The Gray

In the world of children's authors, there exists gray. I dislike gray, desperately. Why can't it be black or white? There are a couple authors who I know to avoid. Then there are those who attract me like a bear to honey. Then there are a couple of gray authors who produce superb literature one day... and hogwash the next.

They frustrate me deeply.

Two authors I would love to unequivocally recommend are Charlotte Zolotow and Jane Yolen. They have wonderful books... but I can't automatically grab something off the shelf from them anymore ever since discovering some blemishes in their authored works.

Charlotte Zolotow is an award-winning and rightfully praised author on so many lists. She created such gems as The Seashore Book and the beautiful When The Wind Stops. She has a way with words especially in describing the natural world in a gentle, lyrical way. Then we picked up a book by her called The White Marble at a garage sale once. It started out fine, about a new friendship between a boy and a girl. But then the language got a little too beautiful. Maybe it wasn't even her intent, but the sentiments that came across in this book turned very intimate and almost sensual at some points. I was glad I read it to myself before introducing it to the boys. I think they would've felt confused. That said, all it takes is one bad publication for my red flags to be up with an author. So while we'll check out some Charlotte Zolotow books, I can not include her on my quick, safe author list.

Then there's the example of Jane Yolen. Her name is popular in the children's literature world; she's written over 300 books!!! People compare her to Hans Christian Andersen or Aesop sometimes! And we LOVE some of her books. Our favorites include the haunting Owl Moon, the inspirational Emperor and the Kite, and the now-classic How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? We thought that Jane Yolen was good to go. Until we read Encounter.

Encounter is the story of white men coming to America as told from the perspective of a young Native American boy. Now, I'm not one to claim that the whole "Columbus discovered America" bit was all peaches and cream and that happy, chubby Thanksgiving scenes were the norm. I know better, and I teach my kids better. We discuss how the "discovery" was bittersweet, the conflicts with the natives, some of the ways Europeans took advantage of the situation. But Yolen's book is really over the top with the whole thing. The little boy talking in first person is at first scared, and describes how he senses the corrupt, evil intentions of these pale people. The pictures show surly, ugly white men with greed in their eyes. The boy gets kidnapped but manages to escape to tell the story of how much he regrets white people ruining his land. Now come on, I'm not proud of all of America's history... but I'm not sorry we came here. And this book seems to want to lay a guilt complex on every white American and a dose of racism against us in the eyes of every minority American. It's a bunch of hogwash. And it has made me very leery of Jane Yolen now.

So those are just a couple examples of "gray" authors. They are part of the reason why parents need to be especially vigilant to what kinds of words, stories and messages are being imparted to our children. We would be naive to think that all of children's books are meant in good fun without any kind of underlying motive whatsoever. Still, it ought to be easier to identify "bad" books... which is why it's so frustrating when the bad gets easily mixed in by authors from whom we've come to expect good. Guard your heart and guard your mind, and guard especially the minds and hearts of children who are unable to do so themselves.


EDITED TO ADD: Thank you to Rachael for pointing out her disappointment with Patricia Polacco when she checked out "In Our Mothers' House." I had no idea.... Polacco was on my safe authors' list!!! But I can't recommend her 100% anymore because some of the content of her books run contrary to the value system I'm trying to hold my family up to... a great pity though. Patricia Polacco has some real gems and I'd encourage you not to write her off totally. Just be selective and thorough when evaluating her books.

Library pick of the week

I mentioned this book in my Top 10 list for spring, but we don't actually own it. Yet. After going through the library books that we've gotten this week, it looks like pretty standard fare (except for the fact that this branch had a Tin Tin book that the boys haven't read yet... so that was exciting. But Tin Tin really does deserve his own post.) so I'm going to have to choose this as our book of the week. I need to just buy it already as we've checked out this (and it's companion An Egg Is Quiet) enough times to convince me that there really is long-term relationship possibility here that needs to be assessed. The boys have loved finding which seeds we recognized in this book and are eager to identify monocots and dicots now. I had some old navy beans from last week's soup that we covered in a wet paper towel and put them in a plastic baggy to see what would happen. A few days later, they began sprouting and shell shedding and now are ready to plant. Probably the easiest and most beginner-friendly science experiment ever. So without further ado, I can not recommend enough A Seed Is Sleepy.

