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The Year of Flora

Some people have shoe habits, others purses. For me, it’s children’s books. I own enough picture books to constitute a small (ok, good-sized) library. In fact, as my 4 ½ and nearly-6 year olds’ interests have transitioned to chapter books, I’ve begun to worry that I’ll no longer be able to justify my excessive purchases of picture books.  Enter Flora, the crutch for my addiction.

Welcoming Flora

Flora arrived on September 13, 2013, our third daughter and (shhh….don’t tell the older girls) our best baby by far. Flora’s older sisters’ names were inspired by my love of children’s literature: Eloise Olivia, for the infamous resident of the Plaza Hotel and for Ian Falconer’s spunky pig (in 2008, Olivia’s purity had not yet been tainted by Nickelodeon’s branding); and Charlotte Faye, named for Wilbur’s wise friend, the wordsmith spider Charlotte A. Cavatica (and this selection was prior to the recent, horrific Charlotte name boom).

Eloise Olivia and Charlotte

Flora’s literary reference initially came in the form of her middle name: Alice. She was given this name both in honor of my late grandmother, Alice Burke, as well as my most beloved children’s book character, a great role-model for little girls, Miss Alice Rumphius. Barbara Cooney’s illustrations are works of art, and her missive to little girls is admirable: travel to far away places, spend time by the sea and make the world a better place (things we should ALL hope to accomplish in our lifetimes).

MissRumphiusBookCover

Flora-SpringsFlora’s first name, on the other hand, was inspired by our favorite wine: Trilogy, a blend of three red grape varietals made by the vineyard Flora Springs. Flora Komes and her husband, Jerry, established the vineyard in the ’70s, and the wine has carried the matriarch’s name ever since. Especially fascinating is how perfectly Komes lived up to her name. With its roots in Roman mythology, Flora was the goddess of flowers and springtime who enjoyed eternal youth. Komes helped raise a “ghost vineyard” from its ashes and died just shy of her 101st birthday in 2012. I could hope for nothing better than a long and happy life for my own Flora, and her birth also represented the completion of our “trilogy” of girls.

But in the year of our Flora’s birth, two outstanding “Flora” books were published, and each took the field of children’s literature by storm. This week, the American Library Association named Molly Idle’s “Flora and the Flamingo” as one of three Caldecott Honor Books. Meanwhile, Kate DiCamillo’s “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” was bestowed the coveted Newbery Medal. As The Horn Book pointed out, Flora is the new darling of children’s books.

Flora Book Covers

“Flora and the Flamingo” is a visually stunning, wordless, lift-the-flap book, depicting a stoic flamingo whose many balletic poses are mimicked by Flora, a playful young girl donning a pink swimsuit, black flippers and an irresistible yellow swim cap. The flamingo finds Flora’s game of copycat irksome at first:

Flamingo Squawk

…but amends are made.

Flamingo Apology

The flamingo patiently teaches its pupil to dance and soon the friends are dancing an elegant pas de deux that ends in a not-so-elegant but child-pleasing cannon ball.

Flamingo Cannonball

Idle’s attractive, mostly-pink palette is eye catching. I adore the font used for Flora’s name in the title. I enjoy the attitude and expression she’s captured in both the flamingo and Flora. I’m impressed with the simple but effective way in which the lifted flaps allow the narrative to progress.

That said, I’m not generally a fan of wordless books. I’m a bit too much of a control freak to feel comfortable with this open-ended storytelling format. I suppose these books give me a form of stage fright, leaving me paralyzed as to how to address each page. But my daughters’ fascination with “Flora and the Flamingo” has shown me how inviting the wordless format is to young children, especially the pre-reader.

Charlotte, my middle daughter, is particularly fond of “Flora and the Flamingo.” Like most middle children, she lives in the shadow of her older sibling, Eloise. With just 15 ½ months between them, Charlotte seems to believe she should be able to do everything Eloise can and, thus, found it discouraging when Eloise learned to read in kindergarten this year while she was left behind. I think wordless books, as well early readers composed in the graphic-novel style, are attractive to Charlotte because she’s able to “read” the book without the intimidation of traditional text she finds indecipherable.

Kate DiCamilloWhich leads me to “Flora & Ulysses” and the amazingly talented Kate DiCamillo. My girls were gifted a collection of DiCamillo books for Christmas, and I’ve become an obsessed fan overnight. (Did you know she lives in Minneapolis! For a girl who lives in Iowa, that’s CLOSE! I MUST track down a book signing!)

All of DiCamillo’s gems are new discoveries for me. Our family is just entering this amazing stage of early chapter books and young adult fiction. Sure, I have my favorites from my own childhood; I recently dug out a box containing “The Egypt Game,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Ballet Shoes,” among others. But DiCamillo came on the scene with “Because of Winn-Dixie” in 2000, just before I graduated high school.

