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Archive for May, 2017

Happy Mother’s Day!

Mothers—sometimes we’re lauded and sometimes we’re hated, but someone is always yelling for us. With that theme in mind, here are three of my favorite books to read on Mother’s Day:

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“My Mother is So Smart,” by Tomie dePaola.

I’ve always loved those Mother’s Day questionnaires teachers have our kids fill out each May. It’s fun seeing what pops into my girls’ mind when they’re put on the spot and asked to finish a sentence like: “My mom always says…”

While there’s a laugh in a child’s inability to accurately assess her parent’s age or what her mother might do with an hour’s free time, there’s invaluable wisdom in the answers she gives when asked to articulate when she has the most fun with her mom.

As a mother, I want nothing more than to have my children know they’re loved infinitely and unconditionally, and I can only hope that they appreciate the unique qualities I offer as their mother.

The legendary author Tomie dePaola leaves no doubt as to how he feels about his mother, Florence, or Flossie, as she was better known. Like much of his other work, “My Mother is So Smart” is autobiographical, and it is everything a mother could ever ask for in a tribute from her child.

DePaola writes: “I knew form the time I was really little that my mother was smart.”

He praises her cookies, popsicles and warm breakfasts. He recalls the winter she taught him to walk and the Halloween she made him a bird costume. He speaks with pride of the time she taught the whole neighborhood to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and the Fourth of July when she showed all the kids how to make their initials with sparklers. He notes that she could drive his grandfather’s delivery truck and dance the polka. And he shares with awe her ability to “change into a movie star when she and my father go out at night.” For the grand finale, dePaola reveals his mother could even stand on her head.

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DePaola’s reverence for his mother is moving, and the specificity of the attributes he praises in her make the book all the more intimate. DePaola published “My Mother is So Smart” in 2010 at the age of 76, 10 years after his mother’s passing. At the ages of 9, 7, 3 and 16 months, I wonder what my children think makes me special. And what memories of me will they honor when they’re in their seventh decade?

I’ll be 35 this summer and my mom is a youthful 62. Over the course of our three and a half decades together, I’ve been lucky enough to amass more memories with my her than I could ever possibly record, but I’ll cherry pick a few in honor of her this Mother’s Day:

  • She decorated my childhood bedroom with heart wallpaper and bedding; so many hearts, she told me, so I would always know how much she loved me.
  • For years, she tucked notes into my packed school lunches
  • She once mailed me a tin of chocolate covered raisins at sleep-away Girl Scout camp because she knew I’d be homesick
  • She has the best handwriting of anyone I know
  • She’s a determined gin player and if you’re betting money, you better bet on losing it
  • I probably complained about what was for dinner more nights than not when I was a kid, but these days, there’s nothing that beats having her show up at my house with fully cooked dinner.
  • Best of all, she has boundless love for her daughters, and there’s not a day we don’t know it.

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“Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth,” written by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise.

I’m only nine years into this gig, but I’ve already received my fair share of vitriol from aggrieved children. One of the best insults I’ve ever received as a mother was the time Charlotte called me a “trash mommy.” I can’t, for the life of me, recall what I possibly did to upset her, but she searched her little preschool vocabulary for the worst word she could come up with and she landed on “trash.” It seems, at least at that point, I was doing a pretty good job watching my language around the kids.

In “Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth,” Mother Rabbit earns her son’s ire when she insists that he clean up his playroom before he can visit the circus that’s just arrived in town.

I can very specifically remember the hopelessness of attempting to put order to a destroyed playroom—my mom would send me and my sisters into our basement to clean up our mess of Barbies—it felt like descending into a pit of despair from which we’d never emerge.

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Little Rabbit’s playroom looks about the same—detritus evenly spaced across the entire floor. Try as he might, his efforts at tidying only seem to make the room messier. When Mother Rabbit concludes that he won’t see the circus that day, boy is Little Rabbit angry:

“’I never get to do anything fun!’ Little Rabbit yelled. ‘It’s not fair! You’re so mean! I’m…It’s…You’re…’ But he was too angry to continue.”