Overcoming Reading Resistance

Rachael asks what can be done to help her daughter love story time. Some kids are just wiggle worms and don't like sitting still and reading books... and this can be very disheartening to mamas who want to raise up little readers. Rachael did mention that her little one did love Richard Scarry (good taste that one!) so there is hope! Stick to what she's interested in for now. Some other ideas that may help:

  • Don't mandate sitting still. Allow her to draw or color or even jump around while you read... she still may be listening.

  • Read during snack or lunch time! I think this is one of the best ways to "force" listening among squirrely children. Two year olds can be strapped in a high chair and older kids have to sit at the table to eat. You can read and show pictures, librarian-style during this time.

  • Lunch time is a great time to introduce stories that are longer and with fewer pictures since the kids are preoccupied with their food, they will generally sit still and just listen to what's going on. I made special "tea time" for fairy tale (the old, picture-less, non-PC kind) reading with my boys. The stories are rich and the vocabulary tough but I literally sweetened the deal by making muffins or somesuch, put a dollop of honey in their tea and read while they sipped and nibbled. I'm sure a significant percentage of what I read went right over their heads, but I think it's important to challenge them and get them familiar with rich language and tough vocabulary words.

  • Another place where children have to be naturally still is in bed. Night-time reading next to their bedsides is a fantastic habit to get into, and it makes for warm memories as a bonus.

  • Consider books on CD. Go for a long car ride and pop in a book on CD to start instilling the habit of attention. Soon, you can transfer this habit to home during 'quiet time.' Five year olds are old enough for beginning chapter books like Charlotte's Web or James and the Giant Peach.

  • You can check out picture books at the library that have a CD accompaniment. The great thing about this is that many children who don't read yet like to flip the pages at the special "page flipping" sound so they are attentively listening for that.

  • Don't be afraid to deviate from the story line. I used to substitute the names of my kids into the story as the protagonists, maybe adding in a sibling or friend also, and they loved hearing books about themselves.

  • Talk about what you are reading. Ask her what she'd do in such and such situation or what part of the picture she likes best. Try to mimic some of the artwork. Play 'finding' games with rich illustrations.

  • Try letting her work some beeswax in her hands while you read. Beeswax is pretty tough before it gets warmed up in little hands so it'll take some of her fidgety energy out while she's trying to mold it. If it proves too frustrating, just go to a basic clay or playdough.

  • Get some beautiful, wordless books (e.g. Tuesday or Anno's Counting Book) and see if she is receptive to just talking about the pages or even better, telling the story herself.

  • Create a lovely space for reading. Consider refashioning a closet into a reading nook or using some creative pipes, boards or framing materials to hang cloth over. If you make a space inviting enough... kid appealing enough... they'll want to be there: "If you build it, they will read."

  • Same thing goes for book display. Most of our books live on the shelf. Select seasonal and library books are placed in beautiful baskets around the house. We've been known to employ the rain gutter system too; get something forward facing at least! For resistant readers, you have to put a little extra effort into marketing! But it is worth it!

  • Most of all, don't give up! Even if you feel like your efforts are in vain and she's getting nothing out of it, she is! She's hearing stories (don't let the frustration drip out of your voice!) and lovely language and will be all the better for it. If you need some reconvincing on the importance and value of reading aloud to children, check out Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook. This book is incredibly important for parents to read. While I don't agree with 100% of his book recommendations, the information and statistics in this book are very, very good. They will make a big impact on you and help you feel better about your goals when read-aloud time seems useless.

    how to make a bibliozealot

    Finishing up the afternoon dishes I noticed the quiet in the house... never a good sign around here. I wiped my hands and immediately set off to investigate. I found a sight to warm my bibliozealous heart... the children on a Dr. Seuss binge in the front yard:

    Thrifting Gems

    I got seriously lucky last week at Goodwill. The Goodwills around here have a price of 79 cents on all children's books (note, this is NOT true of Goodwills everywhere unfortunately), whether it's a ripped up Elmo's ABC book or a pristine collectible. While the store seems to have someone on staff who knows how to gouge prices on clothing depending on the brand, it seems they count all childrens' books as equal... much to their own ignorance... and a fact upon which I am happy to capitalize. As it is, for $6.32 I scored 8 great books. The Tomie De Paola book you see was a quarter at the "Friends of the Library" book sale last week.

    Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I normally wouldn't have taken the time to purchase this beloved classic because it's so readily available at the library and at thrift stores. But this particular copy is an old, hard copy with divine illustrations and a dust jacket that makes it worthy of prominent display on the shelf. It smells like precious old books (once Kindle can nail that, they might win me over). Books of this sort are like deepwater pearls for me.

