Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Books to Make Kids Laugh

The Atlantic recently put out an interview with B. J. Novak about his hilarious children's book, The Book with No Pictures. While I haven't been able to read it yet, (books in English can be tricky to get in hand in this country) the reviews from many sources have me confident I will love it. The humor of the book seems to come from giving children the power to get adults to read to them, even reading silly nonsense words or funny phrases, such as "I am a monkey. I am a robot monkey." What seems most interesting to me is how much work was put into the typography and font size and page layout to help the lay reader with comic delivery. For example, the font for the words "ROBOT MONKEY" looks all digital and robotic, encouraging the adult reading to use a "robot voice."

I had already been thinking of making another big list of kids books (in celebration of my friends everywhere having babies!), so here is a list of books that make kids laugh. Their parents, too.

Let's start with Mo Willems. This man used to write for Sesame Street back when the show was really good, and is now famous for his hilarious kids books. I particularly like the Elephant and Piggie books (you'll find them in the Early Readers section), Knuffle BunnyGoldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, Leonardo the Terrible Monster, and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed. The humor of his books typically comes from his understanding of the extremes of human emotion in all its quirks and absurdities. The illustrations are also rock solid, and even the early reader structure of the Elephant and Piggie books (simple words, limited vocabulary, extensive repetition) is used for comic effect, as the two characters get more and more anxious or excited or sad. We Are in A Book even has a little inside joke for the readers going through for second time in a row.

Jon Scieszka (along with Lane Smith as illustrator and Molly Leach as the brilliant but under-recognized designer) makes books that are hilarious in an entirely different way from Mo Willems. Scieszka's humor is mostly for a bit older kids than Mo Willems: many of his stories including those in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, are spoofs off of well known fairy tales, so if you don't know the story of the Gingerbread Man, you won't necessarily find it as funny as you could. His books are wacky and rule bending (with jokes on the end papers, the ISBN code, and even the author bio), but in as much as they are irreverent they are also very intelligently put together. Squids will be Squids is in the style of Aesop's Fables, and Math Curse laughs at the silly ways in which people put together math problems for kids, but also shows respect for the honest struggle of figuring out the hows and which ways of numbers.

Some authors that made me laugh as a kid were Steven Kellogg and James Marshall and Shel Silverstein. What I loved best about Steven Kellogg were the tiny details in his wild illustrations. Not only would the pictures be giant mishmashes of unexpected action, but you could see the tiny writing on the advertisements on the walls in the background. My favorite stories of his are Ralph's Secret Weapon (where a kid with a bassoon and a cake defeats a sea monster), The Three Pigs, and Pinkerton, Behave! 

While Kellogg's illustrations are notable for how much he includes, James Marshall's craft shines in how little he needs to put on the page (in words or pictures) to tell incredibly funny and lovable stories. You cannot go wrong with the George and Martha books, but I am also very fond of his Fairy tale/Folk tale retellings.

Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic kept my brother and me giggling for years, but A Giraffe and a Half was the one we wanted Mom to read out loud to us. It's a tongue twister and full of ridiculous combinations of roses and noses, gluey shoes, trunks filled with skunks and all manner of oddities.

King Bidgood's in the Bathtub (by Audrey and Don Wood) is a silly book with silly illustrations of a king who refuses to leave his bathtub. All the courtiers (in their hilarious fluffy costumes) attempt to make him leave with enticements of lunch, or dancing, or fishing, but only the little page boy can actually get him out of the bubbles.

The Monster at the End of this Book is the only book that a dear friend of mine would take with her when she went babysitting. It was all she needed because whatever children she was reading to, they'd just want to hear this one again and again. Like The Stinky Cheese Man and The Book with No Pictures, it uses the book itself as a tool for comedy, as Grover tries to get his readers to stop turning the pages so that they can continue to avoid the dreaded monster at the end of the book.

Bink and Golly are a pair of characters who now have three books full of the ups and downs of their friendship. They remind me of Calvin and Hobbes—their banter and their antics, even the illustration style, and they are outrageously funny. Although they do not technically qualify as "I can read" books (because of their extensive vocabulary and creative use of sentence structure,) these picture book/comic book mashups are great for kids starting to read on their own.

Those are some of my favorite funny books and authors for kids. What are some of yours?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Year in Leiden: Effort and Beauty

In Jeanette Winterson's incredible novel, The Powerbook, one of her characters writes, 

“There's no such thing as effortless beauty - you should know that. There's no effort which is not beautiful - lifting a heavy stone or loving you. Loving you is like lifting a heavy stone. It would be easier not to do it and I'm not quite sure why I am doing it.”

