March 26, 2012

Olivia Counts

Olivia Counts
By Ian Falconer; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Atheneum 12 pp.
978-0689850875 Board Book $6.99

Olivia, Ian Falconer's precocious, porcine heroine, returns, this time in Olivia Counts, an appropriately charming foray into the world of 1-10. Unfortunately, Falconer's trademark Olivia palette, with its blacks, whites and grays punctuated by tomatoey red, makes the counted items difficult to individuate, and therefore hard to count.

The book starts off well, with 1 beach ball dominating the page and a nearly overwhelmed Olivia peeking out from behind it. 2 big red bows at the tips Olivia's ears are similarly easy to see and account for. But the 3 pots of paint (one red, one black and one gray) are small and almost incidental with Olivia and her brush occupying the majority of the white background. Similarly, Olivia's 4 aunts, rendered in smudgy gray and white are oddly hard to differentiate and therefore hard to count. The rest of the items pass in a similar style, with 5 books stacked narrowly atop each other, 7 accessories scattered haphazardly across the page and 10 highly active Olivia's detracting from each other with their kinetic exuberance.

Fans of Olivia already familiar with Falconer's style will love Olivia Counts. While the slight muddiness of the visuals would not necessarily be a problem for a preschooler who already knows her numbers, it could prove distracting or even discouraging for a toddler just learning to count. For this reason, I would say that Olivia Counts is a solid choice for existing fans, but for those who have yet to meet Olivia or develop some familiarity with numbers, there are stronger introductions to counting and other Olivia adventures to explore first.

Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes

Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
By Salley Mavor
2-4 Preschool Primary Houghton Mifflin 62 pp.
978-0618737406 Hardcover $21.99

Nursery rhymes, though individually short and often non-sensical, are, collectively speaking, a world unto themselves, where lambs follow little girls and eggs fall off walls to disastrous effect. Yet few collections give life to the Mother Goose world, focusing instead on the individual rhymes rather than the links that make them a whole. Pocketful of Posies, Salley Mavor's inventive new collection, beautifully fills the gap.

The strength of Mavor's collection rests in two ares - her rhyme selection and her felted illustrations. Pocketful of Posies, though by no means exhaustive, contains a wide variety of nursery rhymes, with old favorites like "Jack and Jill" nestled together with lesser-known rhymes such as "Elsie Marley" and "Daffy-Down-Dilly". Rather than being tossed in at random, the rhymes are loosely linked through content or theme (last lines of one poem often lead to the first lines of the next). Even more interestingly, poems that, based on their texts alone have nothing in common, share large, double-page spreads (the children tumbling out of the Old Woman's shoe-house bounce straight through the "Roses are red" garden, which appears to be in the Old Woman's back yard). In this way, through careful rhyme selection and placement, Mavor creates the perfect foundation for her incredible cloth illustrations.

It took Mavor ten years of experimentation to perfect the fabric relief technique that gives her illustrations their tactile, three-dimensional quality. With no white space, the pages are completely filled with cottony blue skies and fleecy green hills and embroidered trees and flowers and plants of nearly Faberge-like detail. Into these rich little environments are dropped curly crotched sheep and children with smooth, round faces and tiny, perfectly rendered fingers clutching horns (Little Boy Blue) and shepherd's crooks (Little Bo-Peep) and other found items like feathers, acorns and beads. Even the individual bits of straw in a black hen's nest are individually rendered with incredible care. The overall effect is, quite literally, magical as the reader is visually compelled into each page and welcomed to stay there as long as she might wish.

Pocketful of Posies is an honest work of art, one that is not only accessible to, but designed specifically for, children. My only regret is that its pages aren't indestructible, otherwise I would be recommending it for children of all ages (not just older toddlers and up) - even those whose concept of reading primarily involves gumming a book's pages. Study upon study has been done on Mother Goose and language acquisition. Thanks to Mavor, a collection of nursery rhymes now exists that is as much a feast for the eyes and imagination as the rhymes are for mind.

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children
Selected by Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Arnold Lobel
No Illustrator Site
Preschool Primary Random House 247 pp.
978-0394850108 Hardcover $22.99

First published in 1983, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children has become a modern classic - possibly the most beloved anthology of poetry for children since Robert Lewis Stevenson's collection, A Child's Garden of Verse first appeared in 1885. Expertly selected by the children's poet and author, Jack Prelutsky, and illustrated by the Caldecott winning artist, Arnold Lobel, The Random House Book of Poetry offers up an absolute buffet of poetic possibilities from the silly, absurd and humorous (Lewis Carroll and Shel Silverstein, et al), to classics by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Robert Burns among many others.

Prelutsky's organizational principal is both organic and intuitive as poems are grouped logically according to unifying themes. The book begins with a section entitled, "Nature Is..." (all sections begin with an introductory poem by Prelutsky). From "Nature Is...", we move smoothly to poems on "The Four Seasons", "Dogs, Cats, Bears and Bats", "The Way of Living Things" and "City, Oh City!". From there, the reader is treated to sections on other children, "Me, I Am!" and home before moving on to nonsense, concepts such as the alphabet and numbers and scary poems, ending finally with a catch-all section called "The Land of Potpourri".  Each section leads seamlessly to the next through subtle thematic overlaps, which move the anthology forward without jarring. The structure of the collection also makes it very easy to just jump to a page or section at random or seek out a specific type of poem by theme or topic. Separate indexes for title, poet and first line also contribute to the anthology's search-ability.