    The Boxcar Children.I've passed up millions of Boxcar Children books because while I think they are fine on the moral compass, they aren't necessarily super high quality literature that I'm dying for my children to read. But many children love series like these and I don't mind if a child of mine gets hooked on these benign books. I bought it that day because it was a mint condition hard copy of the first book in the series... and I had just read a blurb about The Boxcar Children earlier that same day from an (adult) book I'm enjoying right now.

    The Crippled Lamb Same reason I bought Tomie De Paola's "Country Angel Christmas" up there.

    The Sign of the Seahorse: A Tale of Greed and High Adventure in Two Acts. All the goodness we can expect from Graeme Base. I'm not familiar with this particular story yet, but the copy was mint and we've loved everything else we've seen from Base thus far!

    Papa Piccolo by Carol Talley. I love when children's stories show a strong sense of place or culture and this one highlights Venice at its best. Not only is the book in excellent shape, but it was on my wish list. This book may be elaborated upon more greatly in a future post about best books around which to design a curriculum.

    The Vikings... I couldn't find author information on this offhand and it's disappeared into the folds of a child's blankets for now, so fascinating it is. The book offers great visuals about real Viking artifacts and art and stories, it's a great supplement to our Vikings study (which we finished last fall and won't revisit for a few years, but still...)

    Ollie's Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow. Now I just got done ranting about how Beskow books NEVER make it to the second-hand world but I was proved wrong as I found one of her titles for the first time EVER! Little Ollie sets out on skis and runs into Old Man Winter who's trying to keep the Spring Thaw lady away... what a great find!

    Finally, Little Rose of Sharon by Nan Gurley. This is a sublime little book, one of the best analogies on Christ I've ever seen in children's literature. It's a story of sacrifice and love and absolutely great Easter timing. I am VERY happy to own it!

    "Good children's literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child.”


    I'm not sure when I became the consultant for friends who'd ask "Do you have any recommendations for ____" but honestly, it's feeding my ego: this pretended children's librarian authority. As it were, Lindsay is doing "origami week" with her little ones and asked if I had any books to recommend that reflected Japanese culture. Here are my picks:

    Crow Boy by Taro Yashima is the first that comes to mind. It's a super tale about a boy being different... but valuable. Japanese culture is written all over this book. We've used this book as a spine to build an entire Japanese unit on once.
    Right after that, I thought of Yoko's Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells. Not only does this actually show the delights of origami, it's a sweet story about grandparents and a grandchild staying connected, no matter the countries (or states, in Lindsay's case) between them.
    Then there's the classic Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say. It's a fascinating and beautiful story of the plight of an immigrant and would be appropriate for older children as well as younger. Allen Say has a number of other beautiful books relating to Japanese culture as well.
    Little Oh by Laura Krauss Melmed might be a perfect fit too. In this one, an origami doll comes to life and goes through all sorts of adventures before parental love wins. I also happen to love the illustrator Jim LaMarche who has done art in many other books I adore.
    One on my shelf is The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson. A tale of cleverness, compassion and love. And it shows traditional Japanese culture on every page.
    Then, I saw this book on, Fold Me a Poem by Kristine George. I've not had a chance to review it yet, but it looks absolutely lovely and perfect for a week of origami or Japanese culture study...
    Of course I wouldn't let this opportunity to go by without also putting in a plug for the wonderful, essential Children Just Like Me book. Anybody who does any kind of social studies work with children ought to have a copy. My children love to compare and contrast their own lives to those of children all over the world and this book makes that information very visual and accessible to them.

    So there's that. There are many more books based in Japan out there, but these are the main ones I know of that are great books, lovely and worthwhile... which after-all should be exactly what we strive for now, shouldn't it?

    Top 10 Best Alphabet Books

    Seems like there's an alphabet book on nearly every topic these days; some of them are great! Others are obscure or random or superfluous to the opus of children's literature. But if you are determined enough, you'll probably find an alphabet book on most topics of interest to a child. Alphabet books are emphatically NOT just useful for preschoolers, they can be clever conduits to information and creativity in a myriad of ways. Of the many, many alphabet books out there, these are Ellie's opinion of the Top Ten, which had to be so sadly limited. {updated to link Part II of this list!}
     Animalia by Graeme Base is my first immediate choice. The Australian Graeme Base is one of those illustrators that must really adore art since he puts so much time and detail into his lavish pictures; each page is a feast for the eyes and in this particular book, no detail is too small as everything on every page begins with its corresponding letter. Each page offers a bit of a vocabulary lesson as well: "Proud peacocks preening perfect plumage." This books could easily double as an I-Spy book, it's as much of a delight for 2 year olds as it is for adults.

