Friday, August 31, 2012


Sandra Boynton did what seems to be the impossible: She moved fluidly from greeting cards to board books for youngest children. The Going to Bed Book turns 30 this month, and it’s just as fresh and pleasingly surprising to toddlers today as it was when she first published it in 1982. Another of my favorites of hers, Moo, Baa, La La La! is like a song. Children come in on the title refrain and lose themselves to the music of the animal (and human) sounds.

This week I’ve been rereading Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, well known for her book Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd. But she is perhaps little known for her innovative work with Lucy Sprague Mitchell at Bank Street, the progressive school that came to be known by its street address, at that time, in Greenwich Village. (The Bank Street College of Education is now located uptown on West 112th Street in New York City.) Together they founded the Writers' Lab where Mitchell, Brown and other writers began to share their observations of youngest children. They watched how youngsters began to play with and acquire language, more attracted to sound and rhythm than to actual words, which didn’t yet hold meaning for many of them.

We take their trailblazing efforts for granted now. Goodnight Moon is a nursery necessity. But at that time, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mitchell and Brown, along with Edith “Posey” Thacher, Esphyr Slobodkina (Caps for Sale) and Ruth Krauss (A Hole Is to Dig, Maurice Sendak’s first picture book), were all influenced by the research they did with the nursery school students at Bank Street and the observations they shared in the Writers' Lab there. According to Marcus, it was Brown who realized that small children “did not place books in a special category of culturally exalted objects,” and therefore needed a more rugged format. William Scott, a parent at Bank Street who published many of the projects that resulted from its Writers' Lab, began printing books on durable cardboard stock “strong enough to withstand the onslaught of toddlers’ bites and tugs,” Marcus reports.

Because Boynton illustrates her own work, she smoothly moves between making a statement, such as “they hang their towels on the wall and find pajamas, big and small,” and creating images of a tall elephant hanging his towel high, and a lion placing his on a low hook, while dog busts out of bunny’s too-tight nightclothes and bunny gets lost in dog’s, to make the contrast and the joke. Margaret Wise Brown observed this is one of the contrasts toddlers enjoyed most—the playful juxtaposition of large and little, in a world where toddlers may be small in stature but stand at the center of their universe. Boynton gets all that and makes it look effortless, as the best authors of board books do. Her books are, in content and form, built to last.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Beth Kephart
Regeneration can mean the process of renewal, rebirth. In biology it can also mean the regrowth of lost parts. Often, it has a moral or spiritual connotation. Small Damages by Beth Kephart takes place in Spain, where 18-year-old Kenzie lives amongst the survivors of the Spanish Civil War. The “lost generation.” Kenzie is pregnant, about to give birth to a new generation. She literally embodies all of these permutations of the word “regeneration.”

Estela, the cook whom Kenzie is assisting, was roughly the same age as Kenzie when the war took hold in Spain and her family lost everything. Worse, Estela lost both her parents. But we don’t learn the extent of her loss right away.

Kenzie has lost her father. The parent to whom she was closest. The one from whom she inherited her creativity. Her father was a photographer; Kenzie is a filmmaker. Through Kenzie’s first-person narrative we learn how observant she is, how closely she inspects her world. Kenzie has lost her compatriot, her father, her confidant. Lonely and alone in the wake of her father’s death, she responded to the kindnesses of her dear friend Kevin, and their intimacy grew into a physical one. Now she charts the life growing inside her by the milestones outlined in her eighth grade health class: a necklace of bones, the presence of fingernails.

When Kenzie’s father died, the pain of his loss was almost physical to her. The pain was so acute because of the joy he brought to Kenzie while he lived. She cannot take any more loss. When she learns of her pregnancy, Kenzie wants her child to live, even if it means going to Spain and giving up her child to friends of her mother’s. Kenzie wants to give her child a chance. 

Beth Kephart exposes what it means for Kenzie to live through this process of regeneration--incubating this life within her--but also what her presence does to bring about Estela’s regeneration. In one scene, after months of building a trust between them, Estela takes Kenzie out to a field. They knock away dust “soft as a baby’s head” from a grindstone. Estela explains it’s where they once crushed the olives for their olive oil. Now they ship the olives away, and the oil comes back in bottles. “Something’s missing,” Estela says. Kenzie connects Estela’s grindstone with her father’s headstone, newly laid, her wound still fresh. Something is missing for her, too.

For both Estela and Kenzie, the life they once knew has vanished. But together, through their friendship and shared pain across a generation, they’ve made something new.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Around the Campfire

A great audiobook makes a car ride go from “Are we there yet?” to “I hope we drive long enough to finish this.” If you have a long drive planned before Labor Day, you will want On the Day I Died by Candace Fleming, read by a full cast, with you to make the hours sail by.

