Saturday, December 23, 2006

Lovely nature verse

I've suddenly read a bunch of kids' books of verse that I love, two about water ecosystems and one about water creatures and plain old animals. The kids love these less than I do, but at least Stomper doesn't cover his ears like he does when I try to read something in German.

The much lauded Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, by Joyce Sidman, gives a brief, nicely written informational paragraph about each poem's creature. Beckie Prang's accompanying woodcuts with muted, earthy tones, suit the poems (and me) perfectly. Here's the first verse of my kids' favorite poem, "Diving Beetle's Food-Sharing Rules":

Any type of larva is mine,
as well as all tadpoles, minnows, and newts.
Sticklebacks, caddis flies, spiders,
and small frogs of any kind---mine.
Snails, eggs, and bugs---all mine.
In short,
if it moves, it is mine.
If it's anywhere near me, it is mine.
If I'm hungry (and I'm always hungry),
it is mine, mine, mine.

Finally, poetry they can relate to.

Hotel Deep: Light Verse from Dark Water, by Kurt Cyrus, is sometimes silly, sometimes spooky poetry about ocean creatures, from sea turtles to anglerfish. His palette sticks mostly to green-blue-purple, and his fantastical-looking illustrations evoke the wonder of ocean life. A sample verse:

Lost and lean, a lone sardine
Haunts the doorways of the sea.
"Please, has anybody seen
A million other fish like me?"

Covering land and water creatures, If Not for the Cat, by Jack Prelutsky, is a wonderful book of haiku. Something about the form itself makes each of these seem somehow profound. Unfortunately Ted Rand's paintings, while fine, don't do anything for me. Two favorite haiku:

Boneless, translucent,
We undulate, undulate,
Gelatinously.
(illustration of a jellyfish)

Gaudily feathered,
With nothing at all to say,
I can't stop talking.
(illustration of a parrot)

When Agnes Caws, by Candace Fleming

I chose this book based on its cover illustration of a girl wearing a cotton, long-sleeve, button-up dress and knickers hanging by her knees from a tree branch, doing bird calls. Pumuckl went through a big bird (not Big Bird) phase, so I thought he'd get a kick out of this. Agnes, the daughter of ornithology professor Octavia Peregrine, is a bird-calling prodigy. When Agnes and her mother are chosen by the World Bird Society to find that rarest of birds, the pink-headed duck, (dead-) bird collector Colonel Edwin Pittsnap decides to follow them and bag the prize. Pittsnap, who looks like a villain from Dudley Doright, underestimates Agnes' bird-calling might, and all ends well. The subject matter is so off-the-wall for a kids' book, and Giselle Potter's illustrations so artful (Professor Peregrine looks like an early 2oth-century model for Vogue) that no bird interest is necessary to appreciate it. The only difficulty is deciding how to do those bird calls: "Cawaak! Caweek! Eek! Eek! Eek!" "Chac-ca-cha-ca! Wick! Wick! Wick!"

How I Became a Pirate, by Melinda Long

Jeremy Jacob is building a sandcastle when he spies a ship flying the Jolly Roger. He tries to tell his parents, but they're not listening, so when the pirates invite him along to find buried treasure, off he goes. Eventually he realizes pirates are lots of fun to hang out with, but they don't make good parents. My kids love this book, with its pirate's chorus of "Aye! Treasure!" and "Down the hatch!" and I like it fine. The people look a bit inbred, but the illustrations are rollicking and full of action.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Toot & Puddle, Top of the World

This is my favorite so far in (the unfortunately named) Holly Hobbie's Toot & Puddle series. Puddle sets off to find Toot, who should have returned from a walk ages ago. The piglets' impulse-following is set on super high, so Puddle's seemingly random tracking turns out to be right on target: When Puddle sees a train coming, he thinks "Toot loves trains," hops on, and next thing you know he's in what looks like Grand Central Station. He follows first his instincts, then his friend, around the world, from Provence to Nepal. My favorite part: When Puddle explains to Toot how he came to be in Provence---saw a train, saw a poster, etc---Toot says, "That's how whims are." Indeed. Hobbie's watercolors are inspired---who knew piglets' grins could be so wide?---and the globe-trotting aspect clinches it for me.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More good Christmas books

Further thoughts on the open-a-book-a-day thing: every morning, each of my kids tells me how many days until Christmas. Now, for a while this was sweet and charming, but as we're getting down to the wire, it's like a relentless timer beep-beep-beeping every day when I wake up. Isn't it funny how the kids think "Yay! Only five days until Christmas!!" and I think "Holy moly, only five days until Christmas!"

Also, we've read, well, 20 Christmas books, and my oh my were they a mediocre lot. Only a couple were loved by kids and big people.