     A Farmer's Alphabet by Mary Azarian. I love woodcuts and you should too. This particular woman does them beautifully. The book details very simple words from farm life and black ink woodcuts to pore over. She's produced another book: A Gardener's Alphabet in the same vein that is also fun to peruse... though much more colorful.

    B is for Bethlehem by Isabel Wilner is another winner. It deserves a spot in the Top Ten not just for the nice, gentle rhyming... but mostly because of its illustrator-- one I've highlighted before-- Elisa Kleven. Amazon lists this book as discontinued I think, but other internet searches reveal that it is still in print; I was lucky enough to score a beautiful hardback for free on Bookmooch. Bonus points that it is available as a board book too. (Think gifting for children or godchildren.)

    The Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta. My boys adored this book. There is so much to learn and love in the insect world and Jerry Pallotta is an excellent choice to bring insects up close for children in a fun, sometimes humorous way. I also wanted to make sure to include this author because he has a whole bunch of other topical alphabet books-- everything from birds, flowers, deserts and airplanes.  Especially note his excellent Construction Alphabet Book... a little boy's dream.

    A is for Annabelle by the never disappointing Tasha Tudor. Doll lovers everywhere will swoon over this book and the exquisite and sweet illustrations that glorify the details and delights of dollies.

     Alphabet City by Stephen Johnson. This is a wordless book that cleverly shows urban landscapes highlighting each letter of the alphabet. Not only is the art extremely well done, but the concept itself inspires all sorts of scavenger hunt games in children. This will help them to see the world in a different way, to find letters in everyday things and to want to copycat this idea through photography or drawing from unusual perspectives.

     Museum ABC by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I might call this one a must-have, especially if you are lacking in art appreciation materials. This is a very clever, useful book that showcases each letter along with four famous paintings that show off the word. In the back is useful information about the paintings and artists in the book... an excellent way to squeeze some "culture" into a child's life. There is also a Museum 123.

     Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert. This book is being included because it truly is a great preschool book. Bright, chunky fruits and vegetables, in typical Lois Ehlert style, adorn each page. It obviously inspired my 2 year old as she has literally eaten our copy beyond repair.

     The Handmade Alphabet by Laura Rankin. An excellent introduction to the ASL alphabet, this book is so clever and beautiful; each page features a hand demonstrating the sign for the letter along with pictures of what's represented (The X hand is shown through an X-Ray).

     The Butterfly Alphabet by Kjell Bloch Sandved. Now here is a truly innovative book, one to nourish butterfly lovers everywhere and to demonstrate just how ingenious God is in His natural designs of the universe. Each page shows a full picture photograph of a butterfly and the opposite page is an extreme close-up of the actual letter in the butterfly's wing. Who knew?! Truly a beauty.

    "The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones. "-John Wooden

    Library Pick of the Week

    I hope to highlight the best of our library picks each time we get new books. These posts won't usually contain the classics that I love (though we do recheck those out plenty), but simply the best of the current bunch in our basket. Considering that we carefully pick out books and pick out a good 30 or so at a time... this has to be a fairly impressive book to make it into the post.

    Today it is King Midas and the Golden Touchby the Charlotte Craft and illustrated by the incredibly talented Kinuko Craft (Charlotte's daughter). Forget that this is an excellent and faithful retelling of this famous myth... it's Kinuko's illustrations that make it a sublime offering to any reader. Each page could be cut out and framed into it's own piece of delicious art. We discovered K.Y Craft with the excellent Pegasusbook and are now on the hunt in the library buffet line for anything illustrated by her. The detail and magic of it all will delight you. Highly recommended!

    Book Clutter

    My husband and I have declared war on clutter (trinkets, knick-knacks, things, STUFF!). Well, there is one notable exception to this: book clutter. While it drives him crazy, I love seeing piles of books in heavy use all over the house. It is a sign of a healthy, inspired home. If I had the money and willing partner, I'd probably paper entire hallways in this superb book wallpaper. Still, there must be some sort of order. I've half-seriously considered implementing the Dewey Decimal system in our home. But the books are getting pulled off shelves and put back much too frequently for me to expect order to stick. And shelf space is limited here! When you marry a builder-type no press board, MDF, "beaver puke" bookshelves will do. So you are left with one or two solid wood shelves that are laboring under the weight of being shackled with too many books. Or you find alternatives... here are a couple of my favorite ideas while I'm waiting for my built-ins like those shown above to make it to the top of his 'honey-do' list:

    Good old baskets. I love seeing baskets of books in little corners of the house. They are an excellent way to keep library books together or seasonal books fresh by rotating different selections in and out of baskets. Aside from finding great [sturdy] baskets at yard sales and the like, some excellent sources for lovely weaving include The Peterboro Basket Co. whose wares are crafted right here in the U.S.A. But my very favorite baskets are sold through a very favorite organization of mine, one that supports artisans and fair trade all over the world. You can know you are purchasing quality and improving the quality of life for people everywhere when you make a purchase through SERVV. At least get their free catalogue and drool...

