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Archive for July, 2014

Lost Things

Speaking of “Mom Brain”…

Cell phone, keys, sunglasses, credit cards, books, chargers, jewelry, slips of paper … I am perpetually – as in EVERY DAY – losing these and other essential items. Not too long ago, I accidently left my wallet (with all my credit cards and ID) in a box I dropped off at Goodwill, never to be seen again

One of the many challenges of becoming a parent has been the added responsibility of keeping track of my children’s possessions as well as my own.

Granted, at 6 and 5, the older two should really take care of their own things, but I know that I’ll end up being the one who suffers the most when Blankie turns up missing at bedtime or when their MOST SPECIAL stuffed animal is MIA. Plus, I feel a tad responsible for handing down the tendency-to-lose-things gene, and I never quite recovered from the loss of my own baby blanket at a hotel in Minneapolis (even if it was in seventh grade).

So…if that means making trips to Hy-Vee, Target, Wal-Mart and a half dozen other places in pursuit of a stuffed moose called Tyrone, so be it. (He turned up a few weeks later inside a wicker pumpkin stored with our Halloween decorations). And it only took three months of searching every crook and cranny of our house and half the town, but I eventually tracked down Charlotte’s missing back-up blankie here:

Blankie Found

(Really? What motived her to store her blankie in a bundt pan in a rarely-opened drawer of baking supplies?)

One of the absolute best picture books about lost things is Mo Willems’ “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale,” the first in his trilogy about a girl named Trixie and her beloved stuffed rabbit.

Knuffle Bunny Cover

The book earned a 2005 Caldecott Honor, and I suspect its enduring popularity has a lot to do with the fact that the story is inspired by the true events of an outing the author took with his daughter:

“The whole Knuffle project started by accident,” Willems told Leonard Marcus, author of “Show Me a Story: Why Picture Books Matter.” “One day I was sitting in my art director’s office with her and my editor, telling a funny story while we waited for some printouts. Immediately, Alessandra Balzar, my editor, said, ‘That’s a book!’ I said, ‘No, no. It’s just a funny little story.’ But she insisted (and Alessandra is very good at insisting), so I went home and thought about it seriously. In the process of expanding and fictualizing the story, I realized she might just be right.”

 

Mo Willems' Family

(Mo Willems with his wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Trixie)

Dedicated to the “real Trixie and her mommy,” “Knuffle Bunny” is described as a “tale about what happens when Daddy [presumably Willems, himself] is in charge and things go terribly, hilariously [though not hilarious to Trixie] wrong.”

Here’s how the adventure begins:

“Not so long ago, before she could even speak words, Trixie went on an errand with her daddy…”

Trixie and Daddy Leaving

Can you see Trixie’s mommy sitting on the front stoop of their brownstone with a book in her lap, anticipating a nice hour or so to herself? Not only will she be freed of parenting duties, but her husband also will be off completing a tedious household chore. It’s every mother’s dream and almost as rare as Halley’s comet passing.

Trixie and Daddy walk down the block, through the park, past the school to the laundromat, where they load their basket of dirty laundry into the washing machine before heading back home.

Doing Laundry

But here’s where things go so terribly wrong, because “a block or so later … Trixie realized something.”

Trixie Realized Something

Astute readers are already aware that Trixie is missing her treasured friend, Knuffle Bunny. Trixie’s father, however, is clueless. Unable to make sense of her babbling, Daddy trudges toward home, toting Trixie, now in full-tantrum mode.

Tantrum

I love the accuracy with which Willems has depicted Trixie’s meltdown: she pleads helplessly, is dragged, goes “boneless,” is carried while flailing and kicking her daddy in the chest before finally succumbing to hysterics. I equally adore the oh-so-familiar progression of expressions on Trixie’s daddy’s face (shock, helplessness, frustration, embarrassment, anger) and the gawking and judgemental faces of passersby.