This search-ability is important because, regardless of the anthology's excellence, one caveat applies to parents of younger children and preschoolers. In his introduction, Prelutsky states that he specifically focused the collection on elementary-school aged children, and while there are plenty of poems in the anthology that will appeal to preschoolers (and even pre-verbal infants for their rhyme and rhythm), parents of younger children should make sure to use discretion as to which sections they read to their child. As Prelutsky states, "a poem that might be deliciously scary to an eight-year-old might be terrifying to a four-year-old".

That said, there is such a wonderful wealth of age-appropriate material in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, it would be a shame to forbid it to older toddlers and preschoolers. Given that poetry is perfect shared reading for a child and her loved-one, parental oversight is easy to apply with entire sections on nature, family and feelings appropriate for even the littlest enthusiasts. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children truly is a standard by which other anthologies can be measured - an outstanding resource and a pleasure to read.

March 23, 2012

Wynken, Blynken and Nod

Wynken, Blynken and Nod
By Eugene W. Field; illus. by David McPhail
No Author Site; No Illustrator Site
0-4 Preschool Scholastic 18 pp.
978-0439921442 Board Book $6.99

Possibly one of the most reproduced children's poems of the 20th century, Eugene Field's lullaby poem, "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" has been animated, put to music and illustrated countless times since its publication in 1889. Why then the need for another edition, this time illustrated by children's book author and illustrator David McPhail? For the simple reason that the poem endures as a childhood favorite, passed down from parent to child through countless multigenerational bedtimes. McPhail's edition for Scholastic is simply a fresh version for the newest generation.

Wynken, Blynken and Nod tells the story of three fishermen who sail the night sky in a wooden shoe. In McPhail's illustrations, the fisherman are three bunnies dressed in sailor-clothes, an appropriately whimsical choice for this drowsy lullaby poem. On their journey, the fishermen meet the moon, who sings a song as they toss their nets into the sea of dew. Then it's back home to a modern little girl's bedroom, where it is revealed that "Wynken and Blyken are two little eyes, and Nod is a little head, and the wooden shoe that sailed the skies is a wee one's trundle bed." Then the fishermen upend a barrel of stars onto the girl's blanket, whereupon she promptly falls asleep with three pairs of rabbit ears peeking out from beneath her covers as the shoe sails back out the window to rendezvous with the moon.

McPhail's palette is dark and soothing, with lots of rich, deep blues and warm candle-lit yellows setting a drowsy visual tone. He makes the transition from the fanciful bunny fisherman to the modern girl's bedroom smoothly, making it seem plausible that the entire book had perhaps been the girl's dream - or perhaps not. This sweet ambiguity comes from McPhail's juxtaposition of images that are by turns timeless (the wooden shoe, the costumed bunnies) and modern (a little girl with short hair climbing into bed in her own room), a balance he strikes seamlessly and to good effect.

Despite McPhail's lovely work, Field's poem is still the heart of the book. He uses rhythm and rhyme to expertly mimic the feeling of drifting to sleep. Wisely, McPhail does not try to compete with this familiar and beloved text. Rather, he supports it with pictures that are consistent (the bunnies and shoe are in every page) without getting stale (he keeps things fresh by shifting visual perspectives and POV). The result is a lovely, understated edition of a poem that has been a favorite of generations. That this edition makes it possible to introduce a new generation to the poem (and in some cases, to poetry in general) feels like a dream - a very, very good one.

Baby! Baby!

Baby! Baby!
By Vicky Ceelen; photos by author
No Author Site
0-2 Random House 24 pp.
978-0-375-84207-8 Board Book $6.99

It's often said that babies love to look at other at babies. Put any 8 month old in front of a mirror and the giggling, waving smile-fest that results will prove this saying true. Because of this, publishers have put out a lot of baby-picture board books - so many, in fact, that there is probably one for every parent's and every baby's preference. The sheer glut can make it difficult for an individual title to stand out, which is why Baby! Baby! is such a lovely contribution to a crowded field.

Though the title is slightly misleading, Vicky Ceelen's book features well-chosen animal / baby pairings, some of which are fairly uncanny (the baby / lion cub pairing and the baby / rabbit pairing especially stand out). There are no words and no labels. The pictures stand on their own, with the baby occupying one page and the animal occupying the page opposite. While it's tempting to wish that the animals were labeled or identified, (there's a nameless marsupial that I'm particularly curious about), the wordless quality of the book works in it's favor. The pictures stand out boldly on bright, single-color backgrounds without words competing for the focus of young, baby eyes. As they grow, toddlers can then enjoy flipping through the familiar pages to name the animals on their own.

Unlike a lot of "baby" books, Baby! Baby! grows with a child. It might start out as a simple way for a baby to engage other baby faces, but it becomes a great introduction to animals, colors, shapes and similarities. Though not all of the animals pictured are babies, the concept holds together strongly enough that it doesn't really matter. An altogether good little book that attends to multiple areas of early development while appealing to little ones from baby to toddler-hood.

March 22, 2012

Grandfather and I

Grandfather and I
By Helen E. Buckley; illus. by Jan Ormerod
No Author Site; No Illustrator Site
3-4 Preschool Harper Collins 24 pp.
978-0688125349 Hardcover $16.99

Originally published in 1959 with illustrations by Paul Galdone, this 2000 reissue of Buckley's classic with updated illustrations by Jan Ormerod is, quite simply, lovely. Having seen only the cover of the original, I will refrain from making comparisons except to say that the reissue is different in at least one respect - Galdone's pictures were of a caucasian grandfather and grandson, while Ormerod's take is of a decidedly cozier looking African-American pair. That said, the race of the protagonists is beside the point. Grandfather and I's quiet celebration of this close, inter-generational bond is in no way altered by the change - a testament to the universality of the theme.

