Archive for October, 2010

Two Jolly Good Books

“Each Peach Pear Plum” and “The Jolly Postman,” both written and illustrated by the husband and wife team of Janet and Allan Ahlberg, remain to this day two of the most treasured book titles from my youth. I’ve bought each time and time again for new parents and young children, and I have as much fun reading them today with my daughters as I did when I was a child myself.

Within these books, the Ahlbergs have created a world in which the folk of nursery rhymes, mother goose and fairy tales live among each other as friends and neighbors. We are invited to explore what happened after “happily ever after” in a manner and humor similar to the modern-day Shrek franchise.

“Each Peach Pear Plum,” first published in 1978, is an “I Spy” style board book written with a poetry reminiscent of the very nursery rhymes it references. Its highly detailed illustrations are charming watercolors that bring to mind Beatrix Potter. The simplicity of the words makes it a lovely book to read to the youngest of babies, but concealed in the beautiful illustrations for your toddler to discover are a dozen of our most beloved and familiar fairy tale friends.

His feet dangling from a tree branch, the reader first spies Tom Thumb. He reveals himself on the following page, grabbing a quick bite of jam from Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. But where is the Mother, herself? Each discovery leads to an encounter with a new character until the whole crew ends up together, happily sharing a plum pie picnic.

“The Jolly Postman,” published eight years later, is the unabridged version of its board book predecessor. In this tale, we follow the postman as he makes deliveries to residents of The Woods, Beanstalk Gardens and Horner’s Corner. Interestingly, this jolly man is likely modeled after the author himself; Allan Ahlberg spent six months as a postman before writing became a full-time career.

At each stop, the postman is invited into tea while the recipients read their mail. Meanwhile, we’re given a behind-the-scenes look into the homes and everyday lives of many of the characters found in “Each Peach Pear Plum.” But what truly makes this book one of kind are the half dozen pieces of mail found inside full-page envelopes interspersed throughout the story.

Throwing federal mail regulations out the window, the reader can open up Goldilock’s letter of apology to The Three Bears and browse through the Wicked Witch’s mail-order catalogue – offers include such essentials as “Little Boy Pie Mix” and non-stick cauldrons. Cinderella’s mail even contains a book within the book: a copy of her biography released by the Peter Piper Press in celebration of her recent marriage to Price Charming.

The Ahlbergs credited their then two-year-old Jessie for the book’s genesis. “She would sit in her highchair and pull letters out and put them back in,” Allan told The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper. “I’m not sure she knew what a letter was, but she like them.”

The book’s format presents a true novelty for today’s child, who rarely finds anything in the mailbox that catches her attention. In the years after the book was published, we’ve seen a complete revolution in the way people communicate. Hand written letters are nearly extinct, and in their place are email, Skype, text messaging and Facebook. The thrill my daughter experiences exploring the correspondence of this nursery rhyme world is inspiration enough to find her a pen pal. “Beaches” anyone?

In addition to the incredible craftsmanship that went into its construction, the Ahlbergs have filled every corner of this book with imaginative details, some I can only now appreciate as an adult reader. Letters are postmarked from Banbury Cross, Crooked Mile and East of Sun, West of Moon. And stamps bear the images of Old King Cole (with pipe and bowl) and the Queen of Hearts. We learn that Jack’s Giant is the doting father of a baby girl and that the Big Bad Wolf from the Three Little Pigs and the scoundrel who impersonated Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma are one and the same.

But here’s the problem…When I first pulled these books out to read them to my daughters, I realized they were incapable of appreciating the witty allusions to these age-old nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Eloise had no idea who Jack and Jill were or what Goldilocks had done to start a feud with The Three Bears. She and her sister, Charlotte, were in desperate need of an education in Mother Goose, Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm.

Of course, many of these tales, in their original form, are a bit dark and morbid for the preschool audience. I found my solution in a trio of books that were the realization of a life-long dream for illustrator Mary Engelbreit. A review of her wonderfully complete and often-illuminating “Mother Goose,” “Nursery Tales,” and “Fairy Tales” will follow in short order.


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Life at the Plaza

Both of my daughters’ names are inspired by children’s literature, so it’s no surprise their rooms are, too. My good friend Sarah allowed me the indulgence of discussing how I used Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” as a decadent inspiration for my own Eloise’s “big girl” room. Originally posted on her design blog, Sarah Bohl Designs, below you will find to read Part 2 of my three-part series on creating children’s rooms from picture books.

Upon the birth of our second child, I was on Cloud 9 creating a “big girl” room for my oldest daughter, Eloise. Where as before I had completely avoided the classic pink girl’s room, there’s little in this new room that isn’t a shade of pink.

I took my design inspiration from her namesake: the pages of “Eloise,” its illustrations done solely in black ink accented with dual shades of pink watercolor. I literally attempted to replicate much of the character’s room in The Plaza Hotel; the chaos of little girl mixed with the Plaza’s elegant design features.

Following my own advice, the room’s starting point was fabric, chosen from a selection garnered by a talented designer in my area, Stacie Twedt O’Brien. I could almost salivate over the Lee Jofa harlequin pattern used for the curtains and the Duralee pink stripe overlaid with a sheer white fabric with a swirl for the bedskirt. Both fabric elements are accented with deep pink pom-poms, an absolute must for any little girl’s room.

