Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More Books from Five Illustrators you Already Love

Lots of my friends are having babies right now, and I get a lot of questions about good children's books, so here's some more suggestions. Previous posts I've written on kids books are one for this blog about going to a baby shower, and another for The Shakespeare Standard on the best books about Shakespeare for kids, so feel free to check those out as well. In this post I'm going to list a bunch of really famous children's books, and then suggest other great (but less famous) books by the same author or illustrator.

Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day
won the Caldecott Award in 1962, and has mesmerized children since that day. A Jewish artist born in 1916, his books quietly promote healthy interactions between generations, 
races, boys and girls, and even people with disabilities. I love The Snowy Day, but I also love many of his other books. 

Peter's Chair is one of my favorite books for children who are going to have a new sibling. Peter finds his dad painting his find his crib and his highchair pink! Distraught, he takes his (still blue!) chair and run away, only to find he is too big to sit in it. Coming home, he suggests perhaps they should re-paint the chair together. Apartment 3 tells the story of two boys poking around their run-down apartment building as they look for the sound of the harmonica. Some picture books shy away from gritty realities of life, but this one doesn't, cigarette smoke, shouting voices, a scary superintendent even a man who's blind show that beauty can come from unexpected places. A Letter to Amy, tells of Peter's wanting his friend Amy to come to his birthday, but his own shyness about asking her. There's a thunderstorm and some misunderstanding but it ends with happiness.

Barbara Cooney

Less well known than many of the books here, Barbara Cooney's most popular book is Miss Rumphius. If you have missed this one (as I did somehow until grad school), it is the story of a little girl and her life guided by her grandfather's three principles. Travel to far away places, live by the sea, and do something to make the world more beautiful. Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran is a story about kids with fabulous imaginations making a world out of a hillside of mud, rocks and boxes. Eleanor tells the story of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt as an awkward, shy, and unpopular young girl. Perhaps my favorite of Cooney's illustrated books is a one a dear, dear friend gave me for my birthday, called When The Sky is Like Lace by Elinor Lander Horwitz. It's the story of what happens on bimulous nights, full of silliness and wonder, just pure magic to read aloud, with lots of details for little kids to find in the pages. And if you want a Christmas story to read on a long chilly evening, Holly and Ivy tells the story of a little orphaned girl, and a little unloved doll, and a couple without any children who all find each other and are happy when Christmas comes. It's a longer book, with full pages of Rummer Godden's beautiful text, and takes about an hour to read out loud from cover to cover.

Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are is perhaps one of the most loved children's books. It's a little weird, and a little scary, but it is written and designed with incredible skill. I like his writing too, but most of these books I'm suggesting are ones he illustrated for other authors. A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss is a book of imaginative, playful definitions of everyday things such as mashed potatoes are "to give everybody enough" and the ground is "to make a garden." It's wonderful, and Sendak's pen and ink illustrations are hilarious. Nutshell Library is a set of four tiny books. I know the books are also nice (Chicken Soup with Rice, One was Johnny, etc.) but I remember especially loving how perfectly little the books were. The Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik are less picture books and more "I can read" style, but they are utterly charming. Sendak's animals are more life-like and less surreal than in some of his other books, but with no less personality. If you prefer the weird side of Sendak's illustrations, let me recommend the Christmas classic, The Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffman. The pictures are strange, even grotesque, but profoundly fitting for the strange little fairytale.


Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg's favorite letter from a child is this, "Dear Mr. Van Allsburg, I love the books you write. I am so glad your books are so weird because I am very weird. I think you are weird but great. I wish a volcano and a flood could be in my room when I am bored." 

Best known for The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg's drawings and paintings are intricately detailed, but always just a little off. Perhaps a cathedral with every arch and shadow perfect and precise, but the nun and her chair float 100 feet above the floor. My favorite are The Wreck of the Zephyr two stories in one, and a ship that might fly? The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a set of enigmatic pictures and glimpses into stories we can only guess at, and which has been the seed of many, many writing projects, I'm sure. The Stranger combines an odd visitor with the changes of the seasons, and leaves questions tantalizingly open at the end.


Tomie dePaola

Tomie is known to many for Strega Nona, the tale of the old lady with the magic pot of pasta, but he has illustrated over 200 books in his career, many of them about Italy, folktales, stories of Saints and Bible stories, but also books for holidays and nursery rhymes. I'll share four of my favorites. The Art Lesson is a story from Tomie's early days in school, and the woes of only being allowed to draw with school crayons. It is funny, sweet, and an excellent read-aloud even for quite young children. The Clown of God is the only picture book I brought with me to The Netherlands, a book which tells a great deal about the connection between faith and work. It's a good enough story that small children (maybe 5 and up?) will get caught up in it, but deep enough that adults will keep coming back to it. Bill and Pete go down the Nile is one of my favorites from growing up, and to this day I can still remember Andrew and I chiming in with my mom as she read, "'ooooooo' said all the little crocodiles." Bill is a crocodile, and Pete is his "toothbrush" and together they save a giant diamond from the bad guy trying to steal it from the museum. The Days of the Blackbird is a Northern Italian folktale about a little girl, her sick father, and how a dove became a blackbird through kindness.


