cares about the environment, I'm all for lead-free toys. I've previously posted about using the lead check tool from, and added their widget to this blog. I've followed this issue as part of my day job and lamented with other parents across the country every time there are more toy recalls because of lead levels. But my heart is just sick because of the unintentional consequences of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) as it is currently written. Though the law was certainly intended to protect children from lead poisoning and to require problem manufacturers to test materials before selling them, it is having an impact on small businesses, particularly those that produce handmade toys, as well as booksellers, libraries and charities.

The CPSIA does not simply cover toys, but rather "children's products"--this is a broad term, and includes things like books, child care items (like cloth diapers, for example) and clothing. Basically, children's products are "any consumer product designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger" (Wikipedia article on CPSIA). The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidance on the CPSIA for Small Businesses, Resellers, Crafters and Charities states the following: "The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) is a sweeping new law that impacts a broad spectrum of our economy. From manufacturers of toys to the kids that play with them, everyone is affected in some way -- even those who make and donate products to hospitals and charities. There are new rules to be understood and adopted for everyone from the largest global manufacturer to the crafter working in the family workshop to the mom-and-pop shop on the corner. Indeed, all children’s products including toys, books, child care articles and clothing are covered in different ways by this law, and there are different rules for different products."

The basic idea is that any manufacturer of children's products must test their materials to make sure they meet safe lead levels. Sounds simple and like good common sense, right? As is often the case, what sounds good on paper is revealed to be more complex and troublesome in practice. Consider the crafter who makes handmade toys and sells them online and at craft fairs. While we as consumers, and the crafter herself, would all agree that we would like to make sure the materials used to produce the crafter's items are at safe levels for lead content, how is the crafter working from her home supposed to afford the testing and documentation required, which would be the same required of a large factory making similar toys? What if the crafter is reasonably sure her materials are lead free, but must still prove that they are with expensive testing? Ultimately, the crafter might decide that such testing is simply not within her capability and thus that she should cease making handmade toys altogether. One might say this would be a small price to pay to ensure the safety of children's products, but do we really want to see a shift away from locally produced, handmade items to more factory produced, assembly line items, especially given the current economy and the fact that many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat period? Putting small businesses and work-at-home-moms out of business is not what anyone involved in the creation and passing of the CPSIA intended, but it may well be the consequence in many instances.

I was dismayed earlier while catching up on some of the blogs I follow, that even booksellers and libraries may end up being adversely affected by this law. Consider this post from Scribbler over on Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves. This woman sells vintage children's books on The result of the law will be that her Etsy store becomes limited to selling books printed between 1985 and 1989, since Etsy only allows the sale of books 20 years or older (by their definition of "vintage"). In the exemptions to the CPSIA available on guidance web site linked to above, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) states that "until the Commission issues final rules in these areas, certain materials can be used in making products or be sold as children's products without risk of sanction or penalties by the Commission provided the manufacturer, distributor or seller does not have actual knowledge that the products have more than the acceptable lead limit. The Commission generally will not prosecute someone for making, selling or distributing items in these categories (see Table B) even if it turns out that such an item actually contains more than 600 ppm lead." "Table B" includes "Children's books printed after 1985 that are conventionally printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play." Ok, cool, though I don't quite understand the distinction between books intended to be "read" or "used for play" (book frisbee, anyone?). What about books printed before 1985, including lots of classics that may be sitting in used book stores, regular book stores, thrift stores, libraries, and sold by vintage book dealers, such as the aforementioned Scribbler? Apparently such books can be sold as collectibles, as long as they're not really intended for use by children. So does that mean, as Scribbler wonders aloud on her blog, that books printed before 1985 sitting in the children's departments of libraries may need to be tested in order to continue to be used by children? Facing such expense, might many small municipal libraries choose to detroy such books rather than go through the process necessary to keep them? Scribbler writes: "So it seems smaller, independent booksellers who know the value of these books are boxing their pre-85 product and holding on to them in storage until this madness blows over. Other larger thrift store chains like Goodwill are pulling the books and just dumping them in the garbage. I am sick about the whole thing...I won't even go into how this will effect libraries, but just imagine your neighborhood library... over half of its children's section disappearing overnight... all of its out-of-print titles, vanishing into the dumpster out back." The potential impact on availability of books for kids, not to mention the environmental impact of detroying inventories---sigh. My head really hurts.