Lucy's Christmas, by Donald Hall, and A Christmas Like Helen's, by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, are both early 20th-century-in-New England books, the authors' tributes to their grandmothers. Both are illustrated with woodcuts, one of my favs. A Christmas Like Helen's is the lovelier and more touching of the two, covering grandma's many siblings and almost fatal bout of scarlet fever. Lucy's Christmas has freakishly detailed woodcuts and cool historical details, like ordering the fancy new stove from Sears Roebuck. Both of those were loved more by me than the boys---especially the afterwords, which they shushed---but they liked them, too.

The Bearer of Gifts, by Kenneth Steven, is a palatable version of the story of Christ's birth combined with the Santa legend, set in Lapland. What I love about this book is Lily Moon's artwork. She uses rich, bright colors and whimsically geometrical shapes, with designs around the edges of some illustrations that make them look like quilts. Her bio says she takes her inspiration from primitive art and textiles from around the world, and I can see it.

Last is I'll Be Home for Christmas, a Toot & Puddle book by the unfortunately named Holly Hobbie. The kids and I all love Toot & Puddle, two exuberant, jet-setting, watercolor piglets who follow their whims. This isn't even my favorite of the series, but for someone like me, who doesn't tend to like "cute," these porcine friends are a breath of fresh air.

Now just four more Christmas books to go. I figure if I do this for another eight years, it'll be less of a crap shoot. Now if only I can do something about that morning countdown.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dinosaurs we love

When my oldest reached 6 years without showing the slightest interest in dinosaurs, I thought we'd skipped one boy obsession. We'd hit the others pretty hard: The first meaningful sound both my boys made was "wooo woooo wooo" when a firetruck went by, and I've learned to live with Lego pieces all over the floor and train track under the dining table. To say they like to build would be a gross understatement.

But then something happened---the Magic School Bus maybe?---and my oldest was off and running, apparently determined to make up for all the wasted years without dinosaurs. With all the hundreds of kid books about dinosaurs, you'd think there'd be no shortage of great ones. We've sure found many, many average dinosaur books, but only a few we all love.

Dinosaur Dream and Shadow of the Dinosaurs, by Dennis Nolan, are beautiful, dreamy books in which kids who love dinosaurs switch dimensions to visit them. In Dinosaur Dream, not surprisingly, a boy dreams that a baby brachiosaurus comes to his house and needs an escort home. And Shadow of the Dinosaurs is to me a bit freakier and slightly less sweet, as it's the dachshund and not the little boy doing the time travel, but the little boy looks so much like my nephew that it's always fun to read. Nolan manages to convey a child's sense of wonder about dinosaurs, and I hope he has some more in the works.

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley, isn't a dinosaur book per say, but rather the story of the man who first showed the world what dinosaurs (kinda) looked like. Hawkins was a scientist (or "scientist") in Victorian London who was obsessed with making life-size figures of dinosaurs to introduce to the public. The illustrations are rich in color and detail---Hawkins' billowing white hair makes him look quite the mad scientist---and this true story is wacky enough to entertain everyone.

The How Do Dinosaurs...? series by Jane Yolen is a kind of Miss Manners for the toddler set, not so subtly teaching kids the proper way to eat politely, go to bed in the most convenient way possible ... for the parents, and be ill graciously. I used to find the text offensive in its instruction, but now I find it silly, and the illustrations are great. The kids clearly love them and ask for them often.

Walking with Dinosaurs: A Natural History, by Tim Haines, the accompanying text for the BBC/Discovery Channel series, wins hands-down for coolest illustrations. The combination of photographs and computer animation makes it look like a photographer was hiding behind a tree in the cretaceous period capturing these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. It's like a coffee table book, with pictures so striking that we rarely read the text.

Good knights

Every once in a while I get it into my head that Pumuckl (he's my oldest, 6.5, and yes, that's a nickname) needs books around that he can read himself. He's a kid who keeps his cards close to his chest, and I only found out he could read when I overheard him whispering to himself as he read a magazine. So the last time I went to the library, I checked out the "emerging reader" section---who knew they had such a thing? It seemed to be full of really awful-looking books with stunted, repetitive language.

The artwork on the cover of Good Knight, Good Knight, by Shelley Moore Thomas, grabbed me right away. There's something sweet and sympathetic about the expressions on the faces of all the cartoony, watercolored creatures, and who can resist a knight? The three little dragons don't want to go to bed, despite all the Good Knight's best efforts, and my little dragons giggled when they heard the nighttime requests the dragons in the story used to delay bedtime. The story is so sweet and endearing that none of us noticed that it's an "easy reading" book, with lots of repetition and clever rhyming.