At its heart, Grandfather and I is a meditation on the special relationship between the oldest and youngest members of a modern family. The narrator informs the reader that he and his Grandfather are going for a slow walk, a prospect the boy enjoys. Even Buckley's prose and punctuation reflect his relish as he and his Grandfather take their time. ("We walk along and walk along and stop... and look... just as long as we like"). This time-taking is at the heart of their bond. Everyone else in his busy family rushes - his mother pulls him past a friendly cat, his dad hugs him before he goes to work and his siblings leave him behind, a fact effectively mirrored in Ormerod's illustrations (a family of ducks paddles past the disconsolate looking boy as the smallest duckling scrambles to keep up).

While the family is in no way neglectful or mean, the prose and illustrations on "hurry" pages have a rushed quality, one that is missing from the "Grandfather" pages, which are peaceful and expansive. This boy is relaxed around his Grandfather, a smiling, supportive figure who encourages the boy's curiosity. Together they walk through watercolored natural world, full of pines cones to pick up and heather to inspect. The white background lends to the expansive, relaxed quality while Buckley's prose, which is both loose and deliberate by turns, reflecting the boy's state of mind, verges on poetic. Her repetition of the chorus, "just as long as we like" beautifully communicates the peace this boy finds in his Grandfather's company, as well as the partnership the two have formed.

Grandfather and I is a gentle, quiet book, one best suited for one-on-one reading at home. For younger readers, it's full of opportunities to engage the text (questions like what are they doing? and do you like to rush or take your time? seem like natural extensions of the story), while older children can read Grandfather and I on their own with the help of an adult. Grandfather and I is lovely, old-fashioned, un-flashy book. While it may not stand up to the glamor of bus-driving pigeons and mice with purple plastic purses, it's more than worth finding and sharing with a cuddle, preferably with a beloved grandparent.

March 21, 2012

Handy Manny

Handy Manny
Series created by Roger Bollen, Marilyn Sadler and Rick Gitelson
Disney Junior TV Series / DVD
2-4 Preschool Primary

With the rise of cultural awareness and immersion programs in schools, there is a need in children's programming that has never existed before. It is no longer enough that a series teach a love of language or the joys of science. We now need shows that support bilingual education and Spanish / English bilingualism. Handy Manny, which airs on Disney Junior, does just that, while modeling kindness, acceptance and the art of being a good neighbor and friend.

Each 30 minute episode of Handy Manny features two stories revolving around the need to fix a broken item. Enter Handy Manny, a bilingual handyman and his anthropomorphic tools. The tools, which range in character from Pat, the well-meaning hammer, to the sarcastic, insecure screwdriver, Turner, fill decidedly child-like roles, each with their strengths and quirks. Though the tools and Manny speak to each other primarily in English, they are all bilingual, as evidenced in the frequent manner in which Spanish phrases are interleaved with English. For example, someone will ask a question like "where are you going?" and the response will come in both Spanish and English - "vamos a la tienda - we're going to the store". This happens repeatedly throughout each episode, reinforcing vocabulary development and language acquisition in both Spanish and English. Given that the target audience is young enough to absorb languages holistically, the approach is an effective introduction to Spanish, and a great support to Spanish language immersion programs.

As a protagonist, Manny is a kind and patient role model willing to go out of his way to help his neighbors without compromising his integrity. The overall effect is one of acceptance and diversity. Paired with the show's bilingualism and the language acquisition it supports, the social aspects of this preschoolers' show model behaviors that support cultural diversity and acceptance in its young viewers, all while laying the foundation for the linguistic skills its audience will need to apply these lessons in real life.

March 20, 2012

Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss

Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss
Written by Dr. Seuss
Narrated by Jason Alexander, Michael McKean, David Hyde Pierce
No Narrator Sites
1-4 Preschool Primary
Learning Library CD $19.99

Few actors can fully embody the exasperation, the exhaustion and the sheer hysteria of Sam I Am's victim in the Dr. Seuss classic, Green Eggs and Ham. Fortunately for those listening to the story on this CD, Jason Alexander is one of them. Alexander takes the listener through the familiar text with pathos-laden gusto, ratcheting up the tension until, finally, the green eggs and ham are tried and, of course, enjoyed. Though Green Eggs and Ham is a classic read-along with only fifty words (mostly sight vocabulary) repeated in increasingly creative combinations, the classic Seussian rhythms are a pleasure to listen to - especially when voiced by an actor with such a strong sense of comedic drama and timing. The effort is an excellent introduction to the rest of the CD.

Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss follows the Learning Library's first Dr. Seuss offering, The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr. Seuss Favorites. While the first CD featured some of Seuss's more advanced / longer works, Other Servings contains 9 unabridged texts, all of which are classic Seuss beginning readers. On it, David Hyde Pieced expertly tackles Fox in Sox's famous tongue twisters, making them sound as easy to say as his rendition of Hop on Pop, a Seuss title fit for even the youngest readers. Alexander re-appears for a spirited rendition of Dr. Seuss's ABC while Michael McKean introduces treats listeners performances of Oh, Say Can You Say? and I Can Read With My Eyes Shut that are both earnest and ironic. (Vocally, he nails that particular form of Seussian tongue-in-cheek).

