Saturday, May 31, 2008

Creepy Crawly Characters

Here in our very wooded corner of northern New Jersey, caterpillars have been literally thick on the ground these past few weeks. It happens each year around this time- their gauzy tents appear in the trees. Soon they begin to break free and can be found, fat, hairy, and surprisingly quick, on any and all surfaces. Everywhere we go, I hear parents saying, "Leave them outside" and "Not in the car!" They're talking about the fistfuls and Dixie cups filled with writhing caterpillars. My own children collected 14 in a matter of minutes at a recent teeball game. In about a week, they will be gone, turned into moths or butterflies or smooshes on the bottoms of sneakers. We won't see them for another year. In the meantime, we can content ourselves with our three favorite literary invertebrates, a caterpillar, an inchworm, and an earthworm. One is very hungry, one is very clever, and one is very human.

Of course the go to caterpillar book is Eric Carle's classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Oh, how we have loved this book! Clearly many other readers have as well, judging from the toys, card game, baby clothing line, and other products inspired by it. Educationally, it is a gold mine, teaching the days of the week, counting, and the process of metamorphosis. It's also just a delightful read. I have yet to meet a child who does not love the list of foods the very hungry caterpillar eats on that fateful Saturday. And, of course, they all love when he turns into a beautiful butterfly in the end.

Also on the list of invertebrates we love is the very clever green inchworm protagonist of Leo Lionni's Inch by Inch. Inchworm as underdog. He outwits the vain nightingale and saves his own neck in the process.

Finally, for school age children is the baseball cap wearing earthworm in Doreen Cronin's Diary of a Worm. The entries are fresh and witty as are Harry Bliss' illustrations. My children particularly enjoy the worm's June 15 diary entry which reads, "My older sister thinks she's so pretty. I told her that no matter how much time she spends looking in the mirror, her face will always look just like her rear end. Spider thought that was really funny. Mom did not."

Friday, May 30, 2008


Just as you should always keep an emergency twenty in your wallet, tissues in your purse, and a first aid kit in your car, if you are the parent of children between four and ten years of age, you should always have a Geronimo Stilton book with you. It may just be a lifesaver, or at least a boredom buster. For instance, yesterday when one child had a guitar lesson, another one read Geronimo Stilton Field Trip to Niagara Falls to a third child in the waiting room. When Child #1 came out, and Child #2 went in for a piano lesson, Child #1 did not get the chance to say, "This is boring." I handed him the book, and he was chuckling in no time.
These engaging books about a mild mannered mouse named Geronimo Stilton who has many varied adventures are more chapter book than comic book, but they are chock full of engaging illustrations, interesting fonts, fast plots, and outrageous characters. Originally published in Italy, there are now more than 30 Geronimo Stilton books, and they have been translated into 35 languages. Some popular titles in our household are The Mouse Island Marathon, The Phantom of the Subway, and The Wild, Wild West.
One nice feature for the adult who reads these aloud ( in our case, my husband, nightly, to our five year old)- the chapters are very short. When a child begs for just one more chapter, you can easily indulge him or her.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hee Hee

Ethan and I got a chuckle out of a quote we saw stencilled on the wall of our local Borders bookstore today. It is attributed to Groucho Marx:

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie?

It's true: you cannot judge a book by its cover. Or, apparently, by your mother's recollection of reading the book thirty years earlier. My eight year old daughter chose Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods for our next nightly read aloud. She was charmed by Garth Williams' cover illustration of little Laura gazing fondly at the doll in her arms, surrounded by Ma, Pa, Baby Carrie, and Laura in a cozy looking log cabin. I told her how much I had loved reading about Pa playing his fiddle and Ma making butter with her daughter's help.

So my daughter and I were excited and my sons were doubtful as we all climbed on my bed Monday night to begin the book. What a surprise when pages 5 to 18 went into great detail about Butchering Time! The slaughter of venison, pig, and bear are recounted. The smokehouse Pa built from a hollow log is described in great detail. My nine year old son was rapt with fascination and my daughter had the horrified look on her face of someone who has fallen for the old bait and switch. My five year old son looked a little bored. The description of the making of head cheese only intensified these reactions. All I know is we'd better get to some corncob dolls and barn dances soon!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Standing Tall

I love a good novel and have to push myself to read more nonfiction. My chief complaint is that nonfiction is often boring. However, every once in awhile a biography or autobiography really moves me and I find myself raving about it to anyone who will listen. C. Vivian Stringer's Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph is one of those books.

