High Variance

Kid Book Review: Winter Classics #IMWAYR

Now that we are deep into a winter that will seemingly never end, it’s time to look at a few classic children’s books that can carry us through.

Brave Irene (by William Steig, 1986) William Steig is one of the few authors I know who doesn’t shy away from true drama. He’s better known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble which features parents bawling their eyes out over their long lost son, but in this book Irene has to brave a serious winter storm at night to deliver a dress her mom has made:

Irene pushed forward with all her strength and–sloosh! thwump!–she plunged downward and was buried. She had fallen off a little cliff. Only her hat and the box in her hands stuck out above the snow. Even if she could call for help, no one would hear her. Her body shook. Her teeth chattered. Why not freeze to death, she thought, and let all these troubles end. Why not? She was already buried.

Don’t worry, it all turns out wonderfully at the end, but boy, both my girls (and I) were on the edge of our seats the whole time!

The Hundred Dresses (written by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, 1945) R and I really enjoyed this Newberry Honor winning chapter book about two girls who tease a poor immigrant girl from Poland into moving out of town. Both girls feel bad, but one feels worse about it than the other. I don’t want to give anything away, but the story feels amazingly real, right down to the messy ending.

Moominland Midwinter (by Tove Jansson, 1957) Last week I was a guest on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and I one of my recommendations was Finn Family Moomintroll, another book in this amazing series of stories about Moomintroll and his friends and family which take place in magical land far to the north. The stories and characters are rich enough to appeal to adults but clear and exciting enough to capture kids’ imaginations too. It’s criminal how under-appreciated (and unknown) these books are in the United States.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Kid Book Review: Details #IMWAYR

When I was a kid, I liked nothing better then settling down in a corner with a big detailed picture book like Busy, Busy Town and poring over each page looking for things I’d never seen before. My 6-year-old daughter is exactly the same, although the particular books she enjoys are different. Here are three of her favorites:

Crabtree (by Jon and Tucker Nichols, 2013) Alfred Crabtree is a weird dude who loses his false teeth and spends the story searching his belongs for them. This takes a while because he seemingly never throws anything away. The quirky drawings, odd organization, and carefully typed captions are all hilarious. Jason Kottke (Internet-curator-extraordinaire) recommended this book, and he has yet to steer me wrong. The only downside is that it will be hard to find a copy to buy if your library doesn’t have one.

Welcome to Mamoko (by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski, 2010) We actually got this book because we loved the authors’ Maps so much. The story is introduced with a big cast of characters and a question about each (e.g., “Olaf Brown has a big day ahead. Who helps him out of a spot of trouble?”). What follows is a sequence of double page wordless scenes with all the characters in different urban settings. Even my three year-old loves to try to figure out what’s going on.

Incredible Comparisons (written by Russell Ash, illustrated by Stephen Biesty, 1996) My 6-year-old loves books with bite-sized amazing facts, and in this DK book almost every fact is accompanied by a beautiful picture. A blue whale weighs as much as 26 elephants. The moon is as wide as Australia. Angel Falls is three times taller than the Eiffel Tower. The Great Pyramid weighs as much as 16 Empire State Buildings! Highly recommended.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Zebras and Expertise on the Internet

The Internet is full of people talking about stuff they don’t know much about. It’s common at Yahoo Answers and Answers.com, but Amazon reviews and Wikipedia are rife with it too. Even when bloggers are experts in one area, they often write much more broadly. As Maclej Ceglowski delightfully points out in his article about Paul Graham’s lack of expertise on painting, even the top of the food chain is not immune.

I think it’s fantastic. You don’t need to be an expert to have something interesting to say. Regular people notice things experts don’t, and they often have a perspective closer to mine. Non-experts can also be incredibly entertaining.

As a consumer I’m careful not to take anything too seriously, but many folks are more trusting than me of the average blogger. As a producer, I worry about this all the time, as I love thinking and writing about things on the edge (or well over the edge) of my expertise. When I wildly speculate I try to be clear about it, but I feel a little bad that some readers might not notice.

It has turned out that the most common way for people to find this site is by searching for “are zebras mean” or “do zebras bite.” I don’t know jack about this subject, but that didn’t stop me from writing a few hundred words about it a couple years ago. African Safari guide Rory Young recently wrote a terrific article on Quora that shares real knowledge about why zebras can be so nasty. It makes me very happy to be able to send my potentially disappointed visitors on to some real answers.

