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Archive for October, 2014

I just got back from a family trip to Denver, and by “just” I mean a little over a week ago, but it takes a mom at least that long to catch her breath after surviving the packing, the airport, the late bedtimes and days without naps.

We spent four days in the Mile High City with my younger sister, Allison, who has lived in Denver for five years and is an expert on just about everything the city has to offer. We ate some phenomenal meals at several of the Denver’s most lauded restaurants, saw an stunning exhibit of Chihuly glass at the Denver Botanic Gardens and successfully completed a mountain hike with the kids in tow.

DenverPics

While seeing the sites and enjoying delicious food are always important priorities when we travel, discovering a city’s indie literary scene is typically my personal prerogative.

On past trips to Denver, I was introduced to Tattered Cover, one of the largest independent bookstores in the United States. It has three locations, including one in the hip LoDo (lower downtown) district. This particular store is housed in the historic C.S. Morey Merchantile Building, which dates back to 1896 and was once deemed “the most elegant business house in the West.” Its soaring ceilings, wide staircases, century-old brick and gorgeous wood support beams make the modern-day store the epitome of warehouse chic. Two stories are a filled with endless wood shelves chock-full of the best books in print today, with recommended titles elegantly displayed and accompanied by staff synopses. I could easily spend days on end perusing the offerings and reading in this book lover’s utopia.

Tattered Cover

When it comes to children’s books, though, Denver boasts another literary gem. Hidden in a strip mall on the city’s southeast side, The Bookies is inarguably one of the very best children’s book stores in the country.

Bookies Images

Earlier this fall, I was researching stores for the trip we’re planning to New York sometime in the next year. In the process, I discovered this list from BuzzFeed Community, which compiles the “14 Absolute Best U.S. Kids’ Bookstores,” as voted on by teachers in an online poll. Listed at #10 was The Bookies.

As a one-time journalist (trained at the world’s best J-school – MIZZOU-RAH!), I have my doubts about the authoritativeness of any list generated on BuzzFeed (I’ve seen plenty that are full-blown ridiculousness). But the list DID include the Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis and Reading Reptile in Kansas City, two bookstores I know for a fact are among the best in the business.

With that in mind, we found our way to The Bookies with just enough time to pop in for a look before dinner on our second day in Denver. One step in the door, and I was like a kid on Christmas morning. Never before have I seen such an expansive and comprehensive collection of board books, pictures books, chapter books, teaching supplies and wonderful toys. Twenty minutes, let alone 20 hours, would never be enough to do this store justice.

That afternoon, with the clock ticking on our dinner reservation, we came away with a hastily selected chapter book for each of the big girls, one truly wonderful board book for Flora and a determination to return. Which we did. The next day. And the next day. And if floo powder really existed, I’d be there right now.

Here’s what makes The Bookies exceptional. Not only do they have one of the most thorough collections of children’s literature in the United States, they also have some of the most helpful, friendly and knowledgeable employees you could ask for. Give me a picture book section that isn’t dictated by Disney princesses and I can easily find books that both meet my high standards and entertain my girls. But discovering new chapter books for Eloise and delving into Charlotte’s preferred genre of graphic novels makes me feel like a fish out of water. That’s where my new best friend Ryan steps in (although I don’t know if Ryan knows he’s my new best friend).

Ryan is an ever-smiling, 28-year-old youth literature expert who can just as easily talk to children as he can their book-obsessed parents. He told me he had worked at The Bookies for a year, and it’s apparent that he’s one of the lucky few whose job mirrors his most passionate interest.

Ryan just so happened to be the store’s go-to employee for graphic novels, so I commandeered his help, leaving other customers in my wake. I told him I have absolutely no familiarity with graphic novels, that Charlotte is drawn to them and I needed help finding selections that weren’t too dark. Ryan was off and running, and, man, did he hit it out of the park on his first at bat. I set Charlotte up in a corner of the store with more than a half-dozen of his recommendations, including:

Graphic Novel Recommendations

“Cleopatra in Space, Book One: Target Practice,” by Mike Maihack

“Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!” by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

“Sidekicks,” by Dan Santat

“Explorer: The Lost Island,” a collaborative volume directed by Kazu Kibuishi and created with the help of several other comics greats

“Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitude,” by Jarrett Krosoczka

“Squish: Super Amoeba,” by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

“Binky to the Rescue” by Ashley Spires

“Zita the Spacegirl,” by Ben Hatke

Meanwhile, Ryan and I continued on our stroll around the store, this time in search of chapter books with these criteria: must be outstanding, preferably not part of a series and appropriate content for a 6 year old who’s capable of reading nearly anything in the store. Here were some of Ryan’s suggestions:

ChapterBooks

“An Elephant in the Garden,” by Michael Morpurgo

“A Tangle of Knots,” by Lisa Graff

“Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes,” by Jonathan Auxier

“Wonder,” by R. J. Palacio

“Princess Academy,” by Shannon Hale

“The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate,” by Jacqueline Kelly

“The Lemonade War,” by Jacqueline Davies

“The Land of Stores: The Wishing Spell,” by Chris Colfer

And anything by Gordon Korman, including “Swindle” and “The Hypnotists.”