My boys loved Get Well, Good Knight just as well. The poor little dragons are under the weather, and the knight wants to help them recover. The old wizard makes up some get-well soup---"snaily scaly" and "slimy grimy"---with wonderfully horrible (rhyming) ingredients, but the dragons refuse it. Luckily the good knight's mother has a better recipe.

Happy Birthday, Good Knight is the most contrived of the three, but since we're already aquainted with the three dragons and the knight, we loved it anyway.

A plain old picture book (not in the emerging reader section), Jackie French Koller's Horace the Horrible: A Knight Meets His Match tells what happens when the tough loner knight has to take care of his little niece until her father, the king, gets over the flu. She misses her father, and Uncle Horace does his best to take her mind off it---by slaying a dragon, vanquishing an army, and rescuing a damsel in distress. All the little girl really wants is a hug, and in the end, Horace discovers his soft side. It's simple and sweet, and the kids like it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Pretty good Christmas books

We're giving a potential new Christmas tradition a test run this year---gleaned from Family Fun magazine during one of my fits of "Oh no! I'm not giving the kids enough" whatever ... tradition, in this case. I giftwrapped 24 Christmas books (23 of which came from the library---I'm not nuts), and since December 1, each night one kid chooses and opens a book to read at bedtime. It's supposed to serve as a release valve for the kids' present-opening compulsion and also as a kind of advent calendar---books left = days until Christmas. So far it's worked out better than the actual chocolate-filled advent calendars, none of which lasted beyond December 3. I was surprised that the boys weren't too horribly disappointed when they figured out that not only were the gifts "just" books, they weren't even books we could keep. They're enjoying it enough to keep doing it, but not so much that they open all the books when I'm not looking. Sounds like a winner to me!

Disclaimer: I like secular Christmas books, the kind that share the spirit of Christmas in sweet and fun ways without, well, the Christmas story itself. We've read about 10 so far this year, and only one gets an * in my notebook: Night Tree, by Eve Bunting. A family bundles up and heads out to the woods in the old pickup. They find their tree, the one that's "been [their] tree forever and ever," and proceed to decorate it with apples, oranges, and millet-honey balls---food for the forest creatures---then drink hot chocolate and sing carols. I love the idea of a lovely Christmas tradition about nature, sharing, and one that doesn't involve spending money. Unfortunately the illustrations make the family look something like eerily grinning mannequins, but the kids (mine, I mean) don't seem to mind, and I just read the words and look at the pictures in my head.

My oldest says he recommends Cat on the Hill, by Michael Foreman, and I'm kind of with him. A former ship's cat, on his own now that the aged captain has come ashore, describes his life on the hill, looking down on all the fishing boats. The book is divided by seasons---summer's great, full of ice cream and tourists; autumn's chilly, but the fisher boy sometimes gives the cat a mackerel. When winter comes, the cat is cold and the competition for food is fierce, but those lights in the town below sure are pretty! Finally the fisher boy comes uphill with a host of creatures---can you see where this is going?---and the cat gets ready for a fight, but is surprised by the food and warmth they bring. I may not love the story, and the illustrations are fine watercolors but nothing spectacular, but this is the first kids' book I've ever read that uses the word "damned," as in "that damned dog." Twice! That's too cool, and worth a mention, don't you think? Those nutty British.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Kids' books that make me cry

Latley I've read the kids two books by Jane Yolen (she of How Do Dinosaurs...? fame) that made me teary, Owl Moon and Honkers. Yolen has more than a bit of the poet about her, and Owl Moon is a fine example: a taciturn father takes his littlest little one out owling, hooting like an owl and waiting for a reply. I don't know how she does it, but somehow this little story of one winter evening brings across love (quiet papa shows what he can't say) and the cycle of life (seasons, generations). Heck, I'm getting sniffly just thinking about it.

In Honkers, Mama's pregnant and on bed rest, so her five-year-old "big girl," Betsy, is shipped off (with her name and address on a tag strung through her buttonhole, no less) to grandma and grandpa on the farm. Together the three of them care for a set of abandoned goose eggs, then raise the "honkers" until it's time for them to fly away and the little girl to return home. Another lovely story of regeneration and the connections we make---not the kind of "connections" those people claim to make on The Bachelor every week---to one another, to other creatures, and to the earth itself.

Lastly, and strangest of all, is Fossil, by Claire Ewart. This is a gorgeous picture book, with rhyming text and warm watercolor illustrations, that begins when a little girl finds a fossil and imagines how it came to be. The story follows the life of a pterosaur from egg to end, and I know I'm weird, but the text about the creature growing old and tired just moves me. Some readers complain that it doesn't do enough to help kids understand how fossils develop, but to me this is a book of poetry about the life cycle, and it always puts me in mind of the fact that we live for about the blink of an eye.

