Books We Heart, Part 1 January 30 2015 2 Comments

I have been working on a couple of children’s stories lately and have reached a frustrating point, a state of gridlock that any crafter or artist or maker of any kind encounters ... or so I assume and hope.  At this point I ask myself: Why do I think that I know what I’m doing?  Who wants to hear what I have to say anyway?   

While I have never claimed to really know what I am doing in the realm of children’s book publishing, I do feel that we have tales to create and share partly because we (like many other parents) have read thousands of children’s books over our short journey as parents.  Mind you, some of those thousands have been read hundreds of times each ad nauseam; some of them are just frivolous, mind boggling, make sense or not books that I could recite on demand like an annoyingly overplayed song, or books whose words we replace with toilet vocabulary just for the sake of making it new and silly again.  Sometimes our children adore books that Travis and I prefer to skip over, but we let them choose their books.  Some of these stories are well loved all over the world, while other books we feel a deep connection to but some families may just not get. 

Over the past 8 years, I would estimate that I have read Bill Martin and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear 291 times; Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon 820 times; Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo a mere 465 times (this figure would be higher, but someone ate the book); and the complete Curious George Collection 130 times. Sometimes it feels like I’m in the middle of my own Groundhog Day nightmare.  But, we keep on reading.  No matter how tired, no matter how many times we have read the book, no matter how dog-eared and toddler nibbled the book may be ... we keep on reading.

With each of our daughters we have observed wildly different responses to books and reading.  Sophie, being the first born and an only child for two and a half years, had the pleasure of having both Travis and I put her to bed each night – a beautifully unsustainable routine that included waltzing to jazz music, measuring her height every single night on a growth chart, laying on the rug beside her crib while pretending to be asleep, and a whole lot of reading.  Having the two of us to her lone self meant that she could hijack us one at a time to read a baker’s dozen books before tucking her into bed.  Each time we would close a book, she would look up at us with her big try to say no to me eyes, stick her pointer finger up next to her right eye (I bet you thought that I was going to say stick her pointer finger up her nose, didn’t you?) and announce that we were going to read just “one mower”.  She did not ask, she told us.  And of course, each time we’d oblige.  Sophie would sleep with her books and to this day, at 8 years old, you can find a library in the crowded nest that she calls a bed with her miner’s lamp strapped to her forehead as she reads.

Norah’s growing love of books has been a wonder to watch.  She has always been at her happiest in someone’s lap reading a story.  Not a day goes by that she doesn’t run up the stairs upon returning from school to read to herself in her room; her way to decompress at the day's end.  She carefully turns each page and plays the narrator along with every character as though she knows what each and every word is.  Oftentimes she retells the story in the way that she wants or inserts some of her day’s occurrences into the plot.  At 5, she is beginning to read well, sparkling with pride and joy as she reads each sentence out loud, always out loud, to herself or whoever will listen.

Penelope is almost two and is at a point where she cannot sit still.  A pile of stacked books in front of her is a ladder.  Not in the symbolic ladder to knowledge sense, but a literal ladder.  It’s a climbable structure that will allow her to reach greater heights ... before she leaps into the air without fear of pain or consequence.   Reading books with Penelope can be a struggle at times as she flips pages and even switches books before we’ve finished reading them.  When we ask her what book she would like to read, it is always one of our Curious George books, or shall I say the most informative how-to guide for creating a mischievous life.  Some day she will sit.

With a house full of books for children, it would seem fitting that we would share some of our family’s favourite children’s titles on this blog.  These books make us strive to create our own stories; they inspire us in their own beauty, but also inspire us as we watch our children’s response to them.  This post will focus on some of our favorite Canadian titles.  It is just a short list of the many that we love and we love them for many reasons – a beautiful rhyme, a calm rhythm, sweet illustrations, a meaningful message. 

The first children’s title is one that makes my heart skip a beat each time we read it and was given to us by a dear friend when Sophie was born.  Newfoundland poet Al Pittman’s Down by Jim Long’s Stage (http://www.breakwaterbooks.com/books/down-by-jim-longs-stage/) is a beautiful collection of rhymes about fish, for children and young fish (as read on the cover).  Each fish has a name and embodies characteristics that will come to mind whenever you see a fish for the rest of your life, anywhere – in an aquarium, at a museum, in a grocery store, washed up on a beach, or even on a plate.  Too much?!  There are sing song rhymes such as:

Ella Eel so long and slinky met a squid whose name was Inky.
“Oh my!” said Ella slinking by when Inky inked her in the eye.

This book is a Newfoundland classic and was re-released in 2001 with the addition of whimsical illustrations by Pam Hall that beautifully complement Pittman’s poetry.  Down By Jim Long’s Stage feels like home to me, with phrases and references known well to Newfoundlanders.  I can hear my accent breaking through as I read it and can only imagine the beauty of a raspy recitation by someone like Gordon Pinsent. 

Something from Nothing is the retelling of the Jewish folktale “Joseph’s overcoat” by Phoebe Gilman (http://www.amazon.ca/Something-Nothing-Phoebe-Gilman/dp/1443119466).  Gilman’s other books, especially her Jillian Jiggs tales, are always a hit at our house.  But this retelling is wonderfully illustrated with another story parallel to the main story, similar to many of Jan Brett’s books.  In Something from Nothing, we see as Joseph’s blanket made by his grandfather gets worn, torn and reborn into first a jacket, then a vest, a tie, a handkerchief, and a button, while the mice living beneath the floorboards (in the other story) make a home from the scraps.  The kids love the repetition as the grandfather mends the tattered wears, “ ... his scissors went snip, snip, snip and his needle flew in and out and in and out ...”   We love the message it sends to kids about turning nothing into something and giving old objects a new life, a concept that is often forgotten when everything in our world is so disposable.  Our kids live in a house where many of their toys and clothes are handmade by friends and family. When something gets worn, torn and broken you will often hear them say “Daddy can fix it!” or “Mommy can fix it!”, much like Joseph himself.  That is, as long as it doesn’t have batteries! 

A review of favorite Canadian children’s titles wouldn’t be possible without a Munsch book, now would it.  The Paper Bag Princess (http://www.amazon.ca/The-Paper-Princess-Robert-Munsch/dp/0920236162) is a hilarious book with an unlikely superhero and a twisted fairytale ending.  One of Norah’s first sentences as a toddler was “you are a bum” after reading this book several dozen times.  She couldn’t wait until she heard the words “you look like a prince” before she would quickly pipe in with her favorite line.  The heroine, Princess Elizabeth, saves petty Prince Ronald in a crafty duel with a dragon only to be snubbed by him for her dowdy appearance.  This book has a great message for all children, but the dragon’s fire burns a little hotter for us with three daughters who we want to be confident, strong, and capable of outsmarting any dragon (or Ronald) that they meet.   In the end, Elizabeth trots happily into the sunset without her handsome, ungrateful and superficial prince. 

This post could go on and on and on (wait, it already has) and I am leaving a great many books out.  I thought, what about Bradley McGogg The Very Fine Frog, any number of Sheree Fitch’s books, or the Jack series by Andy Jones.  So I have decided to make this post the first in a monthly series called Books We Heart.  If you have books that you love and would like to share or your kids have quirky reading habits, leave a comment.  In the meantime, keep reading and reading and reading and ...