The House in the Night, Susan Swanson and Beth Krommes

Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the year. It’s not that it’s always the best night of the year. Sometimes the din of gift giving is too loud, or the candlelight service fails to move me with its unusual silence. Sometimes I’m just in a foul mood because, well, that can happen regardless of how much we wished it didn’t on days meant to be special. Nevertheless, come December, I find myself looking forward to this day.

911mhxjpizlMaybe it’s because one of my favorite books as a child was Christmas in Noisy Village. My grandmother’s copy was purchased from a library sale long before I was born, and it was in pretty bad shape when I first got my hands on it. The book hasn’t borne the intervening years well, and the pages now are yellow and torn, but when I pick it up, I’m overcome again by its magic.

Much of that story takes place on Christmas Eve, and I always found that to be wonderfully special. It held all the magic of Christmas without the focus on gifts, which, even as a child, often felt anticlimactic. The excitement of Christmas isn’t really in the accumulation, but in the anticipation, the breathless wonder of dark, starry nights.

It’s that same wonder I see every night when we read our son The House in the Night. The text of the story is sweet and simple, but the art is so special that all three of us feel a powerful connection to the story. There’s one page in particular that my son loves with such passion that he grabs the book (which usually falls on the floor, because six month old fingers don’t have the strength to lift such large board books) and proceeds to have a whole conversation with the moon. The rest of the book has pictures I love even more, but he goes back to that page again and again with such joy that I feel overwhelmed by such pure pleasure. 

It’s that kind of happiness I wish all of you today. Many of us have a moment, a favorite passage or illustration, that we go back to for comfort and joy. It’s one of the incredible gifts of reading, in my opinion, to discover those little treasures – those Christmas Eve moments that are familiar and yet delight us anew every time – and today, in the rush of celebrating (or not – this feeling isn’t limited to the holiday spirit!), I hope you have time to pause and remember the rush of joy such a passage brings. Maybe you can look it up and reread it, maybe you can’t, but either way, allow the knowledge of its existence to make today just a little bit brighter.

A sweet day to you all, and I will see you in the new year!

I Took the Moon for a Walk, Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay

I promise this blog won’t become completely devoted to children’s books just because I spend seventy-five percent of my reading time looking at picture books now, but I Took the Moon for a Walk is absolutely worth talking about. My mother picked it up from the library when we visited back in September, and we loved it so much that she ended up mailing us our very own copy. Since then, we have read it every day, initially several times (by choice!), although now it has settled happily into the rotation of before-bed books.

Every night, I find myself thrilled to pick it up again. The story is pure poetry, and in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was written as a poem initially and then stunningly illustrated as a bonus. The musicality is exceptional. Each line flows gracefully across the page, and because we’ve read it so often, both my husband and I can recite it by heart, giving us ample opportunity to study the pictures.

I know we wouldn’t read it nearly so much if our son didn’t love it as much as we do, but when we pull it out, he leans forward and studies each page intently. He’s only ready for the next page when he turns away, usually studying the illustrations for a minute or two (a long time for a five month old’s attention span). While I certainly try to read him books that I enjoy as much as he does, this one delighted both of us so much from the very first reading that I can’t imagine a day when we don’t want to look at it (although inevitably, time will sneak up on us and that will happen).

When my husband read it for the first time, he said to me, “Why can’t all children’s books be like this? Look at the vocabulary he’s learning! The meter! The rhyme!” Incidentally, he had just been lamenting the fact that too many of the board books we owned seemed, in his words, “too basic and boring.” While I agree that some books written for children are so dull I would rather eat paste than read them repeatedly, I pointed out that for infants, even something “basic” was still, well, novel.

Books are windows into the world for young and old alike, and even though many trivial concepts (See Jane. See Jane run! Run, Jane, run!) seem obvious, for babies, it’s all brand new! That being said, I knew exactly what he really meant. A book like this is an elegant dessert rather than a poorly prepared side dish. It’s a treat, and I fully believe that our love for it encourages, even at such a young age, a special reverence for excellent books. And that is something I dearly want my child to understand.

God and Goodnight Moon: Finding Spirituality in Storybooks for Children

After three weeks of heading deep down the rabbit hole into the life of babies, where they come from, and what to to do with them once they’ve arrived, I felt like I had reached my saturation point. Don’t get me wrong – this is all exciting and necessary information, but I’ve started to really look forward to my (slow) elliptical workouts at the gym, because for forty minutes a day, I get to read fiction, and it’s absolutely glorious. I find myself drawn to books with plenty of swashbuckling adventure, inappropriate language, and over the top romance to balance out all the studying I’ve been doing. 