Stringer is the head coach of the Rutgers University women's basketball team. That is what got me to pick this book up, as my husband, my three brothers, many of my friends, and I all graduated from Rutgers and have an interest in Rutgers athletics. I'm assuming many people will read it to find out more about the controversy sparked by radio personality Don Imus's negative comments about the team. Stringer does cover that incident, but this book has so much more. What an inspirational life she has led!

With dignity and quiet humor, Stringer writes about the tragedies in her life, including her fourteen month old baby daughter's spinal meningitis which made it impossible for her to walk or speak again, the death of Stringer's beloved husband of a heart attack in 1991, and her own battle against breast cancer. At the same time, Stringer writes of her professional triumphs (bringing two different teams to a National Championship tournament), and personal ones such as her strong marriage and the love and support of her family and friends.

Stringer admits mistakes she has made in her life and extolls the importance of hard work, education, and a can do attitude. It is a fantastic choice for a teenager or young adult, even one who has no interest in basketball.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Few Words on Memorial Day

Back when I was a high school teacher, I worked in a school with a vice principal who was a veteran of the war in Vietnam. Each year, on the Friday before Memorial Day, he organized a simple and moving Memorial Day observance around the flagpole in front of the school. There was a color guard and music and he explained that Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, created to honor those who died in the American Civil War. He briefly explained how it expanded into Memorial Day after World War I and he led the faculty and students in a moment of silence. He really demonstrated to the students that although the picnics and barbecues are great, there is more to Memorial Day.

With that in mind, I have an excellent book for children about the Gettysburg Address that would be perfect to read at this time of year. Although Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War, he movingly and in few words, gets to the heart of memorializing the dead who bravely struggled on that battlefield.

Just A Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Gettysburg Address by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Charles Robinson tells the story behind the writing of that famous American speech. It is made interesting by details of Abraham Lincoln's life at the time he wrote it, the fact that his son Tad was sick when he left to deliver the speech, the other guests in the house where he stayed who had to bunk together, the too small horse he originally had to ride, and so on. Fritz makes the readers understand what it was like to be in the audience standing outdoors surrounded by frsh graves listening to the president with his Kentucky accent deliver those 271 words. The book includes the Gettysburg Address at the end.

Even if you don't get around to checking out this well written easy reader, Memorial Day is a good opportunity to look up the Gettysburg Address and reread it. It's about the same length as the blog entry you just read and certainly more significant. Oh, and enjoy your barbecue!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

4750 Pages and Counting?

When my oldest two children were in kindergarten and first grade, I begain reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone aloud to them. It was wonderful. We waited until Ethan, then a toddler was asleep, and then we cuddled in my bed and read fifteen or twenty minutes each night. They hung on every word. At their insistence, I reread it once we finished. Then I read the second book twice. I read the third book once and moved on to the fourth. By the fifth, Ethan started listening in sometimes. Occasionally we have taken Harry with us while we wait at doctors' offices and the school bus stop. He has come on all of our family vacations for three years now. I read the sixth book, and last night I finished the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As I finished, my daughter Hayden and I had tears in our eyes, both from the story and from the emotion of ending this great experience. We have read dozens, maybe hundreds of other chapter books and picture books during this time as well, but our daily time with Harry was a treasured ritual. On the other hand, my vocal chords are glad of the rest. Well, they thought they were going to get a rest. My husband Bill said to me, "I really think you ought to start at the beginning and read them to Ethan as well." I'm not sure if he is sincere or if that is some sort of Muggle joke.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Wonder Woman

Several weeks ago, my five year old son Ethan and I were discussing Batman and Spiderman. Out of the blue, he asked me, "Mom, do you know why Wonder Woman only wears her underwear and high heels?" I thought about saying that it's because men draw her, but I told him I'm not sure, and I pointed out that she does wear bullet-deflecting bracelets. Needless to say, I was not satisfied with my answer. I remembered that my daughter Hayden had a Wonder Woman easy reader that she had loved when she was in preschool and kindergarten. Apparently Ethan had never seen it, because I also remembered that the Wonder Woman in that book was not a busty, scantily clad, crimefighting sexpot, but an athletic, more appropriately dressed, adolescent. What I could not remember was where that book was. So I began a search that took about two and a half weeks.