Left pouting in his room, Little Rabbit decides to take drastic measures. He climbs out his playroom window and runs away to join the circus. But before he’ll take Little Rabbit on, the ringmaster wants to know what sort of act he can bring to the table.

“’Well,’ said Little Rabbit, ‘I have the Meanest Mother on Earth.’”

The ringmaster tells him if he can sell 100 tickets to see this horrific mother, Little Rabbit will be included in the evening’s show. With promises of a punishment-plotting, two-headed, green-toothed, tail-eating monster, Little Rabbit draws a big crowd. But when the spotlight shines on Mother Rabbit, the crowd feels short-changed and their anger mounts.

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Mother Rabbit saves the day when she promises them an even more terrifying act: The Messiest Room on Earth. The crowd follows them home, where it is properly stunned by Little Rabbit’s rank room. Before leaving, the visitors are invited to take a souvenir or two from the mess, and when the last leave, Little Rabbit finally has his clean room and a greater understanding of just how lucky he his to have a mom like his.
sistersketch“Little Rabbit and the Messiest Room on Earth” was written and illustrated by the sister team of Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise who say they “spent many hours as children avoiding the loathsome task of cleaning their room” but make note in their bio that their mother, Marjorie Klise, is actually “the nicest (and smartest) mother on Earth.”

 

Their story walks the humorous balance of sympathizing with a child’s frustrations but also smirking at that child’s tendency to cast his mother as “the meanest” over the smallest disputes. I believe I was most recently compared to an “evil stepmom” when I asked my second born to put her shoes away.

 

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Where’s Mommy?” written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by Barbara McClintock.

We received this book as a gift from a friend with excellent taste in children’s books (is their anything better you can ask for in a friend?), and it has remained one of my all-time favorites ever since.

“Where’s Mommy?” introduces us to Mary and Mouse Mouse, a little girl and the juvenile mouse that lives below her family’s floorboards. The two are fast friends, but they can’t tell a soul, because:

“If Maria’s parents knew there were mice in the house, they’d get a cat. And if Mouse Mouse’s parents knew their daughter was friends with a human, they’d flee to a hole in the ground.”

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Illustrator Barbara McClintock depicts their parallel worlds in fascinating detail—Mary’s family’s cozy mid-century modern, with quirky art, stuffed bookshelves, and scattered children’s toys; and Mouse-Mouse’s subterranean residence, cobbled together from cast-offs from the human world above, bringing to mind the beloved Borrowers: a flashlight for a floor lamp, a watch as a wall clock, and gummy bears standing in as playthings. This plethora of details is what I love most of about McClintock’s work and often leaves me wondering how much time must go into a fully-illustrated spread. The images are certain to captivate the child reader and they always leave something new to discover on subsequent readings.

Beverly Donofrio’s story follows Maria and Mouse Mouse one evening as each gets ready for bed, but can’t find their mothers when it’s time to say goodnight.

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When neither gets an answer and their mothers fail to appear, the girls’ shouts intensify, and, before long, the halls are echoing with their voices. It’s funny, when our children are babies, we can’t wait to hear them say “mama” for the first time; but once they master it, they certainly learn how to abuse it.

They search the house, top to bottom; their fathers are of no help, and neither are their siblings. Just when they’re certain their mothers have disappeared, Maria and Mouse Mouse discover them in the backyard shed having a lovely chat together! It turns out that Maria and Mouse Mouse aren’t the only ones with a secret friendship.

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I was recently in New York to see my youngest sister Lindsay’s Master of Fine Arts thesis show. New York and I haven’t always gotten along—I once had a panic attack shopping on Fifth Avenue in December. So this time around, I was determined to find my happy place in the city with which I just haven’t yet made friends.

