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Written by Mark Reibstein
Illustrated by Ed Young
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2008
A children’s story such as Wabi Sabi, might come across to readers as too philosophical for a child to understand. That is far from the truth. The book speaks quietly and deftly about how children often perceive reality. Children are more curious about deeper questions about life than adults realize. The author makes this clear through the musings of a Japanese cat named Wabi Sabi. She is on a mission, which is to discover the meaning of her name. She asks a dog and another cat. No luck. On the recommendation of a bird, she decides to travel to Mount Hiei to ask Kosho, a wise monkey. However, the monkey simply says, “Simple things are beautiful.” The cat goes home, not unhappy, but at peace with a name she simply is blessed to have in all its simplicity. But before she goes home, she spots a temple, and realizes that beautiful things do not have to be “grand” and “fancy.” Children exploring the meaning of their name will find joy and pleasure in the cat doing the same. I was happily lost in the quiet path of haikus that trail along the pages of the story, and with the astonishing art work representing trees, ponds, and mountains that makes up the landscape of Japan. It made me think of my own name and made me wonder, “What does it mean?” Toward the end of the book, Wabi Sabi is moved enough by his simple name to write these beautiful haikus that weave together into a beautiful poem after he sees the simple beauty of a palace:
In the introduction to Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experience Travelers, she writes about her first encounter with William Blake's poetry:
"I was seven and starting my second week in bed with the measles when I made the acquaintance of William Blake. 'Tell me a story about lions and tigers,' I said to the babysitter...Miss Pratt, the sitter...began:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"
Two days later, Willard's babysitter anonymously sent her Blake's Songs of Innoncence and Songs of Experience with the following inscription:
Poetry is the best medicine.
Best wishes for a speedy recovery.
“At the first big party
we sometimes forget
that birthday bear
may end up upset.”
—Stan & Jan Berenstain, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday
One of my mother’s favorite anecdotes of me as a child is the story of my first birthday. I was a finicky, temperamental kid and she was a stressed-out new mom. She forgot I was allergic to eggs. I ate a piece of cake and broke out in hives. One of my fellow party guests thought it would be funny to lock me in the attic, so no one could find me. When freed by an adult, I was so upset I crawled underneath my crib with a jar of pickles, and my one-year old self ate them until I threw up everywhere—the party was awful. Three simple words now fully capture the complexity of the situation for me: TOO MUCH BIRTHDAY.
Fast-forward twenty-seven years, and this phrase is one I tend to use a lot. Whenever I’ve had too much fun, or become too overwhelmed, or altogether cannot handle the enormity of an any given situation, it’s become rather customary for me to whisper to a friend, too much birthday, and quietly exit the scene.
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Raul Colon
Dragonfly Books, 2010
Doña Flor is the story of a giant-sized woman who could. Who could do anything. As a child, Flor's size often made her the brunt of jokes. But, as she gets older, the people of her village come to respect her. Doña Flor is a beautifully poetic story of courage and generosity, of looking at one's weaknesses and seeing how they can become one's strengths. In Doña Flor's case, it is her gargantum size. She takes her ginormousness and plays it up as a strength to help the people of her pueblo. Flor, an expert tortilla maker, makes tortillas for her pueblo's peeps. And they find other uses for the huge ones: "People used the extra ones as roofs. Mmmm, the houses smelled corn-good when the sun was hot. In the summer, the children floated around the pond on tortilla rafts." But her biggest claim to fame is saving her pueblo from the wild mountain lion who roars loudly, wildly around town.
The poems in Mites to Mastodons, from Pulitzer Prize winner Maxine Kumin, are seriousness about play. The language and the rhythms found in each one are fun and original and dance off the page with delight. One of my favorite poems, about an owl, reminds me of a story I once heard from a friend who told me that, when owls hoot at night, their call sounds like they're saying, "Who cooks for you?" So, as you can imagine, I was smitten when I came across this poem:
My favorite barred owl, who lives in the woods
nearby, wakes me, hooting, "Who cooks for you-u-u?"
And if I could hoot I'd answer, "I do-oo-oo
but I wish you could, you could, you could."