WinnDixieCover

ImageEloise and I read that breakout novel together in the weeks after Christmas. Normally, I have a general rule against dog books. Despite my friends’ enthusiastic recommendations, I’ve never touched “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” and you can bet I’ve never cracked open “Marley and Me.” I already know firsthand the real-life, heartbreaking loss of a dog’s love and companionship; I don’t need fiction to rub it in. Besides, “Where the Red Fern Grows” was scarring enough.

And so, I approached “Winn-Dixie” with apprehension. We’d read a few chapters every couple of days, and I began to dread what I feared was the inevitable loss of that human-of-a-dog. When we weren’t reading together, Eloise appeared to be working her way through the book on her own. I have yet to fully grasp just how much she comprehends in higher-level chapter books, but she insisted she read the book in its entirety twice.

“I hope it ends well,” I told her with trepidation.

“Don’t worry, you’re really going to like it,” Eloise assured me. “It’s really happy.”

And so it was, and DiCamillo earned my highest praises. I can’t wait to delve into “The Tale of Despereaux,” for which DiCamillo earned the 2004 Newbery Medal, as well as “Tiger Rising,” “The Magician’s Elephant” and “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” I’m certain her Bink and Gollie series will be fantastic for Charlotte’s proclivity for graphic novels, and the “Mercy Watson” series seems perfect for building confidence in early reading. Like I said, I’m OBSESSED, somewhere on the same level as my love of Dahl.

kates book covers

DiCamillo appears to have rolled all of her diverse talents and writing styles into one book with the publication of “Flora & Ulysses.” The novel stars 10-year-old Flora Belle Buckman, who resuscitates a squirrel who was run over by the neighbor’s super-vacuum, the Ulysses2000X. The squirrel returns to life with superpowers and a new name (Ulysses) inspired by his would-be assassin.

Flora and Ulysses

The book is the account of Flora and Ulysses’ adventures and is peppered with comic illustrations of their unfolding story (Flora is apparently a comic book fan). Reviews indicate that the novel deals with the larger life issues of loss, abandonment, acceptance of differences, loneliness, love, fears and complex relationships.

Flora and Ulysses Comic

We’re only a couple chapters in, but Charlotte likes to think she knows what’s going to happen because she’s peaked ahead at most of the illustrations. I’m excited to discover more about this fictional Flora, just as I can’t wait to see what my own little Flora becomes.

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More on Sisters

Because I have two girls and three sisters of my own, our library, of course, holds more than one book about sisters. Two of our other favorites are “Big Sister, Little Sister,” by Leuyen Pham, and “Sisters,” by David McPhail.

Much like Rukhsana Khan, whose book I most recently reviewed, Pham is an immigrant to North America, originating from Vietnam. And her book, too, has been dedicated to an older sister:

If only all older sisters could be repaid for their pain and suffering this way!

Whereas Khan’s book, “Big Red Lollipop,” was written from the perspective of the oldest sister, “Big Sister, Little Sister” looks at the ups and downs of sisterhood from the younger point of view. It seems younger siblings are a less popular selection for narrators in the children’s book world, which is what makes this book particularly valuable, giving the overlooked younger sister a voice.

Pham’s Little Sister feels as though she’s always trying to catch up to Big Sister and bemoans her second-hand clothes and earlier bedtime. Many of the stereotypical differences between big sisters and little sisters also are played out. Big Sister is poised, tidy and responsible, while Little Sister is a wild risk-taker with a tendency toward tantrums.

Although Big Sister is often proven right in this book (as an oldest sister, myself, I can attest this is usually the case), Little Sister is given her due credit. It turns out that little siblings have talents of their own and might just know a thing or two that their older siblings don’t.

What I think I enjoy most about this book, however, is the consistent companionship and friendship of these sisters. Oftentimes, children’s books about siblings emphasize conflict or depict an older sibling’s attempts to ditch the younger sibling. But despite the difference in their ages, Big Sister and Little Sister are shown together reading books, baking, riding bikes, rollerskating, dancing and making music.

Pham also emphasize Big Sister’s patient willingness to teach and look out for Little Sister. Big Sister comes to the rescue when Little Sister can’t sleep, keeps her safe while crossing the street, ensures sunscreen has been properly applied and tends to her when she falls and bonks her head.

Boasting the talents of both author and illustrator, Pham’s unique palette of pink, browns and a splash of red makes “Big Sister, Little Sister” a visual standout on the shelves. Her Japanese brush-and-ink illustrations are energetic, and her Big Sister and Little Sister are irresistibly cute.

McPhail also can take credit for both picture and verse in his classic, “Sisters.” First published in 1984, this petite book (about 7 inches by 6 inches) is the type adult sisters might give to one another on the occasion of a graduation or marriage, à la Dr. Suess’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Much like “Big Sister, Little Sister,” this book describes the ways in which two sisters are different but also the ways in which they are alike. Although the format is somewhat formulaic, the very specific personality quirks and preferences McPhail attributes to each of these girls makes the book more endearing and relatable.