As I’ve thought about how to sum up our experiences here in Leiden this year, this quote came to mind again and again. There has been a lot of effort over things that don’t seem important or deeply meaningful, but there’s also been so much beauty that the effort itself (perhaps only in the haze of hindsight) can seem beautiful.

A lot of stuff this past year was really hard. Family sorrows, world sorrows, academic struggles, unemployment, loneliness. Some of it has been usual moving/adjusting difficulties, (the effort of filling out job application after job application, setting up the various things with town hall, unpacking a house, getting to know your way around your new city) but some of it hasn’t been. Watching new friends make the move had made us realise our transition was unusually difficult. Some of our new friends waited for a shipment for weeks, we waited for months. Bank accounts--which took us four trips to the bank, an additional trip to town hall, a seven-email conversation, a missed form, a delay because of vacation time and over 5 weeks total--took other people just one appointment to the local branch. We had to move within three months of coming. We were without internet for three months. It’s normal for these things to be difficult, but it’s not normal for them to be this difficult. I’ve gone to expat meetups that turn into pity-parties. “I’ve been miserable here for thirty years” is not the encouragement you’re looking for when you confess you’re really struggling to not feel sad.

The Hyperbole and a Half comic about depression started feeling really appropriate. But I’m not miles deep in the sadness either. I cry about as easily as the toddlers I babysit, but I laugh as easily too. And no, I am not pregnant, I am just Clara-the-easily-moved. I think I’ve always been this way, but I usually have feet a bit more solidly in my comfort zone.
Leiden in the late afternoon, in December

So now that I’ve shared a little of the effort, let me share a little of its beauty.

Board game nights: when the Italians bring Bang and then are totally shocked when we already know how to play.

Learning to Speak Dutch: Watching familiar kids movies like “The Emperor’s New Grove” dubbed in Dutch, and having it be something we can actually understand!
In the Escher Museum

Breakfasts: We sit down to pancakes pretty much every morning.

Babysitting: I’ve been able to help two children grow and learn. When we came little J wasn’t even born yet, but now I’ve seen him crawl and take some of his first steps.

Nights at home: We’ve read books out loud together (Villette, Ella Enchanted, To Kill a Mockingbird, What's so Amazing about Grace , to name a few), and watched a lot of Sci-fi (Dr. Who, Stargate, and Firefly, most of which I had never seen, but loved).

Making my mom's Greek Easter bread
Traveling: One of the greatest joys here is just being able to say, “Hey Owen, want to go to Belgium this weekend?” and have the answer be “sure!”

Museums: We have been to so many that even new museums in new places are starting to feel like friends we're only just now getting to meet.

Violin Lessons: I’ve started teaching two children once a week, and it’s been a blast.
King's Day!

Most of a first year of marriage: So much learning how to communicate, learning to be a team, learning to take care of each other, laughing, dancing, learning to love each other and this world better every day.

The Gym: We joined a super cheap gym and love remembering how good it feels to challenge one’s body.

Taking Owen’s calculus class: I’m in it again this fall and at more than half way through the course my average is an A-. Last year I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.

The Keukenhof: If you missed that post it’s worth it to go back for the pictures.

Owen’s work at the University: It’s great. He really likes his colleagues, his duties, the atmosphere and feels like he’s accomplishing more in less time than he ever did in graduate school.

Biking: Has begun to feel so normal, I already feel how much I will miss the biking when we return to the states.

Making Friends: Nothing makes you feel more at home than this. 

Cultural celebrations: This week I saw a parade with the royalty in their golden carriages, various military groups in gorgeous formal attire and dozens of children dressed in traditional dutch clothing, complete with little hats, bonnets and wooden shoes.

Houseplants: our "boompje" (little tree) is now taller than me!

Learning together: Besides learning Dutch, and learning from all the museums we go to, over dinner or breakfast sometimes we take part in online courses, the best of which was Barbara Oakley’s Learning How to Learn. We’re looking forward to a lifetime of learning together.

Our plan had been to stay in Leiden two years, and if we stick with that plan we have less than 12 months before we’ll need to move on. Owen recently was given the word that the University will happily extend his contract for up to five years total, so we could stay here much longer than we had planned. We’re not sure what we think about that, and we have a few months to think it over, but it’s made us do a lot of thinking about our time here. Do we want to stay? Is it the right choice for both of us? It's a real adventure learning to trust God, and trust each tother, but we know one thing for sure. If it's for just this next year or if it's for longer, we love it here, and it’s getting better all the time.

I didn't include it in the list, but I will say it here. Visits have been some of the best parts. Some of you are already planning trips, and we can't wait to see you. But if you’ve been thinking of coming to Europe, we’d love to show you around. We’ll share a little of the effort and the beauty of life here in The Netherlands.