By choosing custom fabrics for these elements, I was able to add unique patterns and develop a color palette more accurate to the, neither of which would have been as easily achieved with ready-made products. Using these textiles as a reference, I then selected light and medium shades of pink for the floor-to-ceiling vertical wall stripes, inspired by the book’s iconic cover.

To balance the near-overwhelming amount of pink in the room, the furnishings are mostly white. The bookcases, with their scalloped cornice, were custom built, and the Bratt Décor bed (another score by my designer) perfectly mimics the details in the headboard of the bed found in the book.

A Restoration Hardware glass-bead chandelier and the Louis XVI-style armchair both help recreate the elegance of the Plaza Hotel. Black accents were added subtly in the form of a spray-painted ornate mirror from a secondhand store, a child-sized piano and a classic black phone, just like the one Eloise uses to place her room service orders.  My sister, again, provided the artwork – a watercolor portrait of our heroine in a precocious pose.

As with any enjoyable project, the work in this room is on-going. I have a vintage black-and-white advertisement for the Plaza Hotel that needs a frame and a home on the bookshelf ,and I’m patiently waiting to find just the right houndstooth throw blanket for the armchair.

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One of my dearest friends, Sarah Bohl, invited me to write a guest spot for her blog: Sarah Bohl Designs. She’s a design guru from southeast Missouri who’s constantly inspiring me with ideas for my own home. So you can imagine I was a bit intimidated writing about a subject she’s nearly perfected. However, there is one area of design in which I feel more confident about my skills: creating a children’s room inspired by a picture book. Imagine that?! Originally posted on her now-defunct blog, below you’ll find Part 1 in a three-part series on making your favorite children’s books come to life.

Our “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” Nursery

Hello there, fans of Sarah Bohl Designs! I’m Amanda Lepper, college friend, sorority sister, former roommate and closest of friends with your favorite designer. Also a stay-at-home mother of two, I’m blown away by Sarah’s ambition and success in developing her business and following her passion for design. (Seriously, is she on a caffeine drip, or has she invented the machine that adds an extra eight hours to the day?!)

Where Sarah eats, breathes and sleeps design, my obsessive tendencies tend more toward children’s books. Before my firstborn was even a twinkle in my eye, I had filled an entire bookcase with favorites, both from my childhood and gems I had discovered roaming bookstores over the years. You can only imagine the squealing delight with which Sarah and I talk kids’ rooms.

I’m sure Sarah is as likely to admit as I am that there’s nothing more exciting about your first pregnancy than the absolute euphoria of planning the nursery. Just as my daughters’ names were inspired by children’s literature – Kay Thompson’s irresistible “Eloise” and E.B. White’s eloquent spider from “Charlotte’s Web” – so too was our nursery.

I wanted a gender-neutral room in bold primary colors that would be visually stimulating and see us through subsequent births, be they boys or girls. Eric Carle’s “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” (my all-time childhood favorite) provided the perfect inspiration.

Carle’s one-of-a-kind illustrations contain each of the three components I consider essential to creating a successful children’s room from a picture book: endearing characters, a distinctive color palette and striking patterns. With any book, select the most distinguishing component and give it center stage in your room.

I built our room around nine large canvases, each depicting one of Carle’s menagerie of animals – from brown bear to gold fish. The paintings, done in acrylic paint by my artist sister, replicate Carle’s technique of layering custom-colored tissue papers and capture his vibrant color palette.

Canvas paintings, as opposed to wall murals, are a smart option for children’s rooms because they provide added dimension and the treasured artwork can be relocated should you ever move or repurposed in a playroom, for example. Figures also could be cut from MDF and the characters painted on the wooden silhouettes.

If one isn’t so lucky as to have an in-family artist, contact the art department of your local high school or college, describe the type of work you’d like to have done and you’ll likely be matched with a “starving artist” who’s more than happy to be paid for his or her talent. I suggest arranging to cover the cost of materials plus an hourly rate based on the artist’s estimate of the time it will take to complete the job.

My second step in constructing the “Brown Bear” nursery was selecting a custom bedding fabric that added several patterns to the room and solidified the color palette. Oftentimes, stores specializing in children’s furnishing offer custom bedding options with a price point similar to, or just slightly more than, complete sets from Pottery Barn Kids. You can also select custom fabrics and basic bedding patterns from a fabric store and either sew them yourself or solicit the services a local seamstress.

Fabrics, from curtains to bedding to upholstered furniture, are often the best place to begin to conceptualize a room, because it’s always easier to match a wall color and smaller accessories to the fabric than the other way around. With fabric in hand, I was able to perfectly match paint colors for the varied-width vertical stripes below the room’s chair rail. The treatment mimicked the pattern found in the front and end pages of the book and also unified the fabrics with the canvas paintings.

I finished the room with dark wood furniture (including a bookcase, of course), family heirlooms, a rocker in a bold orange (my favorite color) and a few Eric Carle’s branded items, including this wonderful rug available from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art online store. If your book is popular enough that branded bedding and decorative items are available, as is the case with Pottery Barn Kids’ Dr. Seuss and Curious George collections, I suggest limiting the number of pieces you incorporate. Your room will have a more classic appeal if you capture the essence of your book with color, fabric and larger-scale custom art.

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