The 10 stories, threaded together by the main character, Mike Kowalski, a high school junior who’s drawn to a cemetery by a mysterious passenger he picks up late one night, will keep the whole family enthralled. The voices create the feeling of sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories (which, actually, they are—though without the campfire).

The mix of boy and girl narrators will hold the attention of both brothers and sisters, and the stories roots in folklore and history make them interesting for Mom and Dad, aunts, uncles and grandparents, too. There’s plenty of humor mixed in with the haunting, too. It’s a nice change from everyone watching his or her individual DVDs, to have a common listening and literature experience.

Listening is an underrated skill. We’re all accustomed to so many distractions—iTunes, cell phone rings, text messages—that it’s nice to sit back and let the words of a spellbinding story wash over you. If you like that one, try Jack Gantos reading his Newbery-winning Dead End in Norvelt. That’s another great one for the entire family, set in the actual town of Norvelt, Penn., created as a model community during the Roosevelt years (and named for Eleanor Roosevelt – Nor-velt) when the coal mines closed during the Great Depression. Young Jack’s caught between a mother who loves the it-takes-a-village motto of the town, and a father who sees it as a dead end.

And of course, perhaps the greatest listening experience in recent history is the Harry Potter audiobooks, read by Jim Dale. You can start at the beginning and go through all seven titles and have enough for a cross-country road trip. So here’s to traveling in style over the miles.

Friday, August 10, 2012

No Gimmicks

Every flap, pull tab or yellow cube that pops up serves a purpose in explaining the pair of opposites on each spread of The Happy Little Yellow Box: A Pop-Up Book of Opposites by David A. Carter. It is a model of simplicity.

“Near and far” stands out in particular, illustrating how the same size object farther down the road appears to be smaller. It’s an abstract concept, but Carter makes it understandable through his use of objects—homes, where the Happy Little Yellow Box appears in the windows—with which children are familiar. They can look up the street at the windows of their neighbors’ houses and test the concept for themselves.

Carter explores the capabilities of the pages— with sturdy cardboard, a limited palette, and double-sided pages with room for die-cuts and shifting panels both inside (such as the “near and far” example) and attached to them (as with the elevator that moves “up and down” with a red ribbon loop). He confines the colors he uses to yellow (most frequently, of course), red and blue—the primary colors—plus black and white.

It’s a book that may be used far beyond the teaching of opposites. In art classes, it’s instructive for teaching the use of color, composition and sculpture. For bookmaking projects, it’s an example of how one can use the page, the shifting parts, flaps that reveal the concept Carter’s teaching (“in and out”; “large and small”). The pages are made for investigation, for peering through the openings, for observing how the helicopter lifts off (“high and low”), for collapsing the final yellow cube and opening that spread over and over to see how Carter constructed the cube to lie flat when the page is closed and take form when the spread is open.

Teachers often speak of “mentor texts,” books that model clear exposition or surprising use of language. The Happy Little Yellow Box is a model of invention—what can be done within the construct of a book to break it wide open, to investigate the possibilities of the page. Children will do this intuitively, asking themselves, “How does he do that?” and likely finding an answer as they solve the mystery for themselves. There are no gimmicks. If they look hard enough, they’ll see just how Carter does it—and he does it with such simplicity that they may well have a go themselves.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rollicking Refrains

Children glom onto the refrain of Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed because it states the obvious—“The doctor said, ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed!’”—yet the monkeys do it anyway. Eileen Christelow’s approach is lighthearted despite the pretty bad head bumps that occur.

The monkeys see the injuries of their siblings and still take a chance—against the doctor’s orders. The mother also seems to have trouble learning the lesson because she keeps calling the doctor even though she consistently receives the same response. At this stage, toddlers appreciate the repetition; they have time to digest and feel in on the joke. The doctor is the only one who seems to get increasingly frustrated. In Eileen Christelow’s illustrations, he looks patient enough during the mother’s first few calls, but by call numbers four and five, he’s clearly reached his limit. His advice, as repeated by the mother, appears in all capital letters the fifth time.

The design of the book makes it easy for children who are just starting to identify letters and sight words. The key refrain always appears in the same way: Mama holds her injured child on the left, the doctor appears on the right for the phone call, shown as two large vignettes, then the mother sharing the doctor’s advice with her children appears on the next page. Children also learn to count down from five to one through the course of the book and through repeated readings. This is a terrific addition to the backseat library—a great one to have on hand so everyone can join in the recitation and laughter.