In the meantime, I asked some women friends how they might have answered Ethan's question. It was suggested that I refer him to the women's studies department of a local university. My friend Maureen quickly came up with a good theory that too much clothing would compromise the effectiveness of Wonder Woman's invisible airplane. My brilliant and very stylish sister-in-law Jane, wise to the ways of comic book heroes and villains, came up with my favorite answer: Wonder Woman wears only her underwear and high heels, "so she can attract the bad guys, then stomp on their instep with her stilettos."

When I stopped laughing, I eventually found Hayden's old book. As soon as I had it in hand, I recalled that it is one in a series, and we had borrowed others from our public library several times when Hayden was younger. They are even better than I remembered! The 32 page I am Wonder Woman, written by Nina Jaffe and illustrated by Ben Caldwell, is fantastic. Each page has limited text which benefits a beginning reader without sounding babyish. "Even though I can run the fastest and leap the highest, to laugh and play with my friends is best of all. That is the Amazon way." I love the accompanying images of the other Amazon girls engaged in sports and games with Diana (aka Wonder Woman).

Ethan and I spent some time this week reading these books together. I was happy that Wonder Woman looks more like a real girl than the other images he had seen of her. He thought it was cool that she can play tag with dolphins. Hayden was happy that I had found an old favorite to revisit.

These excellent paperbacks are available, new and used, from Amazon and may even be at your public library

Thursday, May 22, 2008


My eight year old Hayden brought Beverly Cleary's Beezus and Ramona with her to the bus stop yesterday morning. She kept giggling while she read. Apparently, Ramona had eaten just the first bite out of each apple in an entire box. This just cracked Hayden up. It got me thinking about other books that have been funny enough to make my kids laugh out loud. I won't consider 5 year old Ethan in this because he would laugh at War and Peace if you inserted "gas" or "poop" or "barf" every few sentences. There are also too many silly, laugh out loud picture books to mention.
So, here are a few books we've read recently that have gotten the Burts to laugh out loud:
-the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel (perfect for preschoolers and early readers)
-the Poppleton series by Cynthia Rylant (also great for preschoolers and early readers)
-Superfudge and Duble Fudge by Judy Blume ( these make my second and third grader laugh as much on the second and third readings as on the first)
-the entire Captain Underpants collection by Dav Pilkey (my kids started enjoying these around the age of five and still chuckle at George and Harold's antics)
-The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (this one inspires my two older kids to enact selected scenes, and then they laugh while acting them out.)
-Jim Benson's Dear Dumb Diary series while set in a middle school really make my second and third grader laugh, as do
-the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney. The genius of these books is that they make me laugh out loud as well, but I don't think my kids and I are always laughing at the same parts. I think that they will reread these for years and keep finding new humor in them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A is for Annabelle

This week I bought a copy of Tasha Tudor's beautiful picture book A is for Annabelle for my friend Marjorie and the baby girl she is expecting. Although my daughter and I each have a copy at home, I got a little thrill just holding Marjorie's new copy. My grandmother gave me this book when I was a little girl (paperback cover price $1.50), and I adored the rhymes: "A is for Annabelle Grandmother's doll. B for her box on the chest in the hall." The delicate and deliciously girly illustrations of Annabelle and the girls who play with her captivated me as they still do my eight year old daughter Hayden. It is an alphabet book which catalogues many of Annabelle's possessions. N is for her nosegay and p is for her parasol, for example. I'm all for books about girl power and girl athletes and women politicians, but I will always keep the fondest place in my book loving heart for this old fashioned charmer. I hope Marjorie and her daughter will spend as many cozy times reading this book together as Hayden and I did.