November mystery roundup

Okay, after reading the top of the page, I remember that I'm supposed to be writing about books I do like, not those I don't like. So here's a list of mysteries I read last month that I'd definitely recommend, in the order I'd recommend them:

Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum: This is the first Fossum book I read, and it's riveting: multilayered, suspenseful, seamlessly integrated. Some (mamas) might be put off by the snatched-child element, but it's worth getting past. Fossum goes for the big issues, in this case child-parent relationships. Her Inspector Sejer ranks up there with Ian Rankin's John Rebus and (dare I say it?) HMH's Kurt Wallander.

Borkmann's Point by Håkan Nesser: I loved loved loved this book, but it had a strange early-20th-century-British feel to it---I kept expecting CI Van Veeteren to address his colleagues as "old boy" and pepper his speech with "I say!" Nesser delivers a terrific sense of place, and the grisly ax murders are wonderfully (and weirdly) counterbalanced with a genteel cat-and-mouse game around solving the crimes. I can't wait until more of his work is translated.

He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum: In some ways even better than Don't Look Back, especially in the development of Sejer. The plot setup is almost comical, becomes surprisingly touching, and ends up seriously disturbing. I think that last punch she gets in after the resolution is a Fossum trademark.

When the Devil Holds the Candle by Karin Fossum: This is so well written that it's worth reading despite the incredibly depressing story and jarring perspective-shifting. My husband refused to finish it.

Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason: This is the kind of book I think of when I hear "gritty." Hard-boiled DI Erlendur Sveinsson is, well, hard-boiled---a 30-year veteran of the police force, a divorced, grumpy smoker---and the character of his drug-addicted (and pregnant---yippee!) daughter is hard to take. The story digs into a nasty strata of Iceland (yep, there is one); that atmospheric thing the Scandis have going on is insular and ugly here. Gee, now I'm having a hard time remembering why I liked this so well, but I know I did...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

In the end, Edwardson's not good enough

I've just finished Åke Edwardson's Sun and Shadow, and though I really got into it while I was reading it---a marathon two-day event---now that I'm done and the more I think about it, the less I care for it.

Now, I dig Scandi mysteries. I'm such a huge fan of Henning Mankell Henning (I can never remember which is his first and which his last name, so I have to check under H and M at the library) that I've gone on to search out his neighbors, including Karin Fossum (fantastic), Arnaldur Indriðason (really good), Håkan Nesser (extremely good), and Kjell Eriksson (eh). I like their moodiness, their long-on-atmosphere stretches, their eternal winter of the soul. I've been impressed by the depth of character (most of) these authors achieve---no flimsy, plot-driven whodunits here.

Then I found Edwardson---sitting there on the shelf at Cody's under a brand-new, hastily posted "Scandinavian Mysteries" sign ... clearly I'm not alone in my geographical proclivities---and since I wasn't willing to pony up $25 for HMH's latest hardcover, I bought it. It grabbed me from the git-go, and these days, with two little kids and a looming deadline, I don't finish anything that doesn't. Though I was supposed to work when the babysitter came, I read and read, sucked right on in.

The crime was gory. The sexual psychology was warped and fascinating. The teenage subplot was sweet and honest. The cast of supporting characters was varied and richly drawn (I especially liked the African-Swedish woman cop partnered with a racist lug). Edwardson's wide net of suspicion was masterfully cast. The subplots were interesting enough not to feel like commercials interrupting the action.

But then there was DCI Winter, the protagonist. The book jacket says he's young and stylish, a gourmet cook, and I'll just have to take the publisher's word for it. Once Edwardson mentions Winter's wearing an expensive shirt and I thought, oh, right, check, "stylish." Other than that? Didn't come across. On the other hand, he did seem to be a bit of a heel in his personal life. Father dying? Bummer. About to become a father? Oooh, stressful. Checking out another woman and lying about it later? Um, jerk. So I guess I didn't like Winter, and considering the fact that whole series can rest on the protagonist, that doesn't bode well for Edwardson and me.

Then there was what reviews call the book's "rapid resolution." About 4 pages before the end, Edwardson had to spell out---as in name a name---who did it. And that close to the end, there was no room for why. Why him? Why did he do it like that? That cryptic writing on the wall? Oh, not important after all. That venture into Gothic death metal? Never mind. (And that treatise on why it was not, in fact, death metal, but rather black metal, or something? Who bloody knows?) It felt like Edwardson realized at the end that he had to name someone, so he did---being careful not to choose anyone he'd been pointing toward all along. It was random. It was cheap. It was not nearly good enough to end a book this good.

So next time I'll dig a little deeper for that $25 for HMH's latest, and Edwardson I'll get at the library. At least I'll know which initial to look under.