Written by e.e. cummings
Illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1989
If all-hallow's-eve could be summed up in two syllables, it would be e.e. cumming’s hist whist. Accompanied by taut illlustrations from Deborah Kogan Ray, this reinterpretation delivers a mouthful that we’ll be chewing on for some time.
The book is one of the most sensory works of art that I’ve come across in a while, and it’s also the most simplistic. It takes us through a cast of some of Halloween’s greatest: ghosts, witches with warts, toads, mice, and, to top it all off, devils. In that sense, it’s traditional in its subject, but there is nothing traditional about e.e. cumming’s approach. The writing is quick and playful, especially with its cadence, rhyme, and onomatopoeia, as in the following: “histwhist/ little ghostthings / tip-toe / twinkle-toe.” You have to see it on the page to fully appreciate the affect. It’s skintight. It’s an image of three ghosts in bed sheets hovering over a moonscape of blue, one with a bright, yellow circle of light. Minimalistic in both language and imagery, it strikes a sort of primeval cord that’s the basis of fear and really the basis of Halloween.
Dulton Children’s Books, 2003
Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones might be one of the most delightful children’s stories I’ve read in the past year. The story cinematically comes to life on the page. The narrative surprises you, takes you on Skippy’s make-believe adventures, which are wildly playful and push the boundaries of play and imagination. With Skippyjon, there’s no telling just how crazy and fun the journey might be.
What’s most notable about this story is the attention to language, particularly in the form of its bilingual narrative. When Skippyjon jumps into his closet, he jumps into another world. In this story, it’s Mexico. And in this story, he is a Siamese cat, but by the power of his imagination, he transforms into a Chihuahua! When he travels down a long, dusty road in Mexico, he comes across a "mysterioso band of Chihuahuas” called the Chimichangos. Skippyjon renames himself El Skippito, and when he approaches the pack of dogs, they ask him:
Written and Illustrated by Janell Cannon
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2005
What happens when a crooked-winged cockroach, who moonlights as a skilled sculptor, gets bullied? Anything. Written by popular children’s author and illustrator, Janell Cannon, who’s famous for her book Stellaluna, Crickwing follows the journey of a little cockroach-fellow by the same name, who finds himself getting bullied by animals larger than him. In his angst, he starts to pick on animals—a colony of leaf-cutter ants, to be exact—who are smaller than him. This is a great book to read when discussing themes like bullying and friendship with youth. In addition to a strong and captivating story, Cannon’s artwork is absolutely breathtaking. She creates such tactile images in her art—the monkey's fur actually seems soft to the touch; the green tree leaves look like they’re covered with a mossy fuzz. Youth and adults alike will be charmed by this story and its incredible illustrations.
Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a
By Megan McDonald
Illustrated by Vera Rosenberry
Set in India, amidst the monsoon rains, not so unlike Tucson, Baya, Baya, Lulla-by-a is a beautifully poetic and rhythmic lullaby. The language is meant to be sung, to lull youngins to bed. I couldn’t help thinking, in a sentimental way, that this is the kind of story that I’d love to read to my own kids one day. The story is full of onomatopoeia, with the sounds of a wise man saying, “pani, pani,” the sounds of the sun-yellow baby bird singing, “Chiri-ya! Chiri-ya!” and the sounds of a mother rocking her choti ladki to sleep with “Baya, baby, lulla-by-a.” The story is also filled with great similes and metaphors: “She sings to you morning after morning, like a sleepy cricket. Kira, kira. Your heart answers, a small drum. Dholak, dholak.” One page dazzles in alliteration: “Baya bird flits, flutters, flies among leafy shadows. Collects green grasses, weaves a nest swishhh swishhh, strand by strand by willowy strand.”
by Alice Schertle
Illustrated by Petra Mathers
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2009
Button Up! opens with a question on the inside flap of the book jacket cover: “Do the clothes in your closet have a life all their own?” Through poetry, this book aims to answer those questions. Each piece of clothing, each shoe, each pair of underwear is linked to one child, usually in some alliterative sense:
--Violet’s Hiking Hat
--The Song of Harvey’s Galoshes
--Bob’s Bicycle Helmet