Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Roundup of Picture Books

We've read a few fun picture books in the last week or so:

The Girl and the Elephant, by Nicole de Cock, begins, "This is the girl. She often goes to the zoo. She goes to see the animals, wishing there were no bars between them." The plain words and simple but beautiful illustrations tell the tale of a girl who becomes friends with an elephant at the zoo, and then follows the elephant back to Africa. It is a lovely book with a fantastical story. My seven-year-old daughter was charmed.

Clarabella's Teeth, by An Vrombaut, is the tale of a crocodile who has so many teeth that it takes her all day to brush them. By the time Clarabella is done brushing, her friends are done playing and going to bed. Don't worry, there is a solution. My four-year-old son found the bright colored pictures and humorous tale very entertaining.

Chato's Kitchen, by Gary Soto and illustrated by Susan Guevara, is the story of a cat who invites his new neighbors, a family of mice, over "for dinner." Unfortunately for the cat, he ends up eating a vegetarian meal. Fortunately, he has made a wonderful feast of salsa, fajitas, enchiladas, and other items that taste just fine without mouse meat. It's a cute story with a Latino theme, and it includes a glossary of the Spanish words used if you are not familiar with them. My kids enjoyed the story, but didn't ask to hear it again.

Super-Completely and Totally the Messiest by Judith Viorst is a story told by a girl convinced that she has the messiest little sister in the world. Many examples are given, complete with detailed illustrations of the chaos that young Sophie leaves wherever she goes. Luckily Sophie's family seems to appreciate that she is a good kid who just happens to leave a trail behind her wherever she goes. Both my kids liked this book, but it seemed to particularly appeal to my daughter, whose room tends to look like a post-Katrina photo of New Orleans.

All these books were plucked, seemingly at random, off the library shelves in about two minutes. I'm often surprised at how many good books my children find this way. None of these books are ones that I would run out and buy, but they certainly were worth reading and borrowing for a few weeks. Our weekly trip to the library has been a great part of this summer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The End of Harry Potter

Ah, the last book. I'm sad that it is over. However, I read the book so quickly, in order to find out what happened, that I am already prepared to read it again. Next time I read, I will savor all the little details.

I'm curious about J.K. Rowling's next creation. I hope she will write again, even if it is a completely different world and characters. Of course it is unlikely that anything else will satisfy the Harry Potter fans, but that shouldn't stop her from trying.

For those who loved Harry Potter, I have the following recommendations:

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (my favorites are "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and "The Silver Chair," although "The Magician's Nephew" is pretty great too.)

The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper (loved these as a kid, except for the very end of the very last book)

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (loved the first two books as an adult, the last not so much. The first book, "The Golden Compass," is being made into a movie.)

"The Princess and the Goblin" by George McDonald (a childhood favorite - I should pick up a copy and read it to my daughter.)

"The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" (and the rest of the Wolves Chronicles) by Joan Aiken - not so much magic, but lots of Gothic drama and adventure. For older children or adults, "Midnight is a Place" is an amazing book.

"Half Magic" by Edgar Eager. My then six-year-old daughter loved this one.

"The Enchanted Castle" by E. Nesbit. I loved this author when I was a kid, and read loads of her books. However, my daughter found this book too slow when I tried to read it to her (at age six), and we quit after 30 or so pages. It is probably better for an older child or a faster reader.

And don't forget all the Oz books by L. Frank Baum or the Fairy books ("The Red Fairy Book," "The Blue Fairy Book" etc.) by Andrew Lang, or the Doctor Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting.

Since some of these are OLD books, I will try reading some to my very modern children and let you know how it goes. Personally, I always loved reading books written a hundred years before I was born, but then again I was an odd little child. Thankfully Harry Potter has made it fashionable for adults to read books written for children, so I can re-live my childhood without dragging my poor kids into it.

Usborne Farmyard Tales

My son is a train fanatic, and he will read almost anything about trains. However, as the parent who has to read stories over and over and over again, I am a bit more discriminating.
One series of books that I can happily read to the children is the Usborne Farmyard Tales train books. They are by Heather Amery, with adorable pictures by Stephen Cartwright. The books we own are "The Old Steam Train," "Rusty's Train Ride," and "Dolly and the Train." There is another called "Woolly Stops the Train" which I don't believe we have (but there are so many books in this house, who really knows?)
There is not a lot of plot in these 16-page picture books. For example: kids go on a field trip; the steam engine stops working; Dolly the horse pulls the carriage back to the station. However, the illustrations are not only cute, but there is a little yellow duck on each page for young readers to discover. A map of the countryside is on the endpapers so you can locate the events of each story, and there is a duck on the map too.
These are sweet, simple books for young children. I would recommend them for ages 2-6. There are other stories that don't involve trains, but we have not read any of them. They are probably equally cute and entertaining for children.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Little House in the Big Woods

While I grew up reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, they are not books that I kept and re-read over and over. So I was surprised by the number of whippings referred to in "Little House in the Big Woods". I suspect my memory of the books has been overlaid by vague memories of Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon in the "prairies" of Southern California on the TV show. Surely Michael Landon didn't whip little girls, even if they slapped their sisters! Or maybe I've just forgotten that too..

Despite the whippings (which seem quite exotic to a child raised on "time outs" and the occasional empty threat of all her toys being taken away) my daughter loved this book. She was fascinated by the details of this family's way of life. The book describes everything from how the family stored food for the winter to what games the children played and how the wheat was harvested. We were both impressed by how hard people had to work in those days. We were astonished by the idea of children who are five or six years old who go to store for the first time in their entire lives. And, of course, I couldn't resist pointing out how grateful the children were when they received new red mittens and one piece of peppermint candy each for Christmas. Well, Laura also got a rag doll - but she was in rapture about receiving one homemade toy. I will leave you to imagine how impressed my modern child was about this little lecture on gratitude.

Personally, I'm feeling a great deal of gratitude that I'm not Laura's mom, working hard from sunrise to sunset and then mending socks by firelight after the sun goes down. Not to mention sleeping on a bed stuffed with straw in the same room as my children. However did Baby Carrie get conceived? Anyway, this book is great for anyone who wants to appreciate the joys of modern life, or wants to get a little nostalgic for the good old days when the women were strong, the men played a mean fiddle, and the children grew up to be world-famous authors.


Who was the biggest newsmaker in the U.S. in 1938? Roosevelt? Hitler? No, it was a racehorse named Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand wrote "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" to show modern readers why Seabiscuit captured the imagination of Americans during the Great Depression.
Yeah, I know, everybody else read this years ago, or at least saw the movie. For some reason I never read it back when it was being hyped.

I was never a horse-crazy girl and have never been to a horse race in my life. I've never even watched the Kentucky Derby on TV, or drank a mint julep. All I know about horse racing comes from reading Dick Francis mysteries, and those are mostly about English hurdling races, which seems to be a rather different sport.

Despite my previous lack of knowledge, I found "Seabiscuit" fascinating. The book gives you a lot of background about horse racing in the 1930's, Seabiscuit, his owner, his trainer, and his jockeys. However, all the information is presented in a way that reads more like a novel than nonfiction, and from me that is a compliment. Sometimes (okay, often) I get bogged down in nonfiction and never even finish the book. But I stayed up late reading Seabiscuit, just to find out what would happen to everyone. This was a great read.

(By the way, I counted my Dick Francis books last week and discovered I had 27 books. Twenty-seven! Surely I had all of them -- but no, according to http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/, Mr. Francis has written 41 best-selling novels. So I guess I can learn more about horse racing while I wait for Ms. Hillenbrand to write another book.)