Finding My Niche #IMWAYR

If you look in the right places on the Internet, you can find terrific suggestions for books to read with your kids. Many of these recommendations are written by teachers and librarians who are tapped into the very latest and coolest new books. The downside is that I now have long wish lists of books that my local library hasn’t had a chance to buy yet. A year from now, my library might have some, but until then, my only option is to shell out real money for a brand new copy.

The fact is there are real gems hiding on the shelves of most libraries waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. That’s what you’ll find here: good books that I know can be found at at least one library (mine) and hopefully yours.

The Quiet Place (written by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small, 2012) This book is told as a series of letters written by a young girl who moves from Mexico to the US. She starts nervous but excited and even though she has a wonderful mother and brother, she misses the family and home she’s left behind. Gradually, she makes a new home and new friends. I don’t think the author was an immigrant herself, but she really captures the experience and brought a tear to my eye.

Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch (written by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Leo, Diane, and Lee Dillon, 1991) On the one hand, it seems totally insane to turn Bosch’s psychadelic visions of hell into a children’s book, but on the other, kids love big eccentric detailed illustrations (e.g., Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town) and those are right in Bosch’s wheel house. This is the story of the artist, his housekeeper, and their unusual house, and it totally works.

Bog Baby (written by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Gwen Millward, 2009) I love stories about kids who find animals, take them home, and then realize that wild animals need to be wild. Angelina Ballerina learns the lesson with a butterfly, Mole learns the lesson with a baby bird, and in this book, two sisters learn the lesson with a fantastical creature called a bog baby. The pen and ink illustrations are unique and beautiful.

AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First (written by Alethea Kontis, illustrated Bob Kolar) Why does A always get to go first? Z decides it’s time to mix things up and hilarity ensues. Both my girls (now 6 and 3.5 years old) thought this book was a lot of fun.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Jenny and the Cat Club #IMWAYR

Over the summer I discovered a whole community of folks on the Internet who read and blog about kids books. It was very exciting and I had great fun reading their work and sharing mine here, here, here, here and here. Then the Fall came and I fell into the teaching vortex. Sunday nights turned into lecture preparation marathons, and I’ve been spending Monday mornings and afternoons presenting the fruits of this labor. I’ve scratched my blogging itch on Teach Better, but the Kid Book Review section of High Variance has lain fallow. What better way to celebrate my first Monday off in ages (for Thanksgiving Break), than with an #IMWAYR post!

When I was a kid, one of my very favorite books was The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. The main character was not bad or good–Like people in the real world, Pickles was a mix of both. He was born strong and ambitious, but with no idea what to do with his gifts. He spends his time terrorizing smaller cats, but eventually learns to be kind and finds his true calling working in a fire house.

It wasn’t until I went to buy this book for my daughter a few years ago that I discovered Esther Averill had written a whole series of wonderful books about cats living in New York City! And in 2003, the New York Review reprinted most of them with nice affordably priced hardcover bindings. The books revolve around the adventures of a shy but strong (stronger than Pickles even) black cat named Jenny Linsky and her friends in the Cat Club that meets in her garden.

The series contains stories for a variety of ages starting with the Jenny’s Birthday Book for very little kids, moving to The Fire Cat which is an early reader, and culminating in several chapter books like the The Hotel Cat and Captains of the City Streets, that make great bedtime reading.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading these books, the clear starting point is Jenny and the Cat Club where you learn how Jenny joined the club and meet all its colorful members. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Taking a Break From Sports

Real life is messy. We balance several life goals (family, career, personal) and many of these goals are difficult to even articulate clearly let alone achieve. For me, sports has always been an escape from life’s complexity. It’s a place where the goals are crystal clear and usually simple: Win. Win beautifully. Achieve milestones no has ever reached.

I’ve been a sports fan my whole life, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing what people or teams can do when they push themselves as far as possible to achieve an extremely clear goal. Recently though, most of the big stories in sports have been about awful behavior of players, owners, and leagues:

These stories sometimes get people talking about important social issues, but I find the whole thing rather depressing. I’m tired of caring about and rooting for people and institutions that I can’t respect.

A week ago I decided to take a break from sports. I was inspired by a new book called Against Football, but it was the Adrian Peterson story and the reaction of other players to it that pushed me over the edge. Beating your kid with a stick until he’s bruised and bleeding isn’t right no matter how you were raised.