Dr. Seuss books are always a pleasure to listen to - his stories tap into the same primal love of word play, rhythm and rhyme that have made Mother Goose so enduringly popular for centuries. It's the biggest reason moms and dads routinely lose their voices reading One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (also read here by Hyde Pierce) for the eleventy-hundreth time. Now, when laryngitis sets in, there's a strong alternative. Even better, Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss offers parents and children the pleasure of listening to Seuss's work together, allowing for yet another way to share and experience his particularly playful brand of poetry.

Little Einsteins

Little Einsteins
Series created by Douglas Wood
3-6 Preschool Disney Junior
TV Series / DVD
Fiction / Art / Music

Little Einsteins is one of those shows for children that, in concept, shouldn't actually appeal to children - it features classical music and art (mostly paintings but tapestry, mosaic, pottery and sculpture have all received episodes) and spans geographic locations from ancient Greece to Denmark. Yet, children love it. Though it sounds, conceptually, like a show designed for parents, full of classical art, music and "big words", the execution is aimed entirely at preschoolers.

The four heroes range in age from 4 to 6, and each has a particular skill, though none are pigeon-holed by their aptitudes, (the dancing girl loves astronomy, for example). This makes them fairly well-rounded and relatable to kids in that age bracket. What's even more impressive, is that these young heroes engage in age-appropriate dialogue that is both authentic and challenging (scary woods are "daunting" and their missions are often "quests"). The show provides plenty of context to help the young audience figure out potentially difficult words, making it an excellent form of vocabulary acquisition.

At the beginning of each episode, the characters introduce the mission's art and music. The pairings range well beyond basics like the Mona Lisa and Swan Lake (recent episodes have featured Gustav Klimt with Dvorak, and Kandinsky with Mendellsohn) and are clearly aimed at introducing preschoolers to unfamiliar pieces while keeping the experience accessible and fun. To that end, words like "crescendo" and "staccato" are illustrated by bumpy rides down snowy hills and zooming trips through space. The characters address the audience directly and appeal to them for help, drawing them into each episode through physical activity (the team's rocket is powered by "pats") and terminology (tempera paints, turpentine) that they otherwise would not encounter until they were much older.

The skill with which all of this is accomplished is impressive, and though the pace may be slow for adults, it's perfect for kids, allowing them time to digest information without being ponderous. Even better, the quests contain familiar fable and fairy tale motifs, adding yet another layer to the already rich mix. The result is an adventurous cartoon that introduces preschoolers to art, music, literature and vocabulary. While I wouldn't just plop a child down in front of the TV, it's a great series to watch together with lots to explore and discuss.

March 19, 2012

Classical Baby (I'm Grown Up Now): The Poetry Show

Classical Baby (I'm Grown Up Now):The Poetry Show
Directed / Produced By Amy Schatz
3-4 Preschool Primary HBOFamily
DVD $9.97

Classical Baby (I'm All Grown Up Now): The Poetry Show is the sequal to the HBO Family series, Classical Baby. In it, the young protagonist from the original series has grown from a music loving baby to a preschool poetry enthusiast. The 30 minute episode is expertly designed to appeal both visually and aurally to young ones, as each poem is accompanied by a brief, animated "frame story" while the poem itself is set to gentle music and an understated kaleidoscopic display - just enough to keep young attention spans from wandering.

The poems (and songs) range in style from "How Do I Love Thee" (read beautifully by Gwyneth Paltrow as a love poem from mother to child) to Robert Frost's "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening" and were selected to appeal emotionally to their young audience. Preschool and primary school age children may not understand every aspect of the poems, but the words and images will resonate at an emotional level as they alternate between soothing reassurance (John Keats) to good old-fashioned fun (Woody Guthrie).

Each poem is presented by the young protagonist by theme - "roses", "love", "birds" and more are all represented. This is the only place where I feel that the production falls flat. The animation is a bit stilted and the voice-over work for the boy is, quite frankly, creepy (it's a strangely synthesized child-voice, which stands out even more compared to the warm, very human narration of the poems). Still, it's a small complaint in an otherwise excellent production. The show keeps a constantly moving pace that nevertheless manages to feel both meditative and calm, while presenting a wide range of poetry to children in a fashion that is naturally engaging. While poetry is still best experienced at home, with a loved reading to a child, The Poetry Show is an excellent compromise.

Kids Yoga with Phonics

Kids Yoga with Phonics
Little Sensei Studio
2-4 Preschool Smooth Rivers Productions
DVD $24

There are quite a lot of DVD's and programs purporting to teach children yoga, tai chi and even pilates, but Kids Yoga with Phonics is unique in that it combines traditional yogic poses in their simplest forms with an educational component, in this case, the alphabet.

Each of the 26 poses in this 33 minute video corresponds with a letter of the alphabet (C is for Cat's Pose, D is for Dog's Pose / Downward Dog etc.) so that the information is presented and experienced visually, aurally and physically. This does two things. Firstly, it appeals to all three learning styles - visual, aural and haptic - reinforcing the information through multiple mental processes and tying it to the muscle memory associated with each pose. This creates an associative link that is much stronger than a link made by trying to learn the alphabet by rote. Secondly, it's really fun. The music is very kid-centric, as is the pace, which moves along at a measured but energetic clip. Rather than practice in meditative solemnity, the viewer is encouraged to enjoy each pose, fully inhabiting the L for Lion's Pose and the A for Airplane pose with imaginative verve. All of this is done with a sense of authenticity that comes from the fact that the video's instructors are not adults. They are other children in the preschool - primary age group. Despite their youth, however, siblings Juliette and John Rasmussen demonstrate correct form and flow, ensuring that their audience emulates each posture safely and correctly.