For instance, McPhail writes:

As almost any mother can attest, conflicting food preferences are one of the cruelest forms of torture parenthood has to offer. If one child is excited about burgers for dinner, the others are nearly guaranteed to be moaning in protest. For nearly a year, we fought the battle of grilled cheese vs. peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and chicken nuggets vs. macaroni and cheese for dinner (tears were almost always involved). And I can’t claim I was any different as a child; many nights, my mom was forced to cook both chicken nuggets and two different kinds of macaroni and cheese – I demanded Kraft, while my twin sisters were divided over the nuggets and Velveeta Shells and Cheese.

McPhail’s sisters also have opposing interests on the topics of footwear, baseball, frogs and sleep routines. Although these unique preferences likely were inspired by those of the author’s daughters (he dedicated the book to his two biological daughters and two step daughters), they represent a truth that, regardless of shared genetic material, we may have more in common with complete strangers than our own siblings. But the book also illustrates that, in spite these differences, the bonds of sisterhood are solidified for a lifetime by common experiences and shared memories.

The sisters connect while picking sugar-snap peas from the garden, baking cookies together in the kitchen, playing in puddles on a rainy afternoon and jumping in leaf piles during the fall. Rendered in a pen-and-ink style I associate with books from the era of my childhood, each of these images powerfully remind me of days spent with my own sisters. We picked mulberries at my grandparents, had the chocolate chip cookie dough recipe memorized and collected buckets of rain when it showered on summer days.

McPhail’s image of the sisters coloring particularly captures my daughters at this stage in their lives. They may not agree on much, but they’ll spend a peaceful hour together with markers and paper (that’s an eternity in toddler time). Of course, that peaceful hour usually ends when someone won’t share the blue marker and the nails come out. It’s the inevitable cycle of the relationships between sisters – one minute they’re best friends, the next: worst enemies. McPhail seems to understand this as well as anybody:

Of course, in the end, it is the love and friendship sisters share that stands the test of time. This proved true for my sisters and me, and it’s the moral of all of our family’s favorites sister books:

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I grew up with three younger sisters and, as anyone with a sister can relate, there have been times I’ve literally wanted to kill them while there have been other moments I’ve never experienced greater friendship or love. My mom used to joke that life with four girls was no “Little Women,” but, if you’ve read your Louisa May Alcott, you know things weren’t always rosy in the March household either.

Remember when Amy burned Jo’s manuscript after being excluded from a night at the opera? Been there. In my case, my sister Allison took my diary to school and shared it with my fourth-grade crush, making sure to point out the parts that pertained to him. It was all my mom could do to keep me from ripping out all of her hair.

Fictional or real, the bipolarity of the relationships between sisters is unlike any other. My girls are only 3 and 4, and it seems one minute they’re the best of friends and the next they’re giving each other facial abrasions.

With an older sister of her own, author Rukhsana Khan appears to know a thing or two about these tumultuous relationships. And her highly acclaimed children’s book, “Big Red Lollipop,” proves it’s a cross-cultural phenomenon. Although praised for the insight it offers on the experiences of immigrant children, it’s the perfection with which Khan has painted the sister dynamic that I find most fascinating.

“Big Red Lollipop” chronicles the challenges its protagonist, Rubina, faces when she’s invited to her first-ever birthday party, a concept that’s apparently foreign to her mother, called “Ami” in the Pakistani language, Urdu.

Ami says, “What’s a birthday party?”

“It’s when they celebrate the day they were born.”

“Why do they do that?”

“They just do! Can I go?”

Rubina’s younger sister, Sana, takes advantage of her mother’s lack of familiarity with birthday-party etiquette and insists that she being allowed to attend the soiree, as well. And by “insists,” I mean she screams and cries until she gets her way, and the pitiful production is perfectly rendered by illustrator Sophie Blackall, who has caught Sana mid-cry, peaking out of the corner of her eye to ensure her antics have achieved their desired effect.

Not only is Rubina forced to endure the embarrassment of asking for another invitation, but, once at the party, Rubina is also further mortified by Sana’s temper tantrums.

The only silver lining to the disastrous event? The party favor bag containing a giant red lollipop, among other treasures. Sana impulsively polishes off all of her goodies, but Rubina plans to savor her lollipop and hides it in the refrigerator overnight. When she goes to retrieve her treat the next day, however, she finds that someone has beaten her to it. A dramatic chase scene ensures, and the accompanying illustration, with its bird’s-eye view, is by far my favorite visual element of the book.

I could offer a very similar representation of how I reacted when my sister (Allison, again) poured pop over my head one summer afternoon while we were playing outside. My route of pursuit took several loops around the trampoline, crossed the street and traversed through a half dozen backyards before I finally got ahold of her. Fortunately for Sana, their mother was on hand to intercede. My sister was not as lucky.

As is often the plight of the oldest sibling, Rubina’s mother reprimands her for threatening her younger sister and failing to share her treat. Sana, the true transgressor, escapes without punishment. Oh, the injustice! My oldest-sister heart aches with empathy!