I can, of course, appreciate the city’s museums, innumerable restaurants, Broadway Shows and Central Park, but the book scene is where it’s at for me. When I’m in Minneapolis, I can’t leave town without visiting Wild Rumpus or Red Balloon Bookshop; when I’m in Denver, my first stop is The Bookies, and I’m excitedly planning my first trips to the Book Bar and Second Star to the Right, both in the Mile High city, later this summer.

So I set out in search of New York’s finest children’s bookstores, a la Meg Ryan’s The Shop Around the Corner —a place with plenty of shelf space to display recommended titles and a knowledgeable staff, eager to talk shop.

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And, boy, did I find it in Books of Wonder! I walked into the store late on a Friday afternoon—the weather outside was dreary, gray and cold—and was greeted by a warm, glowing space, filled with golden, oak shelves chock full of thoughtfully and tidily arranged books. Is there anything more beautiful?

Not until later did I learn that this very bookstore was, indeed, the inspiration for the corner bookstore in “You’ve Got Mail.” The director, Nora Ephron, was a longtime Books of Wonder customer, and she sent her set designers to study every detail of the store in order to recreate it as closely as possible on a sound stage. Meg Ryan even spent a day working at Books of Wonder to prepare for her role, and staff members helped arrange books on the film set.

I spent nearly 2 ½ hours in this cozy utopia of children’s books, perusing virtually every title on the shelves from board books to young adults. The store was blissfully free of the junk that clogs the shelves at big box stores back in Iowa—no Disney characters or books based on TV shows and movies, no stuffed animals or toys or games that I recall. Just the best in children’s literature, including everything from the great authors of the past to today’s big hitters and everyone in between. It’s the perfect place to take a child and turn her loose—there isn’t a title she could pick that wouldn’t be up to snuff.

Not only did they have “all the books,” they had stacks of books signed by my favorite authors and illustrators at no mark-up. (Signed additions can also be purchased or pre-ordered on their website here; currently available are “Dragons Love Tacos 2: The Sequel” by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” by Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney). Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that seemingly half of today’s successful authors and illustrators only live a subway ride away in Brooklyn, no joke: Peter Brown, Sophie Blackall and Sergio Ruzzier, to name a few. They might as well form an artists’ commune.

I came away with a signed copy of “The Castle in the Mist” by Amy Ephron for my 9 year old, Eloise, who loves magical fantasy. It’s been described as a combination of “The Secret Garden” and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” both revered classics.

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For my almost-8 year old Charlotte, I selected a signed copy of “The Princess Test” by Gail Carson Levine, who also wrote “Ella Enchanted.” The book is a reimagining of “The Princess and the Pea” (my favorite fairy tale) with a very particular (read: spoiled) blacksmith’s daughter standing in as the heroine. For those who know my Charlotte, I think you’d agree she might have a bit in common with this aspiring princess.

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HornBookWhile these signed editions impressed the big girls, I was most excited about my find for 3-year-old Flora. I’ve subscribed to the Horn Book Magazine for years, and this publication is pretty much the authority on anything and everything happening in the children’s book world. So it’s rare a new release escapes my eye and surprises me when it shows up on a bookshelf unanticipated.

However, that’s just what happened with “Tales for the Perfect Child,” a book originally published by author Florence Parry Heide in 1985 but re-released with updated illustrations by Sergio Ruzzier in March of this year.

Heide, who died in 2011, was best known for storytelling that encouraged the mischief in children and reflected their vexation with the adults in their lives. “Tales for the Perfect Child” was certainly written in that vein. It contains eight short stories about children who subtly outwit their parents’ best efforts to make demands of them.

There’s Arthur, who doesn’t want to put on dress clothes to go see Aunt Eunice with his mother; he’d rather stay home in his old clothes and watch his favorite television program. But Arthur doesn’t argue with his mother. Instead, he gets dressed up, heads to the fridge to pour himself a big glass of grape juice and, whoops, most of it gets all over his nice dress clothes. Seeing as he’s no longer presentable, Arthur’s mother leaves her messy child at home, and Arthur gets to watch his favorite program, just like he wanted.