I could write on and on about potential problems with the implementation of this law and how it might adversely affect book sellers, crafters and small businesses, but you don't want to read the longest post known to man (it may be too late for that), and frankly, I'm still trying to learn about this law--I'm no expert when it comes to exactly what this law will require and what the CPSC is doing to deal with potential problems. Off the cuff, I hope that some sort of financial assistance is made available to small businesses for testing, although given the current state of the world, I have no idea where such money might come from--the government has bigger fish to bail out right now. I'm worried about how the law will affect books most particularly; I love books, and old books especially. Newly printed copies of books just don't have the same magical quality sometimes, and some books went out of print before 1985 that are still worth reading!

Am I glad the government is trying to enforce stricter safety standards for children's products? Absolutely. Am I confused as heck about all the different requirements, exemptions and hoops to jump through? Oh yeah. Am I worried that many small businesses and crafters will need to go out of business or change their focus because of this law? Yes. Do I have a solution for how to provide safe toys without causing all these problems? Right now, no. Do I want to stay apprised of how this drama unfolds and how these issues are dealt with? Yes, and I want you to be able to as well. So, here are some links to related resources that you may want to check out:

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Word Up, It's Word Girl!

Hello there. I've been one poor correspondent and I've been too, too hard to find, but it doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind (yes, I'm a fan of America. That's a line from Sister Golden Hair.) I've been taking a much needed break after the hectic holidays, but I'm back and ready to bring you more information on great resources, books and products for kids.

I thought I'd take a minute to gush about one of my children's favorite educational shows on PBS--Word Girl. This clever cartoon features a young girl, Becky Botsford, who is really a superhero from the planet Lexicon known as Word Girl. She and her faithful monkey friend, Captain Huggy Face (whose alter ego is Bob), stop a variety of bumbling villians and assist the citizens of our planet with their vast vocabularies. This is a really funny show that parents will enjoy as well as children. The villains are bizarre and amusing, including the evil and cheese-loving Doctor Two-Brains (once a friend of Word Girl's who became a villain when an experiment gone awry fused him with a particularly nasty lab mouse), Chuck the Evil Sandwich Making Guy (a twisted yet not very intimidating sandwich lover who still lives in his mother's basement), and the Butcher (a meat-lover who butchers the English language as much as anything and who wields meat like a weapon, exclaiming things like "Pastrami Attack!" and "Roasts of Fury!" when fighting our heroes). There are a host of other eccentric adversaries (not all of them have food fetishes), and all of the conflicts Word Girl faces help to teach young viewers the meaning of new words, such as "masquerade," "hoax," "identical," etc. which veiwers are told to listen for at the beginning of each adventure. When Word Girl flies off to stop vilians, she shouts "Word Up!" When she's not fighting crime, Becky tries to be a normal fifth-grader, and her adventures often arise during activities or situations that kids can relate to (such as trying to make it to Splashy Splashington's water park on a hot day, or waiting in line for the release of the latest Princess Triana novel, which is analogous to the Harry Potter series).

There are two adventures in each episode of the show, broken up by subfeatures, such as the game show spot called "May I Have a Word?," a man-on-the-street sort of spot called "What's Your Favorite Word?," and a spot in which Captain Huggy Face illustrates the meaning of a word (such as "pensive") with facial expressions and body language.

I could spend hours describing all the funny little quirks of this show, but you really should see it for yourself. To learn more about the show, view clips, activities and lessons plans, and to learn when the show might be on in your area, check out the extensive Word Girl pages on the PBS Kids Go! site. There are also related word games on the Scholastic web site, which notes that the series has won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in Animation, as well as a Television Critics Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Children's Programming. Word Up!