So: No more sports radio in the car. No more keeping up with the ESPN news feed. No more reading Grantland. No more listening to the BS report. It’s freed up quite a bit of time and I’ve found other ways to escape. I’m reading more kottke.org and catching up on my friends’ blogs. I’m getting more done at work.

At some point I’ll probably return to sports, but I want to come back for a good reason. I haven’t thought of one yet.

Kid Book Review: Travel Edition #IMWAYR

Every summer we fly off to California for one or two weeks of fun in the sun. At least during the day we have fun in the sun. There are also many of hours of fun in the dark every morning since we start the trip on Eastern Daylight Time, and there’s plenty of downtime mid-afternoon when we just want to chill. At home and away, books fill in these gaps between real-life adventures.

This trip we followed a three-prong reading strategy: First we packed a bunch of our favorite paperback books. We would have liked to bring more, but our bags were pretty heavy already. We had a mix of chapter books for R and picture books for both girls. Second, we brought our whole library of ebooks on our iPads. I far prefer physical picture books and there aren’t nearly as many choices as I’d like, but there are some good ones and you can’t beat the weight. Third, we went to the local library as soon as we arrived and picked up a big pile of books.

These are our top picks for the trip:

On the iPad:

Would You Rather Be a Princess or a Dragon (written and illustrated by Barney Saltzberg) It’s a cute story that teaches kids that everyone has a little princess and dragon inside them.

Muddypaws (by Simon Mendez and Moira Butterfield) I find this story about a boy naming his new puppy a little brain-numbing, but both girls absolutely love it.

From the library:

James and the Giant Peach (written by Roald Dahl) One of my favorites as a kid turns out to be one of R’s favorites too. Dahl’s characters and dialog are just so vivid and funny.

Clink (written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Matthew Myers) If you liked Corduroy, you’ll like this story of an old toy robot who finally finds a boy who loves him.

Grace for President (written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Pham) What an inspiring story of how a girl becomes president of her class.

Sipping Spiders Through a Straw: Campfire Songs for Monsters (written by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Gris Grimly) Until I wrote this list I didn’t realize how big a part Kelly DiPucchio played in our vacation! Both girls are still singing these crazy songs.

Originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions of It’s Monday! What are You Reading? All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Milestones

Learning to walk, talk, or ride a bike are all big milestones in a child’s life. We usually remember how old our kids were when they reached them, but the actual point in time is somewhat arbitrary. How many steps is considered walking? When does babbling turn into talking? When do they really have control of the bike?

What isn’t arbitrary is that moment when you say to yourself “Holy Shit! They’re really doing it!” R is completely fearless in the water and has always been an enthusiastic splasher. I have to watch her like a hawk any time we’re near a pool or at the beach, and I can’t count how many times she has over-estimated her abilities and needed a helping hand or a full fledged rescue. She took a short swimming class last summer and learned to hold her breath and go under water, but as far as I could tell there wasn’t much actual instruction. This summer she had swimming lessons at camp, but she reported spending most of her time wearing a floaty bubble aroud her waist.

For the past two weeks we’ve been on vacation in California, and we’ve had some good times playing in the pool and in the surf. Yesterday in the pool R was enjoying climbing on and off a boogie board in the shallow end. When it got away from her and floated to the deep end, she dog-paddled over to get it and kicked her way back. I blinked my eyes a few times and told her I thought she could have made it to the ladder (on the other side of the pool) if she wanted to. She shook her head and said “I don’t think so,” but the gears were turning. A few minutes later she just went for it. I swam right next to her. She arrived at the ladder with a big smile on her face. And then swam all the way back.

Holy shit, the girl can swim!

Getting Kids Hooked on Poetry #IMWAYR

I still remember in third grade when my grandmother got me my first book of poetry. I looked at it suspiciously and cast it aside. I don’t think I opened it more than a couple times and I have no idea what happened to it. Much later (as a pretentious young adult), I started taking poetry as seriously as song lyrics, and slowly built up a real appreciation for it. But even after all these years, it still feels a little like a foreign language.

My theory has always been that I would be fluent in poetry if only it had been a regular part of my life when I was little. In our household we’re testing that theory with the girls by mixing a fair bit of poetry in with our usual large helpings of stories and nature books. So far, it’s going well–The girls think of poems as a completely normal form of expression. I think the key is reading widely, but making sure to hit subjects that the girls already enjoy. Here are some of our favorite collections:

  • Sharing the Seasons: A Book of Poems (collected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by David Diaz) These vivid poems are clever and really capture the variety of life across the seasons. This collection is probably the house favorite and R loves to recite this spring poem:

“Don’t You Dare” by Beverly McLoughland

Stop! cried Robin,
Don’t you dare begin it
Another tweety rhyme
With a redbreast in it.