Not only is Rubina out a lollipop, but she soon finds she’s also been shunned by her peers at school as a result of the embarrassing birthday-party episode. The sad acceptance Blackall has drawn on Rubina’s face is heartbreaking.

But the story takes an interesting twist as it reaches its conclusion. Time passes and Sana is the one running home in excitement with her first invitation to a birthday party.  Now it’s Maryam, the youngest of the three sisters, who screams to be taken along. Their mother is nothing if not consistent, and she’s prepared to impose the same demands on Sana that she did Rubina.

Ami says, “Well…it’s only fair. You went to Rubina’s friend’s party, now Rubina and Maryam can go to your friend’s party.”

Although the thought of retribution is tantalizing, Rubina demonstrates a greater virtuousness than I would have ever been able to muster.

I could just watch her have to take Maryam. I could just let her make a fool of herself at that party. I could just let her not be invited to any more parties, but something makes me tap Ami on the shoulder.

“What?”

“Don’t make Sana take Maryam to the party.”

“No?” says Ami.

“No,” I say.

Ami thinks for a moment, then says, “Okay.”

So Sana gets to go by herself.

Rubina’s benevolence does not going unnoticed. Although she’s unable to erase the past, Sana returns home from her party with a peace offering.

She hands me a big green lollipop. “This is for you.”

“Thanks,” I say.

After that we’re friends.

The happy ending isn’t just a tidy product of fiction. Dedicated to her older sister, Bushra, Khan reveals the book is nearly 100 percent autobiographical. Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan, but immigrated with her family to Britain and, later, Canada when she was just three.

“Almost everything in this story really happened,” she told Kirkus Reviews. “I told this story at a bookstore event. My older sister was in the audience. When I was done she said, ‘Wait a minute. You never gave me that big green lollipop!’ It’s too late to make it up to her with a lollipop, so I wrote her this story instead.”

On her blog, she writes that the book started out as a story she would tell orally, from her own point of view as “Sana.”

“But I only told the first two thirds of the story because that’s all I had – to the point where I scurried after the triangle that my older sister Bushra threw across the room. That was the end of the story. Oh, how it made people laugh! But it wasn’t a complete story. I had a beginning and middle, but no resolution. For the longest while I tried to find an end to the story, and then I thought back to what had actually happened. How had I grown out of my selfishness? And that’s when I remembered how years later, when I came running home from school waving a birthday invitation, and my mom was telling me I had to take my little sister Sophia to the birthday party I was invited to, I remembered how my older sister Bushra had intervened, and told her not to make me take her.”

When the memory was put in children’s-book form, Khan’s editor encouraged her to write the story from Bushra’s/Rubina’s perspective instead, allowing the reader to identify and learn from the more sympathetic character. Betsy Bird, famed children’s book librarian, blogger and reviewer, put it best when she wrote:

“I could read a kid parable after parable about forgiveness and not make so much as a dent in their scaly little brains. But tell them a story about an older sister being wronged by her younger sibling and then going out of her way, in spite of her anger, to keep that same sister from experiencing a similar fate… THAT hits home. Hear that? That is the sound of thousands of tiny jaws plummeting downwards after getting to the end of this tale. It’s their little minds trying to grasp the concept of not taking an eye for an eye or, in this case, a lollipop for a lollipop.”

The honesty and accuracy of the story, paired with Blackall’s unbelievably expressive illustrations, made it one of the most recognized and awarded children’s books of 2010. Since discovering it through the wonders of the Scholastic Book Clubs earlier this spring, it has become one of my favorite children’s books of all time.

As an oldest child, I feel validated by Rubina’s story. I’ve always argued that oldest children carry the burden of paving the way for their younger siblings, oftentimes enduring less-than-fair judgments from their parents.  I’ve sworn that, as a parent myself, I would make sure I had a “black book” of punishments to ensure whatever was imposed on the first child was recorded and also handed down to subsequent children. But Khan’s story illustrates that parents sometimes make mistakes the first time around and correct themselves as they learn. I suppose I should probably forgive my parents for lightening up on my younger sisters, even if it was intolerable for me.

“Big Red Lollipop” also has reminded me that sisters will inevitably go through long phases, not just moments, of love and hatred, but it will hopefully be their friendship that stands the test of time. For Rubina and Sana (and the real-life Bushra and Rukhsana) reconciliation came only after a period of maturation on Sana’s part and after enough time had passed for forgiveness to work its way into Rubina’s heart.

In my case, my sister Allison and I have a history of fights too long to chronicle, and we endured a period of time in college when I wouldn’t speak to her for months on end, but there’s no one I’d rather spend time with today. I’m confident the same will hold true for my daughters, though they’ll likely weather many storms in the years ahead. This morning they were pulling each other’s hair, but by midday they were asking to wear their best friend necklaces.

