Saturday afternoon I wiped crumbs from the table, swabbed faces, unbuckled the boys from their boosters, and looked up briefly as Ali and Sami scampered off to the couches around the corner. Gordon and Spencer followed. While rinsing cups, I noticed an unusually wonderful sound.
In place of the crash, bang, vroom I usually hear from the train table, I heard only the slight brush of paper against cotton. It was the sound of pages turning.
I leaned my head out the kitchen door to scan the living room. And there they were, all five of them, nestling into the couches, perusing a favorite book. Sunlight was pouring in the south window, tingling down their necks, warming their backs and whiting their toes.
Most afternoons start out gentle like this.
The morning chores are done and everything about us grows softer - my voice, their voices, the yellow light filling up the living room. Naps are only an hour away, so we have nowhere to run off to - just stacks of books to sift through, disappear into.
I kneel on the carpet, camera in hand, watching. They are oblivious to their stalking mother. I creep past their feet as Sami tells the boys the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff.
Spencer lasts for several minutes, but then he's off to find his Pigeon books. He chooses The Pigeon Wants a Puppy, and I stifle a laugh as he reenacts the moment when Pigeon realizes his much-wanted puppy is a whole lot bigger than he is! Aaaaah!
Ali smiles as she leafs through her favorite book, Noah's Ark. She finishes only to start again, entranced by the intricate details of Peter Spier's art.
Me? I am entranced by her. By the golden light filtering through her curls. The camera keeps clicking but none of my children notice me.
Except this girl, who pauses long enough to look up and flash me a smile. I love that it is Saturday, and she is home with us.
Too often I feel pulled more ways than I have limbs. In this busy house of five little people who still can't bathe themselves, cut their own food, or pick up after themselves with consistency, there are so many temporal needs to be met. I worry sometimes that they don't get enough. Enough of my praise, my eye-contact, my touch. Too many nights, after kissing foreheads and twisting lamp switches, I worry over what went unsaid, undone, unnoticed.
But this hour, the reading hour, is one part of the day that fills us, holds us all together in the same rapt story. Their small bodies fit like puzzle pieces against mine, and somehow we manage to squeeze everyone onto the same couch - legs akimbo, arms draped across shoulders, small heads leaning onto small shoulders.
It is sweet. And at least here, they have my touch. They have my praise, not just of them, but of other people and things that matter. We share a look of wonder, I see that spark of discovery in their eyes, and together, we float away into the exciting pages of a good book.
Here's our list of favorite Children's Books from 2011. In no particular order. Some are new releases from 2011, others are as old as the knickerbockers I wore in first grade. But if they made our list, it's because they've been read over and over, we never tire of them, they teach a valuable lesson, or they're just plain fun.
Hitch up your britches. It's a hefty list.
Emily - by Michael Bedard. This is the beautiful story of a young girl who lives across the street from Emily Dickinson. Set in Amherst, Massachusetts (Dickinson's hometown), Emily is known to most as the Myth - a haunting figure who wears white and lives in The Yellow House. Through an intimate exchange between Emily and the girl across the street, we read Emily's poetry and learn about her life. My daughters love hunting for Emily in each of the pictures, and I love reading Bedard's poetic lines. While touring the Yellow House, Bedard said he stood beneath Emily's window, and "she lowered this story to him." I think Emily would be pleased with it. It cleverly introduces small ears to one of America's greatest poetesses.
Stellaluna - by Janell Cannon. My girls have fallen in love with this courageous baby bat. Knocked out of her mother's embrace by an attacking owl, Stellaluna survives the fall and adapts as best she can to her new life with a family of birds. But it is not without its challenges. Eventually Stellaluna is reunited with her mother, and this happy ending makes for a delightful read about mother love, making friends, and being brave. ("Bat notes" at the end of the book offer a number of intriguing facts about bats.)
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge - by Mem Fox. Wilfrid is a little boy who lives next to a retirement home where all sorts of unique individuals are living out their later years, like "Mrs. Jordan who played the organ." Wilfrid knows all of them, but his favorite is 96-year-old "Miss Nancy." Everyone says Miss Nancy has lost her memory and although Wilfrid doesn't know what a memory is, he unintentionally helps her find it. I adore this book, particularly for the attention and understanding it gives to old people. It helps children see them with less fear and more love.