And again in a concise form without all the pictures and descriptions for easy use:

Ezra Jack Keats 
Known for: The Snowy Day
Other excellent books: Apt. 3, Peter's Chair, A Letter to Amy

Barbara Cooney
Known for: Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Other excellent books: Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, Eleanor by Barbara Cooney, When the Sky is Like Lace by Elinor Lander Horwitz, and Holly and Ivy by Rummer Godden. 

Maurice Sendak
Known for: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Other excellent books: A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss, Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak, Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, and The Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffman

Chris Van Allsburg
Known for: The Polar Express
Other excellent books: The Wreck of the Zephyr, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, The Stranger

Tomie DePaola
Known for: Strega Nona
Other excellent books: Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile, The Art Lesson, The Clown of God, and The Days of the Blackbird

Hope you enjoy!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Keukenhof, Springtime, and all the bulbs.

"It is like heaven."

Holland in the springtime seems a bit like an experience beyond this present life. One of the big exports of this country is bulbs, so there are literally fields (and fields and fields and fields) of bulbs. Last Friday, Owen and I biked through some to get to the Keukenhof, one of the most prestigious gardens in the world. When we went, the tulips were just starting, and many of them were still closed, but there were many daffodils still and the hyacinths were at their peak.

We biked there and back (about an hour each way, supposedly, but we took our time and kept getting a little off track, so it ended up being a lot more) and the whole time it just felt like such a gift. Being here in this country is a gift. Being able to bike is a gift. The existence of such a park is a gift. Life itself is a gift.

They even have the park arranged so that every time you turn a corner there's something more to look at, and there are benches and fountains and places to just chill if you're getting sort of overloaded by the extreme amounts of beauty everywhere.

Another lovely thing about the Keukenhof is that they are pretty careful to make it pretty normal looking. It's not garish or overblown, and while it looks incredible and luxurious it doesn't seem like too much. It's like any chunk of it would seem like a normal park, except it's thousands of those chunks all out together, and carefully scheduled so that it will look good for a long while. Crocuses and tulips planted in the same beds so that they can tag team the display or some places where they have like five types of flowers all mixed together in long lines.

 There were (in addition to the gorgeous bulbs and generally impressive landscaping) an amazing number of flowering trees, many of which were raining petals, so that the air swirled with them. The immaculate grass in the whole park is off limits, but there are so many little walk ways and stepping stones that you never feel the want.

 We were so happy the whole time. We'd look at the map and ask each other "where do you want to go?" and we couldn't even answer. "Everywhere! Anywhere! We can also just sit on this bench for the rest of our time!"

And everywhere we went we discovered more beautiful parts of the park.

 Some of the tulips were so elaborate I had to check the sign to make sure they were actually tulips.

They had all sorts of things besides just flowers, too. There were playgrounds, a turning windmill you could climb up into, a petting zoo, a zip line and this excellent hedge maze.

There were also a lot of just interesting pieces of landscaping with an an adventure style flair. Zig zag ladders are surprisingly scary to climb.

Many places along the edge of the garden were lookouts, where you could see the fields of bulbs.

We had biked through some on the way there. The fields of hyacinths are something beyond description. You smell them before you see them, and then you can't smell enough of them.

They also had some greenhouses with plots of specialty flowers, all patchworked in close together. I'm looking forward to learning more about tulips and their history and impact on this country. There's a museum in Amsterdam all about tulips that I'm looking forward to visiting.

But for now, I'm enjoying them in windows, in the grocery stores and markets, people's little gardens and in the parks. If you'd like to hear a little bit about tulips, here's a nice video by John Green about tulips and The Netherlands.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The cows say... what? Visiting a farm in the springtime.

Every week I babysit two little kids, and sometimes I tag along with them on adventures like going to the farm. This farm is free, open to the public, and in a park in a residential area just outside of Leiden, and it is complete with a little cafe (I got hot chocolate made with fresh milk), a playground, sinks to wash your hands, and lots of animals. And let me just say, the spring is an excellent time to visit a farm. So many babies.
Giving the donkey some attention
getting some attention from the baby goats!
Ellie wanted to kiss all the animals. We did our best to restrain her.
there was a whole big area where you can just frolic with the goats
They thought the stroller was super yummy
Some babies were too little to go out and play with the bigger goats.
I've never seen these birds in the US
Or this one.
But some animals are familiar, just say different things here. The roosters say "kukuruku"

The sheep and goats say "maa"

And in the Netherlands the cows say "boo." In Germany and Italy they say "moo" so I'm pretty sure it's just a Dutch thing.