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Why I Do This

After my last posting, more than three months ago, I learned that my baby, our third pregnancy, already 20 weeks along, had a fatal chromosome disorder. I had written so happily in that last post about our favorite baby-themed books and my youngest daughter’s excitement about expecting a baby of our own. It’s difficult to remember that blissful period when everything was as it should be. As my mom put it, I had lived a very “charmed” life in my first 29 years, and the pain of so unexpectedly losing this baby was something I could never have imagined and is something I simply don’t have the strength to describe with insufficient words.

Although I’ve never achieved my idealized goal of posting a new review every week, it has been difficult to be away from this blog for so many months now. In the midst of my suffering, I began composing this next blog, in part because I’ve been eager to share this book with you but also to honor my sisters, who helped me through what I thought I could never survive.

I turned 30 this week, on the third of July. I suspect I wouldn’t normally have had trouble passing this milestone, but I found it difficult to do so while still recovering from what I can only hope is the worst tragedy of my life. Again, it was the presence and support of my sisters, and family, that buoyed me and reminded me that life still has promises of great happiness.

And so this book, “Big Red Lollipop,” a story about the bonds of sisters surviving through thick and very thin, has stuck with me. The process of reviewing it over these past few days has restored a very important part of my identity and happiness, giving me back the confidence and the stamina to share one of my greatest passions – beautiful, meaningful children’s books just like this.

My Sisters

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I discovered “Everywhere Babies” in the most appropriate of places – my OB/GYN’s office. I had an appointment for a blood test to confirm my third pregnancy and, because the news was still under wraps, I had to tote both daughters along with me.

I imagined needles plus two toddlers was going to make for a scary equation, so I grabbed a few battered picture books from the waiting room and told the girls to sit quietly and read in the chair next to me while my blood was drawn. Fortunately for me, the literature kept them happy, so much so that my youngest, Charlotte, begged to take her book home with us when we left.

With 50 irresistibly cute babies illustrated on the dust jacket alone, it’s no wonder Charlotte was captivated. Whereas my oldest never gave a baby doll a passing glance, Charlotte has a nursery full of them, all named “Baby,” and she’s drawn to infant car seat carriers like a moth drawn to flame.

When it comes to books, however, shall we say Charlotte’s taste is more selective? Few books hold her attention for long, so I’m always quick to indulge her when her interest is apparent. I put the title to memory and, via the wonders of Amazon shipping, Susan Meyers’ “Everywhere Babies” arrived on our doorstep a few days later without further review.

As a result, it came as a delightful surprise that one of my favorite author/illustrators, Marla Frazee, had produced the art for this book. Better yet, her illustrations offer an otherwise simple book a complex look at the diversity of families.

Published in 2001, “Everywhere Babies” has much in common with Mem Fox’s “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes,” which topped all the lists of best children’s books in 2008 and also sits high on Charlotte’s list of favorites. Both books celebrate the universality of babyhood.

Fox compares babies born in different countries and different circumstances, from hillsides to cities and igloos to tents. But she emphasizes that there’s really little that truly differentiates them, for they all have “ten little fingers and ten little toes.”

The babies of this book, charmingly illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, seem to grasp this concept; they’re captured playing merrily together, bound by the common joys of infancy rather than divided by differences in language, ethnicity or nationality.

Similarly, “Everywhere Babies” celebrates the familiar milestones of a baby’s first year, from birth to that messy slice of birthday cake. Author Susan Meyers said she was inspired to write the book after the birth of her first grandchild, when she suddenly started noticing babies everywhere.

Although we often have tunnel vision after the birth of our own children, heralding our one-of-a-kind baby’s every facial expression and accomplishment, one begins to realize, as Meyers beautifully puts it, “Every day, everywhere, babies are born,” and each of those babies is treasured and loved as much as our own.

It’s humbling to be reminded that, in every city, state and country, there are hundreds, thousands, millions of babies being cuddled, kissed, fed and rocked. And those babies, as miraculously as we once did, are learning to crawl, run, jump and talk.

While Meyers’ beautifully rhythmic text highlights the commonalities of our start in the world, Marla Frazee’s abundant illustrations illuminate that these similarities exist regardless of differences in our cultures and families. Ever so subtly, but all so importantly, Frazee has depicted families in which babies are cared for my mothers, fathers, older family members, adoptive parents and both same-sex and interracial couples.

While Ames is considered progressive as far as Iowa goes, families here and in other small towns throughout the country have a much more homogeneous appearance. For those of us raising families in such environments, “Everywhere Babies” offers our children a valuable glimpse at some of the different but equally suitable ways families are formed without any overly-political, in-your-face statements like “some families have two mommies and some families have two daddies.”

I underscore the word “glimpse” because Frazee’s images of less-traditional families are given no more emphasis, and certainly less frequency, than the many other endearing illustrations in this book. Above all, Frazee’s illustrations depict just how much each of these babies is loved by the people in their lives, regardless of those caretakers’ gender, race or age.