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Harry is a child after my own heart. Harry can’t have ice cream until he finishes his carrots, so he waits until his mother leaves the room and puts all of the carrots in “a small plastic bag he kept in his pocket for special times.” When his mother returns, he is commended and gets his ice cream. As a child, I didn’t have any secret bags in my pockets, but I did make mid-dinner trips to the bathroom with my cheeks stuffed with peas like a hamster and into the toilet they went. To quote Heide: “There’s always a way to get out of eating something yucky.”

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And I’d be remised if I didn’t mention Harriet, whose special brand of skills will unfortunately be all too familiar to the adult reader (it’s certainly the environment in which I prepare dinner every night):

“Harriet was a very good whiner. She practiced and practiced, and so of course she got better and better at it. Practice makes perfect.”

Harriet wants a piece of pie before dinner, but her mother tells her guests are coming and the pie will be served after the roast beef. Harriet continues to whine and her mother continues to tell her “no” while attempting to finish cooking dinner. But because “a good whiner sticks to one subject” and “a good whiner never gives up” and “good whiners make it very hard for anyone to think of anything else,” Harriet’s mother burns the gravy and hands over the slice of pie to shut Harriet up.

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I think there’s something therapeutic for kids in reading stories about children who get the upper hand. The greatest battles between parents and children in our family are in determining who gets to decide what the child wears, what they eat, when they have to help and when they get to play. Our children can live vicariously through Heide’s characters, who all seem to have control over getting and doing what they want.

Heide’s wit and insight on the child’s mind are genius, but Sergio Ruzzier’s illustrations are just as brilliant.

As I mentioned earlier, Ruzzier lives in Brooklyn, but he’s Italian by birth. When he first moved to New York in 1995 to gain a foothold in the picture book world, he was disregarded and told his work was too “European.” It’s undeniable that Ruzzier’s work is unique—pen and ink with soft, chalky watercolors; quirky little animal characters, many with distinctive elongated noses.

 

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From “Two Mice” by Sergio Ruzzier

Ruzzier’s work is unmistakable and ALWAYS fabulous, which is how I knew I had my hands on something special when I pulled “Tales for the Perfect Child” off the shelf at Books of Wonder and caught sight of his cover illustration.

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For Heide’s book, Ruzzier has limited himself to pen and ink with light and dark shades of turquoise. He’s drawn Heide’s mischievous children as mice, rabbits, ducks, pigs, puppies, cats and even bugs; and while Ruzzier has chosen animals, his ability to create humor and attitude in those little figures reminds me of Maurice Sendak’s children in books like “A Hole is to Dig” and “Chicken Soup with Rice.”

 

 

He shows us Ruby obediently “watching” her younger brother Clyde, but he makes it clear by her unconcerned expression that’s she’s doing nothing more than watching as Clyde wreaks havoc throughout the house.

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And Arthur’s accident with the grape juice that destroyed his nice suit and tie? Not so much an accident.

 

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And that Harriet? When in full-whine mode, she’s a disagreeable, nasty-looking child, but once she gets what she wants, how innocent and adorable she appears.

 

If you end up loving this book as much as I do, get excited because Ruzzier also has created new illustrations for “Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To,” another Heide classic about a set of children who are careless, discontented and lazy. The book will be rereleased on July 25th.

 

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And if you’re ever in NYC, be sure to indulge at Books of Wonder. They often have stunning window displays created by well-known children’s book illustrators.

 

Also, watch for a post to come about another fabulous children’s bookstore I was able to visit.

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She Persisted!

While researching the illustrator Alexandra Boiger for my last post, I discovered some incredibly exciting news … Her most latest project is a collaboration with Chelsea Clinton on a picture book called, wait for it … “She Persisted” !!!!