While the concept may seem gimmicky to some, it is obvious that a great deal of thought, not to mention research, went into the design and execution of Kids Yoga with Phonics. Appropriate for toddlers as young as 2 and physically fun for kids as old as 8, it manages to teach the alphabet and an ancient meditative practice without making it seem like anything but a really great time. The result is a DVD that kids would very likely choose to make a regular part of their day, adding letter repetition / recognition and the establishment of an active yoga practice to it's impressive list of benefits.

Moo, Baa, La La La!

Moo, Baa, La, La, La!
By Sandra Boynton; illus. by author
0-4 Little Simon 14 pp.
978-0671449018 Board Book $5.99

Beneath the exuberant silliness of Moo, Baa, La, La!, ("A cow says MOO. A sheep says BAA. Three singing pigs say LA LA LA!"), there are important lessons at work.

Boynton, whose board books have combined concept introduction and good, plain fun for decades, has a light hand and an expert's sense of her audience. She sets up her concept - in this case the sounds that animals make - in facts that are straightforward and known. A cow does say "moo", a sheep does say "baa". Then she hits the reader with a goofy zinger, in this case, the "three singing pigs" and their "la, la, la", all the while employing natural, super-pleasing rhythm that appeals to a child's sense of play. But it doesn't end there. Boynton credits her young reader with the knowledge to recognize that what she's told them is wrong, ("No, no, you say. That isn't right. The pigs say OINK all day and night"). Then, with her young audience fully invested and sitting up in their moms' laps, she writes about rhinos "snuffing" and little dogs "ruffing" and other quirky choices set to an impeccably timed rhythm that rolls along to the end where she again addresses her audience with "It's quiet now. What do you say?" thereby inviting the reader to go ahead and make his own noises too.

Moo, Baa, La La La!, with its classic Boynton animals looking bored and mischievous by turns, is masterful in it's simplicity. Over the course of 14 easy pages, Boynton introduces animals sounds, real versus make-believe, vocabulary and rhyme while effortlessly drawing her reading into the silliness and fun. It's the kind of book that is a pleasure to read and to hear, the kind that works educational magic under the radar, one that might even contribute to a family's lexicon of inside jokes. Incredible - seriously silly fun.

My Friend Rabbit

My Friend Rabbit
By Eric Rohmann; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Roaring Brook Press 32 pp.
978-1596436633 Hardcover $15.95

Have you ever had a friend who, no matter how well he meant, caused trouble without even trying? Mouse's friend, Rabbit, is exactly that type of friend. When Rabbit accidentally launches Mouse's biplane into a tree, he embarks on a daring solution that does indeed end in well-meaning disaster.

Mouse, with his sharp eyes and expressive paws, is clearly the more practical of the two. He's an easy figure to relate to (there are short, bold lines darting from his head expressing worry or exasperation in many of the scenes). You get the sense that he knows it's going to end badly, but that he'll see it through because Rabbit is his friend. Rabbit, for his part, is and energetic soul, dashing gamely off in pursuit of the solution - "Not to worry, Mouse. I've got an idea!" (this mantra is repeated several times, always before more trouble). Rabbit returns over the course of 10 wordless pages pulling an elephant, shoving a rhino, and finally carrying a succession of animals from hippo to duck in order to make a living ladder high enough to reach Mouse's plane. Mouse looks on curiously and then pitches in, gamely joining his friend until all of the animals are stacked and the plane is just out of reach, a sight that stretches over two pages, comically presaging disaster. But when the disaster comes, and Rabbit is alone in a pile of very annoyed animals, Mouse (whose plane got knocked loose in the tumble) flies loyally to his rescue, picking him up just in time, even as the promise of more trouble zooms after them.

Rohmann's text is minimal, but it manages a pleasing, smooth rhythm, with repetition and sight words used to good effect. The story is a simple one of friendship and loyalty - it's the illustrations that make My Friend Rabbit special. The bold black outlines around each figure pop them off the delicious blue background of the sky. Though drawn in a cartoon style, Rabbit and Mouse come alive with fully realized personalities thanks to Rohmann's well-chosen, uncluttered details. The pictures elevate My Friend Rabbit  as it romps comically through an impending train-wreck and out the other side, teaching patience, acceptance and the value of friendship along the way.

March 16, 2012

The Princess and the Pea

The Princess and the Pea
By Hans Christian Anderson
Illustrated by Dorothee Duntze
No Author Site
No Illustrator Site
3-4 Preschool North-South Books 22 pp.
1-55858-034-4 Hardcover $16.99

Though authorial credit is given to Hans Christian Anderson, who wrote his version of this tale in 1835, this picture book edition is clearly meant to showcase Dorothee Duntze's stylized, evocative illustrations. It is unclear how much of the text originates with Anderson or to whom the translation should be attributed, nor are there notes in any form contextualizing the tale. This is a shame given the fact of it's uncertain origins and enduring popularity as a fairy tale.