Among it’s many messages, however, the offering that I found most powerful in this book was its representation of how quickly a baby progresses from infancy on the opening pages to her first birthday, and the end of babyhood, at the book’s conclusion. As it’s often said, “They don’t stay babies forever,” and Meyers and Frazee have done a beautiful job of reminding us to cherish this brief period while it lasts.

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My oldest, Eloise, was interested only in cars, frogs and the Backyardigans for the first three years of her life, but after turning three, she caught that dreaded princess bug. I assure myself that she’s not one of those girls. You know, the girls whose only concern is looking pretty, girls who think that becoming a princess is a possible reality, girls about whom books like “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” are written.

Admittedly, Eloise would wear a crown, princess dress and high heels every day, all day if I let her. But while wearing her fancy get-up, Eloise doesn’t act like a princess; you’re more likely to find her crouched and ribbiting like her favorite amphibian. So, I suppose I’m willing to support her interest in princess stories, although I favor a less pink and Disney-branded version of these tales, something with its foundation in the centuries-old folk traditions from which the animated versions of Cinderella, Snow White and Ariel sprang.

I found just such a book while on vacation. With my children entertained at an outdoor book fair with their dad, I was afforded the rare luxury of spending as long as I liked in the children’s section of an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore without the threat of displays being overturned and whole shelves emptied of their contents.



When I caught sight of Brigette Barrager’s “12 Dancing Princesses,” it was one of those blissful “find” moments I’m always hoping for. The cover art and ensuing illustrations are a visual indulgence equivalent to eating one of the DC Cupcakes girls’ famous frosted and sprinkled delicacies. However, the title is what really grabbed me. This wasn’t just a princess book but a book about a dozen princesses, and a dozen princesses who dance, for that matter. Eloise would be thrilled!

As I opened the front cover, my inner skeptic dreaded finding of a story better suited for a Barbie coloring book. Much to my delight, I discovered a wonderful retelling of a Grimm’s fairy tale that had long ago captivated me but had been buried in my memory for more than 20 years.

If you were a child of the ’80’s and watched as much Nickelodeon as my three sisters and I did, you may recall “Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics,” a Japanese-anime interpretation of the Brothers Grimm stories and other folk tales. This clip of the opening theme song on YouTube might jog your memory; I found myself immediately singing along.

The series aired from 1987 to 1989 and included nearly four-dozen animated presentations of such well-known stories as “Puss in Boots,” “Rumplestiltskin” and “The Traveling Musicians of Bremen.” But the episode that bewitched me was “The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes.”

Also known by the title, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” “The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes” was first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. It is the story of a king’s 12 daughters who, despite being locked in their room each night, are discovered every morning with their shoes worn through as if they had been dancing all night.

Barrager has taken liberties in her interpretation to transform some of the darker elements of the Grimms’ tale, whose original stories were intended for an adult audience. In softening its edges, she has preserved the essence of the story while making it more attractive and appropriate for her younger readers.

For the tiara obsessed, Barrager has given her princesses more endearing personalities, naming each after a beautiful flower and modeling their apparel after their namesakes.  My daughters insist that I identify each of these blooming beauties, although I tend to get a little lost when it gets down to Tulip, Petunia, Bluebell and Iris.

While these princesses are overly feminized in title and appearance, Barrager has modernized their role in the kingdom. The Grimms’ princesses were simply a prize to be won by the conquering hero, to whom the king also promises inheritance of the kingdom. Barrager’s king, on the other hand, fully intends to hand the kingdom down to his daughters but fears their narcoleptic tendencies will make them incapable. “‘How can I expect my daughters to rule the kingdom after me, when they spend their days napping?’ he thought.”

Barrager’s careful editing reflects a change in the princess icon, which was so smartly examined by Naomi Wolf in her New York Times article, “Mommy, I Want to Be a Princess:”

“If you look closely, the princess archetype is not about passivity and decorativeness: It is about power and the recognition of the true self. Little girls are obsessed with princesses for the same reason little boys are obsessed with action heroes. What other female figure can command an army, break open a treasury, or even, as in images of Kate Middleton or of Diana Spencer, simply bestow, with her presence, a sense of magic, excitement and healing? Princesses are more benevolent than pop stars and less drugged out; they are more powerful than Hillary Rodham Clinton or Condoleeza Rice, and wear better frocks. They are less disposable than fashion models and at least appear to be less stressed than the girls’ own working mothers, even if those women are at the top of the professional hierarchy. What girl would not be drawn to such an archetype, given how few other female role models you can say that about in our popular culture.”

Barrage also has cultivated a more endearing hero for her princesses in the form of Pip, the king’s in-house cobbler. Pip is responsible for repairing the princesses’ shoes each morning, and it’s revealed he has a special affection for the youngest princess, Poppy.

“Pip liked Princess Poppy because she always told him how beautiful the new shoes were…Poppy really liked Pip, too, but she just couldn’t keep her eyes open long enough to say so.”