Can we pause here to say this is just the sort of thing that happens when a dad is on duty? Moms are like nurses in an operating room, counting each and every surgical instrument and sponge before closing up. When the girls and I prepare to leave the pool, the library, a play date, the doctor’s office, a park, the gym, I’m counting heads, shoes, lovies, towels, diving sticks, water bottles and myriad other things. (I also try to remember my own phone, sunglasses and wallet). Admittedly, items are left in our wake, but their absence is usually quickly noted and U-turns are involved.

When Trixie and her daddy arrive at their doorstep, it comes as no surprise that Trixie’s mommy is able to assess what’s amiss in no time at all.

“Where’s Knuffle Bunny?”

WheresKnuffleBunny

Trixie is rightfully indignant, and Daddy panics as he realizes the consequences of the situation. The family races back to the laundromat where, much to everyone’s relief, Daddy is able to redeem himself by rolling up his sleeves and diving head first into the washer to dig out Trixie’s well-loved rabbit. The icing on the cake? The incident prompts Trixie to speak her first words: “Knuffle Bunny!”

Trixie's First Words

As an aside, I was reading an article Willems did with the online newspaper seattlepi.com, and they raised the question about how one pronounces the word “Knuffle.” In the second book in the series, “Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity,” Trixie squabbles over the articulation of the name with a girl who owns a rabbit identical to hers: Trixie says “ka-nuffle” while her rival, Sonja, says “nuffle.” It turns out Trixie has it right. “Knuffle” is a Dutch word that means “to snuggle or hug.” Willems is the son of Dutch immigrant parents, so it would make sense that his own daughter (fictional or not) would know how to pronounce the word correctly. Unfortunately, the spelling of the word is another story:

Willems learned — too late — that he goofed by transposing the “e” and the “l” in “knuffel” all through the original book.

“After it was published my mother said, ‘Why did you misspell it?'”

His only excuse: “It didn’t come up on my spell check.” (Cecelia Goodnow, seattlepi.com)

The Knuffle Bunny series and all of Mo Willems’ books, for that matter, are lauded for the way in which they so accurately reflect the emotions, challenges and development of children. Young readers quickly identify with Trixie’s difficulties communicating, with the Pigeon’s frustrations at always being told “no” and with the stumbling blocks in Elephant and Piggie’s friendship.

What makes “Knuffle Bunny” a standout, however, is the unique illustrative methods Willems employed to bring it to print. Willems’ typical cartoon doodles are easily recognizable. In fact, his mischievous Pigeon is familiar to parents and children practically around the world. But in “Knuffle Bunny,” the expressive cartoon characters are creatively placed on photographic backgrounds, taken from Willems’ own Brooklyn neighborhood. The marriage of cartoon and photography was a happy accident, according to Willems:

“The characters weren’t popping and I couldn’t get it to work. Then one of my drawings accidentally fell on top of one of the photographs on my light box, and I suddenly had the idea to combine the two.” (“Show me a Story: Why Picture Books Matter”)

The resulting product was the first Caldecott Honor winner to contain photography in any way. I particularly like the way in which Willems allows his characters to walk in and out of the photographs.

The adventures of Trixie and Knuffle Bunny continue in “Knuffle Bunny Too” and the final installment, “Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion.” Together they chronicle Trixie’s transition from baby to youth as well as the evolution of her relationship with Knuffle Bunny. Each book is absolutely fabulous for its own unique qualities.

Maybe A Bear Ate It CoverOne last book worth mentioning — another favorite about lost things — is “Maybe a Bear Ate It,” written by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberly. It’s the story of a monster child who heads to bed with his favorite book, only to lose it in the covers as he becomes heavy-eyed. When he notices the book’s absence, he’s startled awake and begins thinking of the most irrational possibilities for where it might be (“Maybe a bear ate it!”). I love this book because it’s just the way my mind works when I’m frantically searching for a misplaced item and I’ve already checked all the rational locations — my worst assumption is always that it might have been thrown away. In the case of Charlotte’s missing blankie, I was convinced it had been tossed with the wrapping paper from her birthday presents.