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The book, due out on May 30th, according to the publisher, “introduces tiny feminists, mini activities and little kids who are ready to take on the world to thirteen inspiration women who never took no for an answer, and who always, inevitably and without fail, persisted.”

The project was likely in the works before Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell verbally attacked Senator Elizabeth Warren and later told the Senate: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” However, “she persisted” has become the battle cry of women like Warren and those featured in Clinton’s upcoming book, whose persistence has shaped our country.

The book features Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey and Sonia Sotomayor. But a surprise cameo by another inspiration women is promised. One can only hope Clinton pays tributre to BOTH her mother, Hillary Clinton, and Warren, whose determination inspired the title.

“She Persisted” is available for pre-order on Amazon. You can bet I have my order placed, and I’m looking forward to reading about these inspirational women with all four of my daughters.

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It’s inevitable. If my cell phone comes anywhere near the vicinity of my ear, one of my four children will either:

  1. start crying, usually while clinging to my leg
  2. hit one of the others
  3. hurt herself
  4. desperately need my attention for what later turns out to be an inconsequential matter

So we moms hide away in closets, pantries, garages and closets in our desperate attempts to finish actual conversations with fellow members of the adult human race. Either that or the person on the other end of the line is forced to suffer through my attempts to talk over the background screeching with teeth clenched and increasing frustration and volume.

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Amy Reichert capitalizes on this phenomenon in her book “While Mama had a Little Chat.” She turns the tables, though, and imagines a scenario in which the pleas of the pestering child may actually warrant some attention.

As bedtime is nearing, Mama answers the ringing telephone. Before delving into a “quick little chat” with Uncle Fred, she tasks daughter Rose with completing her nighttime routine, promising she won’t be long.

Ever left your children to ready themselves for bed while you finish the dishes or squeeze in one more load of laundry? Yeah, NOT.GONNA.HAPPEN.

Rose would argue, however, that she had the best of intentions. It’s just that the doorbell rang … and in walked “four muscley men” with supplies from the party store: tables, chairs, balloons, twinkly lights and silverware. They’re wrongly under the impression that Rose’s household is hosting a shindig that evening.

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Ever so politely, Rose begs her mother’s attention:

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Put off, there’s nothing Rose can do to stop the arrival of eager part-goers, caterers and a magician. She’s sawn in half and a jazz band joins the mix, inviting her to fill in on drums. The party is reaching full strength and full capacity, just as Mama calls down the hall informing Rose that her conversation is at its end.

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Fearing she’ll be chastised for all the hubbub, Rose hustles the musicians, the magician, the waiters, and those four party-supply delivery men out the door. Miraculously, when Mama hangs up the phone and heads to check on Rose, all is well.

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Reichert has written the parallel frustrations of Mama and Rose with perfect humor. Mama promises a “quick little chat,” but all children know “a second or two” can just as well mean something closer to an hour. Meanwhile, one hardly needs the bold typeface to hear the all-too-familiar shriek in Rose’s voice when she screams: “MAAAAAAAAMA, I need you right now!” Really, right now?

Mama Chat2As an added bonus, Reichert composed this story using inventive rhyme, creating a rhythm that’s fun for both the reader and the listener.

Reichert’s story is spot on, but it was Alexandra Boiger’s illustrations that first drew me to the book. With one glance at the cover, I recognized her distinctive style from another of our picture book favorites, “The Little Bit Scary People,” in which she partnered up with author Emily Jenkins.

Boiger’s characters are richly detailed and amusingly unique – large-nosed movers with hair-covered forearms, cater waiters with bushy eyebrows and thin comb-overs, women with all manner of hairstyles. And each character is illustrated with playful, energetic and immensely expressive body language. Boiger’s color palette is distinctive, as well – she mixes mainly cool blue and aqua backgrounds with bold, vibrant splashes of warm reds, oranges and yellows.

Take note of Boiger’s name — anything she lends it too is bound to be a sure bet!

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