That said, the illustrations are gorgeous and full of intriguing detail (the double page spreads of servants searching the garden for a pea, and the triumphant garden wedding, replete with parrots and medieval pageantry, especially stand-out). The prose, though slightly awkward at times (certain phrases, such as "real princess" and "old queen" are repeated several times in a single sentence) is casual and brief. The story moves briskly along, with ample illustrations to keep the eyes of older toddlers and preschoolers happily engaged. There are even touches of absurd humor as Duntze depicts the princess getting a boost from a servant and then climbing a ladder the rest of the way up the top of the bed, which is twenty mattresses high. The casual tone, established by the conversational narrative voice ("The pea was put in a glass case and is there still unless someone has carried it off. So you see, this is a true story!"), is naturally engaging while the brevity of the story itself won't tax the attention span of young readers and listeners.

All in all, the text is so accessible and Duntze's illustrations such a pleasure to look at, that this edition of The Princess and the Pea is a lovely introduction to both this story and to fairy tales in general. A good choice for small group story times, it would be even better enjoyed at home, where the softly detailed images can be more easily seen and engaged.

March 14, 2012

The Queen of France

The Queen of France
By Tim Wadham
No Author Site
Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton
3-4 Preschool Primary Candlewick 32 pp.
978-0763641023 Hardcover $16.99

One morning Rose wakes up feeling royal, so she opens the make-believe basket and becomes the Queen of France. What follows is a series of interactions between Rose / The Queen of France and Rose's mother and father, neither of whom question their daughter's self-proclaimed "royal" identity while still asserting their love for her.

Wadham's story is patterned without being trite, (Rose changes into the Queen of France twice, not the traditional set of three, while her transformations are bisected by Rose deciding, on her own, to tidy up her room), and purposeful without being ham-fisted (Rose wears her new identity as long as it pleases her, and stops when she wants to stop). Unlike many picture books, The Queen of France, contains no central conflict and the lesson, if it can be called that, is the reinforcement of the pre-existing closeness between Rose and her parents. In fact, what makes The Queen of France so good is its straightforward lack of drama. Rose never doubts that her mother and father love her. That fact is made reassuringly clear throughout. She is a remarkably self-possessed protagonist, playing make-believe with fantastic flair (she goes in search of the Royal Physician when, as the Queen of France, she scratches her finger) while staying remarkably grounded (when the Royal Physician proves elusive, she takes off her Queen clothes and put two band-aids on herself). When Rose's Mother tells the Queen that she would miss Rose if they were to change places, it comes not as a revelation to Rose, but as a reassuring given that nevertheless has Rose abandoning her royal identity in order to have dinner with her parents.

Kady MacDonald Denton, best known for illustrating Bonny Becker's Bear and Mouse stories, supports Wadham's warm, straightforward text, with warm straightforward illustrations. The watercolor images reflect the same blend of fancy and practicality that Rose herself has. The Queen of France is a charming read, with text and pictures working in subtle conjunction. Best of all, it has enough depth to be read in a number of ways, and enough respect for its young reader to let her choose.

March 9, 2012

Jackhammer Sam

Jackhammer Sam
By Peter Mandel
Illus. by David Catrow
3-4 Preschool Primary Roaring Brook 40 pp.
978-1596430341 Hardcover $16.99

                          ATTA-RATTA-TATTA-BAM. D'ya know who I am?

With that, we are introduced to Jackhammer Sam, the larger than life, noisier than New York, protagonist of Peter Mandel's sixth picture book. Jackhammer Sam is a rowdy, chaotic book, with a casual rhyming text ("Th' name's Jackhammer Sam. Yeah, that's the man I am") and illustrations that offer an almost uncanny portal into the rattle and din of a New York City construction site. Mandel employs onomatopoeia  with vigorous enthusiasm ("SLIP-SLAP-SLOP...RRRIP-DRIP-DROp...KREEK-KER-PLOP") making this a terrific read-a-loud for preschoolers, and though he sometimes loses track of his rhythm, it can be forgiven as he sweeps the reader along on this rackety ride.

The first half of Jackhammer Sam is quite a strong as Sam takes the reader through Manhattan, blasting away at sidewalks and leaning on his jackhammer with his magnificent belly. Mandel loses some control over his material in the second half as Sam takes the reader out to sea and even to space jackhammering until he "drains the Milky Way," but then it's back to earth where Sam takes a bow at the end of his "song".

The text and illustrations are dynamic and fun and will no doubt be a hit with preschool age boys (and potentially less princess-oriented girls), but the book would be stronger overall if it were slightly shorter. Still, Jackhammer Sam is fun and dynamic. It's a good book for introducing onomatopoeia and sound-play, and a great way to coax reluctant readers (especially boys) into engaging a written text.

March 8, 2012

More, More, More Said the Baby

More, More, More Said the Baby: Three Love Stories
By Vera B. Williams; illus. by author
No Author Site
0-4 Preschool Greenwillow 32 pp.
978-0688091736 Hardcover $17.99

More, More, More Said the Baby is as joyful a book as the title suggests, and the subtitle, 3 Love Stories, couldn't be more accurate. Williams, who won the Caldecott Honor for her effort, offers babies (and toddlers) and their grown-ups an exuberant celebration of love, play and happiness. More, More, More Said the Baby is effortlessly multigenerational and multicultural. The first "baby", Little Guy, and his daddy are white, the second "baby", Little Pumpkin, is African-American while her grandma is white, and the third "baby", Little Bird, and her mom are Asian-American. Williams makes no effort to point out the differences or similarities in each pair. She simply presents each short narrative in warm, colloquial language ("But Little Guy's Daddy catches that baby up all right") and expertly rhythmic prose ("Just look at you with your ten little toes right on the ends, right on the ends, right on the ends of your two little feet, good enough to eat"), underscoring the universality of the love expressed by each couple. The language can only be described as bubbly, almost leaping off the page in rainbow colors. It's not only fun to read, but it's wonderful hear read aloud. Little ones will be especially taken in by the effortless repetition of sounds, words and patterns in each narrative. Williams illustrations, though expertly rendered, have a spontaneous, active quality to them with wide brush-strokes and bold colors, that further supports the playfulness of the text. While this would be a good book for toddler storytimes, the real strength of More, More, More Said the Baby is the affection and love it unlocks between a baby and her grown-up, making it an especially great read for intimate storytimes at home. I can already hear the giggles of parents and babies playing and snuggling, inspired by the down-to-earth sweetness of Williams' work.