Have You Seen My New Blue Socks CoverI also plan to check out “Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?,” written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. It promises a similar theme, and my interest is particularly piqued because of the involvement by Ruzzier, who has authored/illustrated such amazing books as “Bear and Bee” and “Amandina.”

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When Charlotte, now 5, was about 18 months old, I discovered “Edwin Speaks Up,” written by April Stevens and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. The book originally caught my interest because the title character, almost-1-year-old Edwin, is quite the babbler, yet no one in his family can figure out the important things he’s trying to tell them.

Edwin Speaks Up Cover

At the time, Charlotte was similarly indecipherable. She’d say something three or four times and, eventually, I’d just have to smile and say, “Ok.” She had so much to say and she was so certain of herself; sometimes it just broke my heart not knowing what big ideas she wanted to share.

And while Stevens’ clever book certainly sympathizes with the unheard and overlooked younger child, over the years I’ve come to appreciate “Edwin Speaks Up” for its other wonderful themes, as well, particularly its hilariously accurate portrayal of the dreaded phenomenon we call “Mom Brain.”

The affected mother, in this case, is Mrs. Finnemore, a lovely ferret with five little ferrets to mind. The youngest Finnemore, Edwin, is about to celebrate his first birthday, and the story chronicles their trip to the grocery store to pick up sugar for Edwin’s birthday cake.

Finnemore Family

Can a children’s book actually be written about a trip to the grocery store, you ask? Of course! I’ll wager a bet that most moms have at least one whopper of a story from the grocery store aisles. I’ve made trips to Hy-Vee that have garnered a handful of good anecdotes in one go – fussy babies, misbehaving toddlers, blown out diapers, time outs, gawking strangers.

Mrs. Finnemore’s first challenge, as it is for many of us, is simply getting out the door. She can’t quite recall where she left her keys, and in the opening spread, we see her dashing about the house, in search mode, as a brood of exasperated ferret children wait reluctantly and little Edwin babbles unintelligibly on the floor.

Or maybe his babbles are more intelligent than we thought…

Searching for Keys

“Gloo poop SHOE noogie froo KEY,” Edwin asserts, to an oblivious audience.

Sure enough, Mrs. Finnermore eventually locates the missing keys inside her son’s shoe on the hall table.

Challenge #2 is loading her five children into the car. In the midst of refereeing arguments over who gets which seat and buckling Edwin into his carseat, Mrs. Finnemore ends up leaving her pocketbook on the roof of the station wagon, a fact only Edwin seems to note: “Figbutton noO noO pocKY BoOKY froppin RoOf.”

Purse on Car Roof

I’d be curious to see the results of a survey polling mothers on whether they’ve ever left their purse or wallet on the roof of the car and driven off. My suspicion would be that most have, because it’s an unfortunate feat of absent-mindedness that both the author, April Stevens, and I have in common with Mrs. Finnemore.

In Stevens’ case, she admits in the book’s dust jacket that her wallet once miraculously survived a 15-mile drive home from the supermarket. I was not as lucky – mine toppled off my car as I drove home from book club one blustery night. I discovered it missing well after midnight and had to trace my path back through the city’s snow covered streets until I found it.

Mrs. Finnemore is relieved to discover hers still in place when she arrives at Fineson’s Fine Grocery, because is there really anything worse that loading up all of the kids only to discover you left your money at home?

Well…I suppose I can think of one worse scenario: loading up all of the kids, somehow managing to complete your entire shopping trip before discovering AT THE CHECK OUT LANE!!! that you don’t have your wallet – been there, done that.

When the Finnemores finally make their way into the grocery store, more chaos ensues. The oldest four children upend a display of canned peas, then engage in a wrestling match in the produce aisle. Meanwhile, Mrs. Finnemore confuses someone else’s cart for her own, and takes off to get the all-important sugar, unaware that she’s forgotten her birthday boy.