    Then there is the gutter option. Some people refuse to "trivialize" their homes in this way wanting to keep up a certain vibe of formality or good taste, but I love gutters. In our last home, my husband installed one right underneath the giant bay window in the living room and it was a delight for the kids to see different books being displayed at different times. You can see a photo of what I mean here (pardon the birthday-boy litter strewn about). Tutorials exist all over online on how to do this.

    The next items on my sewing to-do list are bed pockets for books. With our boys' excellent triple-bunk, each railing would be dressed up grandly with a personal book pocket for each child. Here is a tutorial for how to make one that slides in between the mattress and box spring.Now we don't have box springs on bunks but I think it would be easy enough to sew on some straps to wrap around the rail and button or velcro it to the pockets. What a great treat this would be for children to have their favorite stories and a small flashlight tucked in next to the bedside. (We allow a "reading" light for the kids to almost any hour. There is a philosophy or two behind this but we'll skip that for now.)

    I wish I had an empty staircase with dead-space to use for book storage; it would be such a practical solution. Look at this website for some interesting examples. Then I stumbled on this blog post which had a plethora of ideas for people big on books (and time... and money...). Imagine bathing near your favorite novels! But I loved most of all the imagery in this photo:Isn't it a delight?! If I had my way, books would be decorating our entire home (well, in a careful and DELIBERATE way, not in the way they "decorate" the home now... ha!). Alas, it's not to be... I've stretched my dear husband's tolerance of books probably as far as it will go and I have to be thankful that we do have other great options. Right now, our giant, e-bay found, Mexican crafted bookshelf is mostly filled with children's books. More spill out in a basket or two in the front room, those pertinent to our studies or seasons sit on the piano upright and ajar (library style) inviting little hands to pick them up to peruse (currently the piano is holding books on Native Americans, Pocahontas, St. Isaac Jogues, Holling C. Hollings superb Paddle-to-the-Sea and the like), and books sit at the end of the kids' mattresses, in between car seats and all over my own dresser... not to mention those especially favored friends that get tucked into tote bags and backpacks for our adventures out of the house. If you have a clever way you store books, do share... our collection is only growing!

    "Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house." ~Henry Ward Beecher

    Attention Keepers

    This post is for my friend Amy. She's going to be flying across country very soon with six children... does Ellie have any recommendations for books to hold their fancy? Well, aside from drugging the children with Benadryl and keeping an endless supply of bribery M & Ms on hand... it's all you can do to survive that flight. Still, there are some books that might help tame the beasts. What you're looking for Amy, is books with a lot of detail, lots of things to look at and hold their attention for as long as possible.
    My first instinct screams, "Buy some Richard Scarry!!!" My kids can spend hours with his Busy Town books. I think this one in the picture is his meatiest, though they are all so fun, it's worth getting a couple more (like Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day ). You can spend all kinds of time finding Goldbug or other silly imagery.

    Then you might want to pick up a couple Anno books. I know you guys are going to be working on your times tables this summer so this might be a good pick. It presents a different perspective on math. Any of Anno's other books are great in detail also...

    There are some fantastic pop-up books out there! We love Robert Sabuda for one... also look at this this little gem here! Lots of material to occupy curious minds in this one.

    Then again, you may want to avoid fragile books with lots of toddlers clamoring about. How about something Minnesota related? The Discover America State by State series is pretty informative.

    Or you could stick with the goal of "keep their attention as long as possible" and go with the old standby books in this category like I Spyor Where's Waldo? Finally, I'd stock my carry-on bag with things like Mad Libs, and lots of paper with a new, fresh set of crayons or colored pencils, maybe a portable Etch-a-Sketch, and a couple of new, dollar store Made-in-China toys just to have for novelty's sake... but don't forget the bribery candies. Yes, you ought not to overload the children with sugar normally... but remember that you are in survival mode. :o)


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