And that’s how we spent two hours on our second trip to The Bookies.

But here’s the problem… I hadn’t even hit the picture book section yet. So my dear, indulgent sister returned with me for a third time the next day while the girls fit in a quick nap before we had to head the airport. I power shopped like it was Black Friday, and 45 minutes later I had a sack full of new picture books and board books about which I couldn’t be more excited.

So, the girls might not have ended up with any souvenir sweatshirts, but they’ll be enjoying our loot for the next year, at least. And the best part was, nearly all of our selections were available in paperback, and The Bookies offers a 15% discount when you pay in cash, so the pocketbook didn’t suffer TOO badly. We did push the limits on the airline’s bag weight limits on the way home, though. I felt like a narcotics smuggler as I was stuffing the girls’ rolling carry-on bags with all of our books.

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I’ll use almost any excuse to give my girls books: the first day of school, the last day of school, lost teeth, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Easter, the first of December, Christmas, and, of course, our upcoming holiday – Halloween.

I’ll admit, I do this in large part to satisfy my own obsession with children’s books, but, honestly, what better gift can you give your child than a book? They certainly don’t need any more candy than what they’ll collect trick-or-treating!

Oftentimes, I skip the holiday-themed books in an effort to stock the shelves with books that hold their interest year round. However, over the years, we’ve collected a fair number of fantastic books that celebrate the traditions of this spooky holiday. Here are my favorites:

PICTURE BOOKS

Harriet's Halloween Cover

“Harriet’s Halloween Candy,” written and illustrated by Nancy Carlson. (My all-time Halloween favorite)

Carlson is an author/illustrator from Minneapolis who published a series of “Harriet” books in the mid-80s, including this one from 1982, that readers of my generation may remember. In this story, Harriet returns home from trick-or-treating with an enormous haul of candy. She carefully organizes her stash: “First by color. Then by size. And finally by favorites.”

Looking on is Harriet’s little brother, Walt, who was too little to trick-or-treat. Harriet’s mother instructs Harriet to share with her little brother, and she begrudgingly hands over a teensy-weensy piece of coconut candy (“Harriet didn’t like coconut anyway”). She then hoards the rest of her candy until the next day, when she decides the only way to keep it safe for her own consumption is to eat it all, then and there. Unsurprisingly, she ends up green in the face and sick in the stomach and decides maybe it’s time to share.”

The book is often lauded for its lessons on sharing, but what I love most about the story is the perfection with which Carlson illustrates a child’s obsession with Halloween candy. I assessed, hoarded and overate my Halloween candy every year, just like Harriet. And just like Harriet, I ended up with more stomachaches than I liked.

Room on the Broom Cover

“Room on the Broom,” written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Sheffler.

This book is on display everywhere for Halloween, so if you don’t have a copy already, you must pick one up! It’s a wonderful introduction to the awesome author-illustrator team of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (both of the U.K.). Donaldson rivals Suess for her talent with rhyming verse (I’d argue, she comes out on top; I know, blasphemy!), and Scheffler’s illustrations are playful, colorful and simply one-of-a-kind.

If you like what you see, be sure to check out all the rest of their collaborations here; we particularly love “The Gruffalo,” “The Scarecrow’s Wedding,” “Zog,” “Stick Man,” “Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book,” “The Snail and the Whale,” “The Smartest Giant in Town” and “A Squash and a Squeeze.”

In addition to the incredibly imaginative rhyming verse and the fabulous illustrations, “Room on the Broom” is wonderful because the story can be read year-round. Sure, the main the character is a witch, but Halloween isn’t the setting.