In the Grimms’ original version of the story, it is an aged soldier who finally solves the mystery of the princesses’ nightly activities. The solider is tipped off by a woodland witch, who reveals that the princesses drug the men who attempt to investigate their nocturnal secrets. Armed with that knowledge and the witch’s invisibility cloak, the solider feigns sleep and observes the princesses escaping their room through a staircase leading to unknown depths beneath the castle.

Pip, however, relies on his own ingenuity and innate skill to solve the mystery at hand.  He crafts himself a pair of the softest, most silent shoes possible and observes the princesses stirring after the rest of the castle has gone to bed. Dressed in their finest gowns, but with their eyes closed as though they are sleepwalking, the princesses descend the stairs hidden beneath their bedroom floor. Pip follows unheard and discovers the enchanted world into which the princesses are drawn each evening.

Here Barrager wonderfully captures the exquisite details that so enthralled me as a child: a forest of trees encrusted with silver, gold and diamonds, upon whose branches jewel-colored birds perch. Pip removes a branch from each of these uniquely gilded trees as evidence of what he’s seen before following the princesses as they cross a dark and dreamy lake to an island hosting a magical ballroom. There, the princesses dance until morning, then they depart the island as mysteriously as they arrived.

Determined to break the enchantment that holds the princesses captive each night, Pip turns to the age-old solution of fairy tales: a kiss. He bestows one on Poppy’s hand, and the princesses’ eyes instantly flutter open. The forest around them begins to crumble to vapor and dust and they hurriedly escape through the trap door, which also disappears in a whirl of smoke.

Pip and the princesses rush to the king and share their fantastic story, presenting the jeweled branches as evidence. The king offers Pip any reward he desires – gold, diamonds, a castle – but Pip nervously requests permission to ask for Poppy’s hand in marriage. Poppy enthusiastically responds “yes” on her own behalf, they marry and, of course, live happily ever after.

Barrager’s treatment of this fairy tale is so wonderfully perfect, I would love to see her produce subsequent editions of other seldom-published folk stories. The Princess and the Pea, another of my personal favorites, would fair wonderfully in her hands.

In the meantime, Barrager has created a digital story, available through the Jib Jab Jr. iPad app, that’s bound to fulfill any little girl’s princess fantasies. “A Perfect Princess Day” makes your child the star of a story also featuring some of her favorite fairy tale heroines: Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. You simply upload a picture of your own darling princess and her face is inserted into the story. Just like that, she’s off having tea parties and attending balls at the castle with her royal friends and a magic flying pony.

My Eloise turns 4 next week, and while her gifts consist of Cars 2 vehicles and her party is strictly frog-themed, I’ll pop her face into Barrager’s e-book and my conscience will rest easy. For as Wolf assures us in her examination of today’s princess:

“Don’t worry if your 5-year-old girl insists on a pink frilly princess dress. It doesn’t mean she wants to subside into froth; it just means, sensibly enough for her, that she wants to take over the world.”

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For those of you who read my review of “Children Make Terrible Pets,” you know how much I adore author and illustrator Peter Brown. That title was, hands down, my favorite find of 2010. I reviewed it as my top pick from last year’s New York Times Best Illustrated list, and I gifted it to more children than I can count. It also won major chuckles from 16 four and five year olds when I read it aloud at my daughter’s preschool last month – and is there a better review than that?

It was in this book that Brown introduced us to Lucy, an overly exuberant bear with her heart set on a pet boy. I could not have been more excited to discover that Lucy made her return in September in “You Will Be My Friend!”

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This time around, Lucy Bear is bound and determined to make a new friend. However, her overly eager approach only earns the disdain and annoyance of the other forest inhabitants.

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Consistent with the bear we came to know and love, Lucy deals with her frustration in the only way she knows how: a MAJOR tantrum. But just when she’s given up, a perfectly suited friend finds Lucy.

Lucy’s plight is a humorous presentation of the discomfort most of us experience as we struggle to make new friends. I can remember with clarity the way it felt to be excluded from playground cliques and exclusive birthday parties in elementary school. I was a bit of a bookworm and had a “unique” sense of fashion. Thankfully, I had parents who never pressured me to fit in, and, just like Lucy, I eventually found friends who loved me, Anne of Green Gables obsession and all.

The funny thing is, the anxieties of making friends haven’t seemed to wane much in adulthood. The few very close friends I’ve come to count on over the years have found their ways to other cities, states and countries. Back in my hometown, now in the role of newly-minted Stay-at-Home Mom, I felt about as confident as a seventh-grader on the first day of school when I walked into my first Kindermusik class with six-month-old Eloise.

Would any of the other mothers like me?

Are they all going to wonder why I can’t get this colicky baby to stop crying?

Most importantly, would anyone ask us to play?

Motherhood can be lonely. I may not have adored my coworkers in my previous life in the workforce, but, like most stay-at-home moms, I had come to realize how much I missed regular adult interactions, completed in full sentences. I don’t know if the Starbuck’s drive-thru-window attendants realized home much I had come to depend on their routine niceties.