March 7, 2012

Resources & Recommendations: Early Literacy

Assignment 3
Storytime Standouts: Great Books and Resources for Childhood Literacy (

This website, developed by educator Carolyn Hart, is dedicated to “raising children that love to read”. The site’s primary goal is to introduce children to a wide variety of books for every reading level while exploring the role books play in supporting early literacy. It has an impressive database of recommendations for books at all reading levels. The database can be browsed by theme, title, author etc. while the recommendations (from board books to chapter books) are made with early literacy in mind. Topics include everything from alphabet recognition to phonics, while themes include social issues such as bullying, multiculturalism and the environment. In addition to recommendations, the site also provides tips for caregivers and parents, as well as free “printables” on nursery rhymes, the alphabet and phonics, making it is a truly comprehensive source for parents and educators concerned with emergent literacy.

Zero To Three: Early Experiences Matter

Zero to Three is a website run by the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. Among the site’s copious tools and articles on everything from “Public Policy” to “Care and Education”, is a tab devoted to “Behavior and Development”. All parents have to do is click on the section entitled “Early Literacy and Language - Tips and Tools” under this tab to access a wealth of information on early literacy. Zero to Three provides free access to downloadable booklets and articles on getting a child ready to read, tips for choosing books for toddlers and infants, information on why reading to infants is critical for language acquisition and other related topics. Perhaps even more importantly, the site also provides parents with activities and links to even more resources. The site is geared primarily for parents at all levels of education and is both thorough and accessible. Though not as specialized a site as Storytime Standouts, Zero to Three makes the case for the importance of early literacy and provides parents and caregivers with basic tools to start their child on the path to reading.

The Sesame Street Website 

The official Sesame Street website has so many resources, games and videos for kids and their parents that it almost makes it a one stop shop. Games, such as “In the Nick of Rhyme” with Super Grover, Murray Monster’s “Word on the Street” and Abby’s “Fairy Treasure Hunt” make letter recognition, vocabulary acquisition and word matching / site words fun and stress-free, while a nice collection of printable activity sheets make it possible for kids to practice their reading skills off-line as well as on. There is also a link for parents and teachers embedded in the PBS Kids site that takes adults to a site full of parent resources, tips and learning activities to do with their child or in the classroom. The Sesame Street website is not specialized – it covers everything from science and math to reading and everyday concerns, like starting pre-school or going to the doctor – but even though it does not focus on early literacy to the exclusion of other skills, the array of reading readiness tools provided in the comforting context of the show and it’s characters makes it a truly valuable resource for kids and their parents.

Classic Nursery Rhymes sung by Susie Tallman and Friends
See Review dated March 1, 2012. Tag: assignment 3

Eric Carl Animal Flash Cards
See Review Dated March 7, 2012. Tag: assignment 3

    Eric Carle Animal Flash Cards

    Eric Carle Animal Flash Cards
    By Eric Carle; illus. by author
    0-3 Chronicle 26 cards
    978-0811852562 Flash Cards $14.95

    These flash cards are designed to teach toddlers their ABC’s. Though they could be used by children as young as one for shape and color recognition, they are really meant for older toddlers and young pre-schoolers about 2-3 years in age. The cards are incredibly sturdy – thicker than a board book’s pages – making them perfectly able to stand up to less than gentle handling. They are also quite large, 5.5 x 7 inches, which is huge by flash card standards. This makes the colors, letters and illustrations very easy to see while giving the cards more of the feel of a game than a learning tool. With a bright letter on one side and one of Carle’s animals on the other (a hippo, a monkey and a very familiar caterpillar to name a few), there is a lot for toddlers to see and absorb without overwhelming the senses. The cards even help support motor skill development as kids learn to take them out of their sturdy box and put them back in. An all-around excellent learning tool that makes it fun and easy for parents to introduce their little ones to the alphabet while sharing a good time. 

    March 6, 2012

    My First Taggies Book: I Love You

    My First Taggies Book: I Love You
    By Kaori Wantanabe; illus. by author
    No Author Site
    0-1 Cartwheel 6 pp.
    978-0439649476 Ragbook $12.99

    The text of this felted flannel ragbook is reassuring and warm - "I love Mommy / Mommy loves me / I love Daddy / Daddy loves me / I love you / You love me." The textured, stitched illustrations show a baby bear being cuddled and hugged by its mama and papa bear respectively. Everything about I Love You is tactile - the book is made out of the same soft, snuggly, (machine washable), material as baby blankets and pajamas, while Wantanabe's furry, satiny, cottony illustrations populate the flannel background with a homey inevitabilty, giving a baby lots to touch and feel. The great marketing feature of the Taggies books is the set of satin tags that line the outside edges, ostensibly giving the baby something to chew, though my daughter prefers the manufacturer's tag much more than it's charming counterparts. Still, I Love You is the friendliest of books, literally designed to cuddle, gum and hold, while providing parents with a simple, easy to memorize text that can be easily embellished to suit. While it might be boring to a child over one, it is a perfectly designed friend for infants and pre-walkers. As a first introduction to books, I Love You gives babies a chance to explore different textures and colors while learning to "turn" the fat cloth pages and browse the contents, all while hearing the most comforting words -  that "Mommy (and Daddy) loves me".