Shopping Chaos

“Did someone take my cart?” Mrs. Finnemore could hear Mrs. Lutzheimer call from aisle number one.

“However could someone lose their cart?” Mrs. Finnemore clucked and shook her head as she turned into aisle three.

Mrs. Finnemore’s obliviousness makes her carelessness all the more comical. And don’t we all pass those small judgements? “Oh, I would never do something so ridiculous!” And then we do. But how can we blame Mrs. Finnemore or ourselves, for that matter? How can one possibly expect the brain to function properly under such trying conditions? Just once I’d like to finish a sentence, finish a meal, finish a phone call, finish an email, finish a thought without being interrupted by somebody crying, somebody fighting, somebody asking for more milk.

Mrs. Finnemore’s blunder is eventually discovered and Edwin is reunited with his family but the sugar is lost in the process of sorting out the carts. Once more, only Edwin seems to have a clue.

“Rootin popel CART no no SWEETY,” he tells them.

Edwin tries again: “Gimpin chalk lil wiz um SWEETIN do a bye bye.”

His siblings are too distracted arguing over ice cream flavors and his mother, well…. she might just be in a Xanax haze because how else would a woman survive a trip to the grocery store with five kids without ever losing her cool? My face NEVER looks that blissful when I’m shopping with my kids!

Edwin, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly distressed, as his mother heads to the check out lane, unaware of the missing ingredient:

“Plopin grouff shooop CAKE sweet NO NO.”

“SWEETUM NO NO!”

“Oh, Edwin honey, is your diaper wet?” Mrs. Finnemore sighed.

Unheard and unobserved, Edwin decides to take matters into his own hands. He climbs out of the cart, crawls to the baking aisle, grabs the sugar, pushes it to the check out lane and plops it on the belt.

Edwin Gets Sugar

As the Finnemore’s head home to prepare for Edwin’s birthday (this time with the sugar on the roof of the car), Mrs. Finnemore remarks:

“Tomorrow is Baby Edwin’s birthday—he’s growing up so fast. Soon he’ll be talking. Can you even imagine that?”

Mrs. Finnemore’s statement reflects the ways in which many of us continue to view our youngest children as babies, long past the point at which they’ve transitioned to toddlers or older.

If Stevens’ story wasn’t amusing enough, Sophie Blackall’s illustrations are the cherry on the top. She’s taken some artistic liberties, giving the book an irresistible fifties feel, with that classic pastel color palette and everyone dressed in the fashions of the era, geometric fabrics and belted waistlines included.

Blackall’s illustrations are incredibly charming, but they also add a rich layer of detail to the story, particularly elaborating on the mischievousness of the Finnemore children: the looks of disdain when they’re informed of their impending trip to the store, Finney sticking his tongue out at his sister, Fergus giving Fiona the death stare during their ice-cream-flavor debate, and three of the four oldest children ransacking the dreaded candy displays that are so “conveniently” located in such close proximity to the check-out lanes.

Mischief

In fact, Blackall’s pictorial storytelling is so wonderfully endearing that I often think of her name before the names of those who have authored the books she’s worked on. Some of my very favorites are “Big Red Lollipop” and “Ruby’s Wish,” and when my daughters finally corner me with that dreaded question (“Where do babies come from?”), I’ll be sure to get my hands on “The Baby Tree,” just released and also authored by Blackall.

Sophie Blackall Covers

Sophie Blackall PrintIn the meantime, I’m enjoying this gorgeous signed print from Blackall, which I ordered from her fabulous Etsy shop to celebrate my husband’s and my 9-year wedding anniversary. The image is part of a collection of illustrations Blackall created that were inspired by amusing Craiglist “missed connections” personal ads. And if I didn’t already love Sophie Blackall enough, she packaged my print with these adorable extras!

BlackallExtras

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