It probably doesn’t help, of course, that aside from reading all these baby books, I’ve also been taking a class for the last eight weeks to hone my skills writing for children. I scheduled it back in January when I was absolutely lousy with energy, and by the time it started in March, I felt like a sponge that had been wrung out to dry. The first week, I absolutely despaired. How could I possibly get through my class reading, plus check out all the children’s books recommended as supplementals, while also getting my assignments in on time and staying on top – if not ahead – of all my actual work that has to be done before the baby arrives? 

There might have been some crying and some gnashing of teeth, but eventually, I settled into a routine (a routine that absolutely required and justified an hour long nap every afternoon) that was doable, and I remembered exactly why I love taking writing classes when I have the chance. It feels amazing to stretch parts of the brain that have been atrophying, and even though I’ve had the best of intentions in regards to several projects for younger audiences in the last year, none of them had even made it into the solid outline stage. Taking this course was exactly the kick I needed, and I found that it actually energized other writing projects simply by forcing me into more of a time crunch. Truly, nothing motivates me to work on a new chapter or essay like the threat of missing a deadline (as an anti-procrastinator, it really is a marvelous scramble to stay ahead!).

As a nice addition to my classwork, a couple of months ago, my parents sent me a book that’s less of a sit down and read than it is a reference for families looking to explore the themes of some of their children’s favorite stories within the context of Christianity (in this instance, “Christianity” is defined as a value system that encourages tolerance, compassion, understanding, and equality while using stories from the Bible to supplement these themes). I read through it this week, and while I doubt it will be my go-to activity book (I liked a lot of the ideas, and I’m sure I’ll use some of them, but I also have years of preschool teaching materials that may well see more use), I did get a chance to learn about some wonderful children’s lit that I had either forgotten about or never heard of in the first place. 

The absolute best thing about the book was how diligently researched it was to find such wonderfully diverse books for children. Not only were children of many races represented, but also children with different abilities, children from all sorts of families, children from countries around the world – each suggestion had been carefully chosen to intersect between the deeply well known (Goodnight Moon, The Velveteen Rabbit) and the joyfully affirming (Crow Boy, Hope, The Story of Ruby Bridges). As I was reading, I found myself making a list to take to the library, and at this point, anything that gets me that excited to move off the couch gets a thumbs up in my book.

And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

I’ll be back “in the office” in two weeks, but for now, please enjoy this lovely book based on a true story about chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the story is a perfect follow-up to questions from little tikes about what makes a family a family. Spoiler alert: it’s love and commitment.

For more about the authors, head here. For more about the illustrator, this way.

Journey, Aaron Becker

From Sept 30 to Oct 21, I’m on a road trip across the south and I haven’t brought my computer with me. (Vacation! Hallelujah!) I don’t want to abandon you for three weeks though, so while I’m gone, I’ll be posting videos of some of my new favorite children’s books.

This week, I present Journey, an absolutely stunning wordless picture book I fell in love with this summer. When my mother refused to give me her copy, I ordered it from my local children’s bookstore, and the woman working there shared with me that Becker has a sequel coming out soon. (Update: the new book is called Quest, and I am already in love with it having seen the cover.) I’m incredibly excited to hear that. This book is my happy place, and I highly recommend that you watch the video in full screen, and then go get a copy for yourself.

For more about Aaron Becker, go run here.

Loud Emily, Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

I was browsing in a bookstore with my sister-in-law Emily a few weeks ago, and I decided I had to give this book a read. I grew up hearing countless songs about women with my name (although the only one that ever seemed to have been written about me was “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”); it instilled in me a deep love of all things name-related – ugly key chains, charm necklaces, and yes, of course, picture books.

Really, I just grabbed it as a lark, and because I wanted to tease Emily with it a bit (she’s not in the least loud, but that was neither here nor there in the moment). I didn’t expect to get teary over it. I wasn’t planning to refuse to let Emily have my copy (although as the younger “sister,” it’s my prerogative to be stubborn about silly things like that). I certainly didn’t think I would lend it to so many of my friends with baby girls to remind them of how absolutely wonderful it is to meet a woman with an unapologetically loud voice.

But I did. I’ve cried every time I’ve read it, in fact. Just at the part when her family and teacher are admonishing young Emily to keep quiet because they fear she won’t have an easy life if she speaks so loudly, and then again when she finds her first advocate in the cook, who is delighted to find “a lass who speaks up!”

