Archive for August, 2010

As far as picky eaters go, my daughter Eloise may rank as one of the worst. Possibly traumatized by a horrible case of infant’s acid reflux, she refused to swallow even a spoonful of baby food until she was 10 months old. Even then, she only averaged half a container a day and quit eating it all together by the time she was 14 months old.

It seemed Eloise had an objection to moisture of any kind in her food. She existed solely on Gerber Puffs, Cheerios, Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies and freeze-dried fruits. Her pediatrician had a very relaxed take on the problem – time and patience. I was short on both, expecting our second daughter by the time Eloise was 15 months. And I was paranoid about the effect this limited diet – supplemented by formula bottles – would have on her development. Would her growth be stunted? Would she eat this way forever?

It was about this time that I discovered “The Seven Silly Eaters,” a book with an all-too-familiar storyline. Mrs. Peters, a true earth-mother type, has a brood of seven, each of whom limits his or her diet to just one unique meal, prepared according to very particular demands. Peter wants only warm milk – not hot, not cold. Lucy demands homemade pink lemonade. Jack sticks to applesauce, while Mac prefers oatmeal, but hold the lumps – or else.  Mary Lou eats soft and squishy bread by the loaf, and twins Flo and Fran take eggs – poached for one and fried for the other.

Mrs. Peters lovingly indulges her children, but as the years pass and their appetites (not palates) grow, her patience and endurance wanes.

Now this was a mother I could relate to … kitchen a disaster, laundry never finished, pets and children fleeing her exasperated outbursts. I can only assume author Mary Ann Hoberman wrote from experience. She is herself a mother of four, three of whom were born within a span of three years.

First and foremost a poet, Hoberman tells her story with perfectly rhyming patterns that sing along in the fashion of “The Cat in the Hat” but without all the nonsensical words. It comes as no surprise that she’s served the past two years as Children’s Poet Laureate.

Marla Frazee’s highly detailed illustrations, done classically in transparent drawing inks, tell whole stories in and of themselves. On the title page, we see Mr. and Mrs. Peters standing admiringly before their lakeside house – he with tools in hand and she with a paint bucket and very pregnant – leading one to believe they’ve built the homestead themselves. We watch the number of pets multiply from one to five and their collection of books, scattered throughout the house, grow with each passing year. We see Mrs. Peters’ beloved cello sitting idly in the corner, too many demands placed upon her by her children to leave any time for practice. We watch their neat and tidy household transform into a chaotic mess, toys always underfoot and children’s crafts slowly covering every available wall surface.

Both story and illustrations paint a happy ending, though. In the wee hours of the morning of their mother’s birthday, the children sneak out of bed to cook her a breakfast of their favorite foods. Each fails to achieve the same perfection with which their mother prepares the dishes and they give up in frustration, their failed creations thrown into a pot and hidden in the oven. Much to their surprise, and even more so to their mother’s, the still-warm oven bakes the disaster into a delicious pink birthday cake that pleases them all.

And from that day to this, ’tis said,

The Peters family all is fed,

A single simple meal – just one –

A meal that’s good for everyone,

A meal on which they all agree,

Made from their secret recipe.

They all take turns in mixing it.

They all take turns in fixing it.

It’s thick to beat and quick to bake –

It’s fine to eat and fun to make –

It’s Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake!

It turns out there’s an actual recipe for Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake. Making sure to incorporate all of the Peters kids’ favorite foods, Hoberman experimented with the recipe in the years after the book’s publication and ended up with something akin to an apple pound cake. As it turns out, both of my picky eaters loved it, so maybe there’s hope for us yet!


Read Full Post »

School supplies and backpacks are popping up everywhere I look. It’s almost enough to make me wish I were still a student. My nostalgia brings with it memories of picking out elaborate Trapper Keepers and deluxe sets of Crayola markers. Of course, for many children, the apprehension that accompanies the start of a new school year is enough to have them faking a bad case of stomach flu.

Here are two of my favorite books that address some of the not-so-pleasant aspects of elementary school days.

“Butterflies in My Stomach,” written and illustrated by Serge Bloch, helps take the edge off back-to-school jitters with its laughable literal translations of the common but confusing figures of speech a child encounters on his very first day of school.

The little boy at the heart of this tale wakes up full of apprehension. He worries about missing the bus, sheds a tear over leaving his dog behind at home, is too nervous to talk to his teacher and doesn’t know what to make of his classmates. To top it off, he can’t make sense of anything the adults at school are saying:

“The bus driver asked if I was feeling blue or maybe just a little under the weather.”

“Has the cat got your tongue?” his teacher asks.

“Why the long face?” the school cook inquires.

“I’ll keep an eye out for you!” the nurse promises.

Bloch uses almost-childlike pen and ink line drawings, combined with photographic elements, to cleverly illustrate the boy’s interpretations of these turns of phrase. And the images, in turn, provide fun visual aids for explaining the meanings behind the idioms.

Most importantly, the little boy’s story can help school-aged children realize they’re not alone in their anxieties about the bewildering new world of education. Bloch’s adult characters promise sympathetic guidance and the book’s ending has a silver lining… again, literally.

But sometimes a student’s worries are more than just butterflies in his stomach. Sometimes there’s a real live bully lurking in the shadows of the playground. Enter Mean Jean.

“The Recess Queen,” written by Alexis O’Neill, authentically captures the intimidating social hierarchy of the schoolyard, which bears a striking resemblance to the operations of a mob ring. Mean Jean, a tough, freckle-faced girl, rules with the authority of a dictator, and nobody says any different.

“If kids ever crossed her, she’d push ’em and smoosh ’em, lollapaloosh ’em, hammer ’em, slammer ’em, kitz and kajammer ’em.”

With the enlightened perspective of a former elementary school teacher, O’Neill’s rendering of the bully is pitch-perfect. I think we all had our Mean Jeans growing up, although my husband claims recess bullies may have been more of a “girl thing.” I certainly remember being excluded from the jump rope clique ruled by a certain recess queen I’ll call Mean Jodi.

The twist in this story comes when a new student joins the class. Katie Sue is too green to known about the Recess Queen, so she swings before Mean Jean swings, kicks before Mean Jean kicks and bounces before Mean Jean bounces. You can imagine the havoc that ensues. But rather than cowering to the Queen, Katie Sue invites Jean to jump rope and we learn that no one had ever asked her to play before.

Moral of the story aside, O’Neill’s Seussical-esque text has a bounce and a rhythm that brings to mind hand-clapping games and makes the book one of my favorites to read aloud. Laura Huliska-Beith’s vibrant acrylic and collage illustrations further elevate the energy and add to the humor of the narrative. We see Mean Jean charging across the playground, bouncing another classmate as if she were a basketball and leaving in her wake a trio of students bound to a tether ball pole. I adore the image of a bespectacled girl hiding beneath the slide, furtively studying a book entitled “The Art of Self Defence;” she’s later found clutching a copy of “Conflict Resolution.”

In all likelihood, most real-life stories involving bullies will not end as simply and happily as Mean Jean’s. But the book can provide the perfect prompt for you to add your own afterward, explaining to your children, for example, that the bullies who once picked on you have since turned in to loser adults.

Read Full Post »