This friendly witch is simply taking a ride through the skies with her cat when a strong gust of wind blows off her hat. They go in search of the lost hat and are assisted by a polite dog who recovers the missing item. In return, the dog wonders if there’s “room on the broom” for a dog like him. The dog is welcomed into the fold, and the trio sets off together on the broom. However, the wind hasn’t let up and the witch subsequently loses her bow and wand. A parrot and frog come to her rescue in those instances, and each is welcomed aboard.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the broom cannot carry the load of them, and it snaps in two. The poor witch falls into the clutches of a hungry dragon in the mood for “witch with french fries.” But once more, the witch’s comrades come to her rescue, utilizing tactics much like those of the Town Musicians of Bremen. To thank her dear friends, the witch concocts a magical stew from which rises a brand-new broom “with seats for the witch and the cat and the dog, A nest for the bird and a pool for the frog.”

This is a fabulous book about new friendships and comraderie, plus every child likes a story about a magic witch’s stew!

Little Old Lady Cover

“The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything,” written by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd.

This is another classic from the ‘80s, but the story and illustrations have a timeless appeal, which is why it remains in print and widely available today. The book is based on an older folktale about a spooky body that appears bit by bit, and it’s perfect for children who are begging for a “ghost story” but may not yet be ready for the real deal.

In Williams’ rendition, a “little old lady who was not afraid of anything” sets out for a walk in the woods. After the sun goes down and the forest darkens, she encounters a pair of shoes, walking on their own accord and making an ominous “clomp, clomp” sound. She sternly tells the shoes: “Get out of my way, you two big shoes! I’m not afraid of you!” The little old lady bravely continues on her trek home but soon encounters: a pair of pants, a shirt, two white gloves, a tall black hat and, finally, a “very huge, very orange, very scary pumpkin head” that says “boo, boo.”

Now it seems the “little old lady who was not afraid of anything” might just be a little frightened. She runs home as fast as she can and locks the door. When she hears a knock at the door, she summons up her courage and confronts the creepy collection of body parts. She tells them that, despite their best efforts, she’s not afraid of them and encourages them to try scaring the crows in her garden instead.

Ghosts in the House Cover

“Ghosts in the House,” written and illustrated by Kazuno Kohara.

This book was named one of the best illustrated children’s books of 2008 by The New York Times, and for good reason. Kohara’s linotype prints are stunning – the bold black illustrations stand out against vibrant orange paper, with white, semi-transparent ghosts as the only other contrast. I’m tempted to order a second copy of this book just so that I can frame pages from my original copy as Halloween decorations.

While the illustrations are irresistible, the story is equally endearing. A little girl and her cat move into a house on the edge of town only to discover it’s haunted. But Kohara lets us in on a little secret: “the girl wasn’t just a girl. She was a witch!” And that witch knows how to catch ghosts. She pulls her witch’s hat out of her suitcase, and she and her cat round up the mostly-friendly ghosts. Once caught, they send them through the washer, hang them up to dry and inventively turn them into curtains, tablecloths and blankets, making the house into the perfect home for a witch and her cat.

BOARD BOOKS

Five Little Pumpkins Cover

“Five Little Pumpkins,” illustrated by Dan Yaccarino.

Yaccarino is the illustrator behind the popular Nickleodeon shows “Oswald” and “The Backyardigans,” as well as several successful children’s books, including “Every Friday” and “Boy and Bot.” In this board book, he’s offered a playful visual reference for the quintessential Halloween rhyme, a rhyme I remember learning as a preschooler and one that my daughters performed at every one of their Halloween parties:

“Five little pumpkins, sitting on a gate.

The first one said, ‘Oh my, it’s getting late.’

The second one said, ‘There are witches in the air.’

The third one said, ‘But we don’t care.’

The fourth one said, ‘Let’s run and run and run.’

The fifth one said, ‘I’m ready for some fun.’

Ooooooooooo went the wind and out went the light.

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.”

The book serves as a great prompt for older children who enjoy performing the rhyme, and its short verses and bright illustrations make it captivating for babies and toddlers.

Halloween Faces Cover

“Halloween Faces,” by Nancy Davis.

Davis combines graphic, color-blocked illustrations with the inventive use of die-cut pages, to create a book in which you are able to try various Halloween masks on a boy and girl as you turn the pages. Similarly, the second portion of the book includes die-cut pages that reveal silly, happy, scary and spooky pumpkin faces. The final spread is a fold out that reveals a Halloween party scene, attended by adorably dressed trick-or-treaters.

Who Said Boo Cover

“Who Said Book?,” written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Ana Martin Larranaga.