There’s something about the connotation of the word “loud” that led me to believe this would be a book about the importance of learning to be quiet. It’s a garish term, a reprimand in itself. The crowd or the class or the children are too loud, and they bring to mind headaches and frustration and a complete lack of control. One of the only times we encourage people to be loud specifically (rather than boisterous or enthusiastic) is at sporting events. In almost all other circumstances, we’re more likely to associate it with ostentatious, vehement, deafening.

When I was teaching preschool, I used to spend about five minutes before we sat down for circle time – the most focused part of our day when I would need the class’ attention for fifteen minutes – leading the children in the loudest songs I could come up with. We stomped and gnashed our teeth; we screamed and clapped and laughed and were as loud as we could possibly be. At the beginning of every school year though, it was a struggle to convince the class that I really meant for them to let loose and use the biggest expressions their bodies could come up with because they had been taught by word and example that loud was bad.

In this book, the message is loud is useful. Loud is necessary. Loud is endearing to the right community, and loud is not something to change, but to count as a strength. There are too few books encouraging people, especially children, to speak up. This one manages it without stigmatizing loud’s opposite. Instead, loud is a part of something greater, a single color in a kaleidoscope of traits that are neither good nor bad. Emily is loud. It does make it a challenge for her to find the place where she fits best, but that’s true for all people, especially when they choose not to change to fit in. Finding a story that celebrates that journey is as wonderful as learning to love a little girl who is loud.

For more about Alexis O’Neill, head over here. To learn about Nancy Carpenter, go here.

The Keeping Quilt, Patricia Polacco

This is the third week in a row I’m posting about a book related to my family, but if you’d like to hear the other excuses for why I’m posting about a children’s book instead of the stunning memoir I’ll be talking about next week…? Of course you would.

Reason 1. Books are my first love. Quilting is my second. The quilt below is maybe the fourteenth quilt I’ve finished. Most of them have been baby quilts; a few have been for friends. This is a picture of the one I was working on when I read The Keeping Quilt for the first time in January. It’s for our friends’ baby, due next month.

Photographing quilts is not one of my hobbies. I’m not good at it, and I apologize.

When I first started hand quilting, I learned mostly from my mother and my best friend’s mother, and we did a lot of the work in community. I don’t even remember the names of some of the women who helped me tie my first quilt, but I do remember the experience of sitting together in someone’s kitchen working and talking together. Years later, I do about half of my sewing on my own while watching television and about half at project nights (organized by the couple who will receive the quilt pictured above). I love having a quilt to work on anytime (especially in the winter…or when I want to watch a season of some show without feeling profoundly guilty about it), but when I get to bring one over to their house and sit around with friends, it recaptures the experience I had when I first took up the hobby. This beautiful little book captures that feeling for me perfectly.

Reason 2. The Olympics. I know – everyone hates the winter Olympics. Everyone who doesn’t hate the winter Olympics is boycotting them. I realize that most people consider the summer Olympics to be a big deal and the winter Olympics to be a nuisance that bumps their favorite shows for a month, but I like them. I’m actually an Olympics fanatic, and although a part of me really wanted to boycott Sochi as well, I just couldn’t do it (I decided to donate some money to Lambda Legal instead). Conscience somewhat appeased, I hunkered down and watched a brain numbing amount of sport. It didn’t leave a lot of time for reading…or my own workouts come to think of it. Oh well. Two more years until I can justify eating this much popcorn while watching super-fit people compete again.

It did allow for plenty of quilting though, and I even invented my own sport – speed binding! Turns out, I won first place, but instead of a medal, I got incredibly sore thumbs and wrists, and a pain in my back that has not yet receded. The most exciting speed binding related injury was accidentally jabbing a straight pin all the way into my shin. It hurt a lot more coming out than going in, let me tell you. (Surprisingly, this book doesn’t mention anything about bleeding onto the fabric or having to purchase wrists braces; this is how I know it’s at least partially fiction!)

Reason 3. The book I’m reading right now is excellent, but it’s also exceptionally sad. I can’t speed through it, I can’t read it late at night, I can’t even read it when I’m alone in the house. It requires a particular mindset that just isn’t conducive to my usual style of reading. It’s worth it, but yeah. It means this week, you’re forced to accept a smaller offering in its place.

The Keeping Quilt makes me tear up too, but in a less “I’m devastated forever” sort of way. It’s a simple story about several generations of women in one family and how this quilt ties them all together (if you appreciated that inadvertent quilting joke, A+ for you this week). The illustrations are just glorious as well, and reading the book makes me excited about quilting every time I pick it up. I think it would be impossible for me not to love a book that manages to do that…


For more about Patricia Polacco, go here.