The Berenstain Bears - Originals. When it comes to the Berenstain Bears, the oldies are the goodies, and these two oldies are our favorites. They have been taped and read, and taped some more. They belonged to Doug when he was small, and he and I have rediscovered how delightful they are as we've read them to our children. Look for the Berenstain books published in the 1970's. They are much more enjoyable, funny, and in our opinion, better-written.
There's a Nightmare in my Closet - by Mercer Mayer. My boys ask for this book every afternoon. We make sound effects for the closet door shutting, the floor creaking and the toy gun popping (disclaimer: we read it "I'll pop you" rather than "shoot you" - I just can't say "shoot you"). Copyright is a few years before I was born so it's been around a while, but it is definitely a keeper for toddler boys (and girls!).
Where the Wild Things Are - by Maurice Sendak. This is also a keeper. Everyone is familiar with the Wild Things, but it's so very charming. The boys pick up "Wild Things" at least once a day. And here's the truth. We never get tired of it. I'm pretty sure it's the words. If an author has chosen the right words, the perfect words, a timeless book is born. It becomes one you never mind repeating - one your child will memorize. Like Goodnight Moon or Big Red Barn. I love the sparkle in my boys' eyes as we roar our terrible roars and show our terrible claws. I'll be sad when they outgrow this one.
The White Ox - by Ruth Hailstone. Have you seen 17 Miracles? (If you haven't, you must! Levi Savage is my new heart throb.) Hailstone's book is similar. It's the true story of Emily Squires, who, at age 10, crossed the plains on foot with two fellow travelers, leaving her family in England. The journey becomes more difficult and lonely than she could have imagined and just when she can't go another step, God sends her his own miracle. With stunning artwork, and a truly glorious story - this became one of my girls' favorite reads last summer.
There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly - illustrated by Pam Adams. I grew up with my Dad singing this song on every road trip. It is only fitting that my parents gave it to my girls for their birthday. Now I sing the song to my kids, but with these happy illustrations to go along. Each page has a circle cut-out that grows larger every time the Old Lady swallows another animal. Great fun!
Pigeon Books - by Mo Willems. You can't go wrong with any of Mo Willems' books. But we particularly love the Pigeon books. The Pigeon Wants a Puppy happens to be the current favorite. All of my kids chortle over Pigeon's antics and laugh when I put their own names into the book so they can have a conversation with the Pigeon. You won't want to miss Willems' new release, Duckling Gets a Cookie, available in April 2012. And for young readers, I highly recommend the Elephant and Piggie books. These two crack me up!
Caps for Sale - by Esphyr Slobodkina. This classic is adored by all of my children. Once they became familiar with the story, we began acting it out for fun. I tossed all the kids a baseball cap, and they played the monkeys while I played the cap salesman. What kid doesn't love shaking their fists at mommy and saying, "Tst, Tst, Tst!"
Balloons over Broadway - by Melissa Sweet. This Caldecott Honor Winner for 2011 is the true story of Tony Sarg. Sarg is the fellow who created all the enormous balloons that walk the canyons of New York City in the Macy's Parade on Thanksgiving morning! I bought this book for Eliza because she is intrigued with building things, and figuring out how things work. She has been fascinated by this story of a "real live" person who invented something as remarkable as those bigger-than-life-puppets. There is one line in the book, however, I simply can't believe: "When Tony was a little boy he created a contraption that helped him feed the chickens without getting out of bed. His dad was so impressed, he never made Tony do another chore." Really?? Wouldn't happen at our house.
One Smart Cookie - by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I've bought every one of the Cookies books. They teach such wonderful lessons about how to interact with others, how to be a good person. One Smart Cookie is for school-age children. Rosenthal defines words like prompt, organized, compromise, prepared, empathy, listening, arrogant, and ponder. She brings complicated concepts down to a level children can easily understand. And the illustrations are marvelous.
Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly - by Alan Madison. This is Sami's current favorite. I found it while searching for books illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Sometimes you can know a book will be good simply because of the artist. Hawkes is one of those illustrators. All of his books are charming, beautifully crafted, and tell a story with a sound message. Velma is the third of the three Gratch girls seeking a bit of independence. She doesn't want to hang out in the shadow of her sisters. She wants to be noticed. One day a butterfly lands on her finger and won't fly away. Pretty soon, everyone notices Velma! This book helps children become aware of positive (and negative) ways to seek attention. It's also an excellent introduction to the study of butterflies.
The Artist who Painted a Blue Horse - by Eric Carle. This is Eric Carle's most recent work, released in October 2011. Carle is Eliza's favorite illustrator. She loves art and aspires to be a children's book illustrator. She's infatuated with Carle's work and saved her money (combined with some good behavior) to earn this book. I showed her this video of Carle and she couldn't stop chattering afterwards. She loves how he paints patterns, cuts them out and pastes them, collage-like, to create an image. This book tells the story of a budding young artist who learns how to paint outside the box. It inspires children to paint something original... like a blue horse. Plain magic for little artists.
Noah's Ark - by Peter Spier. This is my Ali's favorite. It has been around for decades and has won a slew of awards, including the Caldecott Medal, The American Book Award, and NY Times Best Illustrated Book. It begins with a translated poem, but the rest of the story is told through Spier's art. Each time we "read" this book I find something new. A new animal, a new expression, a new twist in the story. Spier is absolutely brilliant. A must have for any children's library.
The QuiltMaker's Gift - by Jeff Brumbeau. In this book a wise Quiltmaker helps a selfish King learn that true happiness comes only by making others happy. I love everything about this tender, selfless story. The intricacy and depth of Gail de Marcken's illustrations have kept my girls' busy for long patches of time. And if you are a quilter, you will appreciate the gorgeous quilt patterns crafted into every page.
Whose Mouse Are You? - by Robert Kraus. Perfect for toddlers, this book teaches the importance of belonging to a family. "Nobody's Mouse," with a bit of nudging and some clever thinking, becomes the hero of his family by saving his mother, father and sister. This is another timeless book that we (even my boys) have memorized. It is tender and witty, and my kids love the surprise ending.
Martin's Big Words - by Doreen Rappaport. Over the years my fascination with the civil rights movement has grown. Reverence for our civil right leaders has only deepened and I continue to marvel at the men and women who stood for truth, and risked their lives for the equality of all people. They truly changed the world. So I volunteered this January to teach a Learning Center in Eliza's class about Martin Luker King, Jr. I discovered two excellent books, both of which I shared with her class. This book won the Caldecott Honor Book for Illustrations - watercolor collages set against stained glass windows in the background. Quite beautiful. The book alludes a bit more to the violence many blacks experienced during those days, but I read it to all my girls and it sparked a good discussion.
I also used this one in Eliza's class, written by Dr. King's sister:
My Brother Martin - by Christine King Farris. The illustrations are remarkable and better suited for children than any other book I looked at. Farris tells an excellent story, from her own perspective, about their growing up years. The pictures are happy and I was particularly moved by the page when Martin asks his mother why they can't go the same places as whites. His mother responds, "Some people just don't understand that we are all the same." Martin then says, "Mother dear, one day I'm going to turn this world upside down." And he did.
The Owl and the Pussycat - by Edward Lear and Jan Brett. Everyone is familiar with Lear's classic nonsense poem, but I include it here for the illustrations. If you haven't been introduced to Jan Brett, now is the time. I love all of her books. Again, she's the kind of illustrator, that if you pick up one of her books, you can't go wrong. Brett has become Eliza's second favorite artist. Brett builds additional stories into the pages of her book. Layers of stories. Pictures within pictures. She has this masterful way of creating a dialogue between the reader and her art, one page at a time.
Here are a few more recommendations for young readers that we are enjoying at our house.
The Little House on the Prairie Series
The Ramona Series
The Magic Treehouse Books
Eliza has been enjoying all of these. At night she reads a few pages outloud, then I finish the chapter.
Currently, we've been working through Pippi. I forgot what an unruly, innocent, and funny character she is!
And I'm reading the third Little House book to Ali and Sami. I feel like I've returned to my basement bedroom where I spent hours poring over Laura Ingalls' life on the prairie. It's portable magic I tell you, this love-affair with good books. I hope I can pass it on to my children.
What were your favorite children's books this year? Our 2010 list of favorites here.