A lift-the-flap book in which a vampire demands to know “who said boo.” Each spread includes a page with a door flap, behind which hide various Halloween characters, none of whom claim to have said “boo.” The tiniest door reveals a mouse, who admits to being the culprit, and the supposedly scary ghost, witches, ghoul, vampire and skeleton yell “EEEEEEEEEEK!” in fearful response.

This book earns merit for the universal appeal of its lift-the-flap format, its creative and unexpected rhymes and the cuteness of its illustrations.

Witch's Night Out Cover “Witch’s Night Out,” written by Janet Sacks and illustrated by Luana Rinaldo.

This super cool pull-tab book is part of a series of “mini magic color books.” Images revealed through die-cut openings initially appear in black and white. When the tab is pulled, however, the image is revealed in full color. The text makes use of the cute trick and asks readers to guess the color of various characters’ accouterments. For example, we are introduced to Wendy Witch who lives in the land of friendly witches. What color is she wearing? When her image escapes the right margin of the page, we find her wearing a green dress, candy striped tights and purple hat and boots. Similarly, the reader is invited to guess the color of her cat, her friend William Wizard’s cloak and hat, and the color of the moon. Kids are bound to love this one because they’ve never seen pull-tabs works quite this way before.

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My dog has been immortalized in children’s literature!

If you’ve visited the newly remodeled and reopened Ames Public Library, you may have sat in on reading of “Dog Tales Too: Old and New,” the sequel to the book that introduced us to the library’s beloved mascot, a big blue dog named Smyles.

Dog Tales Too Cover

Roger KluesnerThe book was co-authored by my good friend and former neighbor, Roger Kluesner, who also happens to be a board member for the library’s Friends Foundation and was highly involved in the library’s remodel. Local children’s book author Sarvinder Naberhaus helped shape his vision into wonderfully rhymed verses.

Roger was inspired to write the book after observing Iowa State University’s sheep dog, Chester, patrol our neighborhood long after a large portion of his pastureland was converted into a residential development. Despite the fact that his flock was contained to the west and the south of our houses, the big, shaggy, black dog still felt the need to keep watch over the entirety of his former territory.

Chester

Roger imagined the fictional Smyles might also have struggled with the upheaval in his living circumstances, after spending two years in the library’s temporary home on Lincoln Way before returning to the newly remodeled facility on Douglas Avenue. In addition, Roger was quite familiar with the many real-life concerns of those who were uncertain about all of the drastic changes being made to original library, parts of which date back to 1904.

Smyles

In “Old and New,” Smyles and Chester the Sheep Dog makes each other’s acquaintance while Smyles is touring the town with the bookmobile and his librarian friend, Miss June. Smyles lends a sympathetic ear when Chester expresses his unease with the changes being made to his farmland home. Smyles invites Chester to join him as the bookmobile completes its route, and, along the way, Smyles shows Chester many of Ames’ landmarks that also have been modified in some way over the years.

Ames Landmarks

When the duo makes a stop at Ada Hayden, they run into the one and only Honey B. Good, ever eager for a game of fetch with her tennis ball. For those who know our fabulous dog, you’ll immediately recognize her beautiful golden eyes, red coloring, friendly demeanor and pretty feminine face (yes, I’m biased).

Honey's Appearance

I am so grateful to Roger and illustrator Gordon S. Roy for honoring Honey by including her in this book. Roger is well aware of my children’s book obsession, and it was so kind of him to give me a personal connection to a book that’s sure to be cherished by the children of Ames. In addition, Honey was Austin’s and my first “baby” and the first dog that I’ve trained competitively in obedience – both of these roles earn her a permanently precious place in our hearts, something our friends who also train dogs will understand well.

Honey B. Good

As the book reaches its conclusion, Smyles and Chester join the residents of Ames as they celebrate the library’s grand reopening. When the ribbon is cut, Smyles bounds through the door, eager to be back home.

Library r

As he explores the remodeled library, Smyles is both comforted by what is familiar and thrilled by all that is new, including a vibrant green storytime room and a children’s reading area dubbed “Smyles’ Corner.” As Chester the Sheep Dog puts it: “Your home’s Old and New. It’s changed just like mine has; now I’m not so blue. I can’t herd my sheep far beyond pasture’s end, but I can still guard them and I’ve made a new friend.”

New Library FeaturesIt was Roger’s hope that all those who love the library would embrace the “renewed” building in a similar fashion. Hints of the library’s 104-year history are still apparent, but what’s not to love about more than doubling the facility’s square footage? Or the soaring ceilings and bright and airy spaces? And certainly all of the library’s patrons are happy to see the library (and Smyles) back in its rightful home.

Dog Tales Conclusion

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