    Little Polar Bear: Finger Puppet Book

    Little Polar Bear: Finger Puppet Book
    By Image Books Factory; illus. by Klaartje van der Put
    No Illustrator Site
    0-2 Chronicle Books 12 pp.
    978-0811869744 Board $6.99

    There is an impressive amount of content in this small, simply illustrated package. The authors  combine an interactive story, complete with narrative arc, (a baby polar bear can't find the other bears until he realizes something important), with a handful of polar bear facts. The result not only works, it is completely engaging. Even the polar bear's protruding puppet head doesn't distract from the illustrations or the text. In fact, it gives young readers (like, in the interest of full disclosure, my seven month old daughter) something to chew on while the pages turn and the story is read.

    Everything about Little Polar Bear is designed for the exceptionally young. The pages are fat and sturdy, even by board book standards, while the book itself is small - roughly four inches square - making it easy for babies to manipulate the pages. Van der Put's illustrations keep the action clear without extraneous detail, while making it seem natural that the Little Polar Bear sits in same spot for the whole book (he has too - his puppet head is affixed to the back so he can't wander about). The rhyming text is engaging ("Polar Bear sees lots of snow. Where did the other polar bears go?") and simple enough to recognize after just a few reads, making the story easy to anticipate and follow phonetically, even for the pre-verbal. The ending is playful and satisfying, with another polar bear tossing a snowball to Little Polar bear, as if to say "Silly bear, don't you know? Polar bears are white as snow!" The end result is a board book with a pleasing rhyming text and illustrations that combines polar bear facts with narrative progression and makes my daughter smile the second I pull it out.

    (The Little Polar Bear is part of a finger puppet series that also includes The Little Mouse, The Little Lion, The Little Dino, and The Little Bat among others).

    March 2, 2012

    Old Bear

    Old Bear
    By Kevin Henkes; illus. by author
    0-4 Preschool Primary Greenwillow 26 pp.
    978-0-06-155205-2 Hardcover $17.99

    Old Bear begins on the cover, with the shaggy, sweet-faced protagonist walking though falling autumn leaves and the first sprinklings of snow. Right away, we know that winter must be coming, and we can guess where this bear is heading. He continues his walk on the copyright page and then on to the dedication page so that by the time we reach the first official page of the story, Old Bear is asleep in his den for the winter, and it is snowing hard. The effect is subtle and dynamic without sacrificing the coziness of Old Bear's hibernation. Soon, Henkes writes, "he was dreaming" and this gentle introduction to the seasons starts full swing. Old Bear dreams of spring and of himself as a cub, curled up asleep in a giant crocus (one of my favorite images in the entire book). The text and illustrations (even Bear's outline) in the spring spread are awash in pinks and greens and purples communicating the freshness and light of the season. He dreams of a summer where the sun is a giant daisy and a blueberry rain sprinkles the lush, green world. The autumn spread is red and we see a slightly older cub clinging to a tree next to a river full of orange and yellow fish. Winter returns in the next spread, icy blue and cold, but with a sky full of blazing stars and a light, lemony moon. The text mirrors the cyclical nature of the seasons ("Old Bear slept and dreamed, dreamed and slept"), saying just enough to support the illustrations. When Old Bear wakes up, it's spring again, (this time for real) and he walks out into with a lightness in his step.

    Old Bear, which was named an ALA Notable Children's Book and a "Best Book" by School Library Journal among others works magic on several levels. For the youngest readers, it's a lovely introduction to seasons and colors, especially in the intimate setting of a parent-child storytime at home. For older kids, Old Bear provides a great opportunity to discuss cycles in nature and hibernation, while the text is simple enough for early sight readers to work through aided by Henkes's lucid illustrations. This would be an especially great book for preschool storytime, as Old Bear literally walks the reader into an exploration of the seasons. Lovely to look at and soothing to read, Old Bear has something for every cub and depth enough for the adults who read it with them.

    March 1, 2012

    Classic Nursery Rhymes

    Classic Nursery Rhymes
    Sung by Susie Tallman and Friends
    0-4, Preschool, Early Primary
    Rock Me Baby Records $11.95
    Audio CD

    With Classic Nursery Rhymes (winner of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award), Susie Tallman once again shows her dedication to making music for children that is dynamic, educational and joyfully fun. Each of the thirty seven tracks on the album is a different nursery rhyme. Some are old favorites imbued with new life as in the rap version of "Hickory Dickory Dock" or "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" done in a surprisingly authentic jazz-style. Other, lesser-known nursery rhymes, such as "Going to St. Ives" and "Lavender's Blue" are introduced with simple arrangements, a sensitive choice that allows Tallman's lovely vocals to stand on their own. Studies have shown that songs and nursery rhymes have a marked impact on a child's phonological awareness and, consequently, on her reading readiness and academic performance later in life. While listening to a CD cannot replace reading with a parent or loved one, Tallman's Classic Nursery Rhymes is a wonderful supplement. With content that is stylish enough to appeal to parents and silly enough to reel kids in, this is an incredibly well-balanced offering that cannot help but make nursery rhymes appeal to even the most distracted preschooler.