Another cheery verse
With a cherry tree,
Don’t you dare
Write another spring poem about me!

Take your pad and pencil
To the reedy bog
When you feel a poem coming–
Think Frog.

  • The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies (written and illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker) This collection is incredible and I don’t say that lightly. Ms. Barker is most known for her beautifully detailed drawings, but I think the accompanying poems are just as wonderful. If the flower grows in England, Ms. Barker has almost certainly written about its fairies.

“The Dandelion Fairy” by Cicely Mary Barker

Here’s the Dandelion’s rhyme:
See my leaves with tooth-like edges;
Blow my clocks to tell the time;
See me flaunting by the hedges,
In the meadow, in the lane,
Gay and naughty in the garden;
Pull me up-I grow again,
Asking neither leave nor pardon.
Sillies, what are you about
With your spades and hoes of iron?
You can never drive me out-
Me, the dauntless Dandelion!

  • A Child’s Book of Poems (collected and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa) I’ve been a huge fan of Mr. Fujikawa’s pen and ink drawings since I came across Oh, What a Busy Day. This collection is full of “serious” poetry by the likes of Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge and Tennyson as well as plenty of silly rhymes by the prolific Anonymous.

“Rain in Summer” by Henry Wadworth Longfellow

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!
How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tram of hoofs!

How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing spout!
Across the windowpane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!

  • Wonton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (written by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin) I’ve been meaning to write about the best cat books for cat lovers, and this book would definitely make that list too. It follows a cat on his journey from the shelter to a new home. And as the title says, the author really does tell the story as a series of perfect haiku.

“The New Place”

Deep, dark bed cave. Me?
Hiding? I’m no scaredy cat!
I like dust bunnies!

“Here, kitty, kitty.”
Ha. I’ll stay put till I know:
Are they friend…or foe?

Yawn. String-on-a-stick.
Fine. I’ll come out and chase it
to make you happy.

I’m always looking for more kid-appropriate (and kid-accessible) poetry so please share your favorites below!

Originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions of It’s Monday! What are You Reading? All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Kid Book Review: Eclectic Edition #IMWAYR

The three picture books described below have little in common beyond being very popular in our house. One is a diamond in the rough, another is a fantastic collection of poems, and the third is a quirky reference book. None are new, but one or two might be new to you:

  • Henry’s Happy Birthday (written and illustrated by Holly Keller in 1990) The soul of Dick and Jane lives on in a lot of forgettable books in beginning reader series out there. These stories are often so formulaic you wonder why anyone would pick one up when there are so many other great books to choose. We got this book as a hand-me-down and when I saw it was part of the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club series, I had low expectations.

Henry has a vision for his birthday, and things don’t according to plan. Among other things, he’s not allowed to wear his favorite t-shirt, his wrapped presents look lame, his cake isn’t chocolate, and he loses in musical chairs. He’s pretty disappointed, but things quickly take a turn for the better when his dad surprises him with a birthday crown and a bunch of balloons. He ends up having a great day. In our household we really value the ability to appreciate the good in situations and having faith that things will work out in the end. This story is terrific at teaching those lessons. The illustrations are definitely not high art, but they are cute and work well with the text.

Henry’s Happy Birthday should be required reading the night before any birthdays or highly anticipated play dates.

  • Bow wow Meow Meow (written and illustrated by Douglas Florian in 2003) I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss out on Douglas Florian all these years, but I sure am happy I found him a few weeks ago at the library. This collection of short poems about dogs and cats is hilarious for all ages. R and B regularly quote “Who always yanks the tail of the manx?” and R memorized all of the amazing opener: “Dog Log”. The illustrations are creative and fun too.

  • Animals Speak (written and illustrated by Lila Prap in 2006) Ever wonder what horses say in Hungarian or what frogs say in Farsi? Here are your answers. R studied this book for weeks and had lots of fun finding out how her multilingual friends would say neigh, buzz, or meow. The book’s pictures and flags of the world make it much more approachable for kids than Derek Abbott’s giant table.

Originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions of It’s Monday! What are You Reading? All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.