I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone in my social ineptitudes. Pamela Brill’s posting this summer on the parenting website Babble is essentially the adult version of Brown’s “You Will Be My Friend!” She provides a hysterical account of her attempts at making friends and writes, “Sometimes, I think I’d have better luck clicking my heels three times and finding my way back to Kansas than trying to navigate this crazy world of mommy-made friendships.”

While Brill still finds herself searching, I’ve miraculously managed over the past three years to find an wonderful group of “mommy friends,” many of whom I met in that first music class. These women give my life a fullness, without which I think I would have lost my mind long ago. There are the playdates, of course, but they also provide an invaluable sounding board as I navigate the everyday challenges of parenting. And among them, I’ve found a wicked sense of humor, amazing creativity and friendship that surpasses our shared roles as mothers.

That’s not to say I don’t still worry that they might think I’m a poor housekeeper, that my kids are out of control or that I talk too much. And trading numbers and arranging first playdates with new acquaintances is still about as nerve-racking as asking a boy to the high school homecoming dance. But I can only hope these women are as grateful for our fledgling relationships as I am.

However, there will always be those – like my younger sister, Allison, or my good friend, Annie – who seem to draw friends like a magnet. Our youngest, Charlotte, hints at having the sort of charisma that will “win friends and influence people.” But three-year-old Eloise is of her mother’s mold. It came as no surprise to learn at her fall conference that social skills were not her strong point. It seems she prefers a book to a playmate.

So, it was for Eloise that “You Will be my Friend!” was intended. She certainly finds Lucy Bear’s efforts comical, but I also hope she sees the satisfaction Lucy gains from finally finding what Anne of Green Gables would have called a “bosom friend.”

Regardless, l’ll take author Peter Brown’s approach: always encourage Eloise to be herself and have confidence that friendship will find her, just as it did for me.

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My daughters are the first grandchildren on both sides of our family, and they have an unending number of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles and good family friends who like to spoil them rotten at Christmastime. As a result, in years past, we’ve headed home with a carload of toys and the overwhelming task of figuring out where to put them all.

This year, I made a preemptive strike and pleaded with these loved ones to give the girls books, and only books, if they could possibly restrain themselves. Inspired by “A Family of Readers,” written by the editors of The Horn Book Magazine, I even went as far as creating a shared Google document with titles from our children’s book wish list. And much to my delight, a fair number of people made use of this list. Better yet, several people gifted us wonderful, unique and beautiful books I’ve never laid eyes on before.

Between these gifts and the books I selected for the girls myself, I realized we should have also asked Santa for a new bookcase.

But the girls weren’t the only happy bookworms this year. I’ll be receiving “The Horn Book Magazine” and “School Library Journal” in 2012, and my thoughtful husband also converted my blog into a dot-com address. You can now find me at goingonabookhunt.com.

But my absolute favorite literary Christmas gift was the t-shirt my little sister found in Iowa City, Iowa, for my daughter, Eloise, who is most certainly a Major League Reader. You can find them online at Tshirt Booyah.

I’m looking forward to sharing all of our new favorite books with you in 2012!

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Blame it on the annual turkey coma, but when my 3 year old asked earlier this month, “What’s Thanksgiving,” I was surprised to find myself caught off guard and grappling for an answer.

As I jumbled together a story about Pilgrims, a boat ride and dinner with Indians, my mind was spinning in circles trying to recall the accurate historical facts and some sort of explanation for why the commemoration of this event has evolved into such a prominent national holiday. Frankly, it was all a haze of preschool plays, Peanuts cartoons, Pepperidge Farm stuffing and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades.

In a method to which my journalism school mentors would wholly object, I scoured Wikipedia, the History Channel online and the Smithsonian Institute website and pieced together a summary of Thanksgiving’s history in North America, a report I’m sure would have earned me an A+ in my 10th grade U.S. history class.

But even with an accurate account of the notorious 1621 feast hosted by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, I was still left wondering what meaning one should place on the modern day holiday… particularly because my research turned up a less-than-tidy history of thanksgiving celebrations in our country.

For starters, the Pilgrims’ meal has been unquestionably overturned as the first Thanksgiving in America. Historical research has uncovered evidence of thanksgiving church services conducted by the Spanish in Florida as early as 1565, as well as other days of thanksgiving in Popham Colony in Maine in 1607; in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and 1610; and Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, in 1619.

So even if most modern-day Americans imagine that our Thanksgiving Day commemorates the anniversary of the nation’s first thanksgiving, that assumption is inaccurate.

Furthermore, the thanksgiving celebrations that followed the 1621 feast were sporadic, rather than a consistent annual tradition, and the causes that prompted them widely varied. The Pilgrims’ second thanksgiving celebration took place in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought. While fasting and thanksgiving became a more common practice in New England’s settlements, it wasn’t until 1789 that George Washington issued the first thanksgiving proclamation by the United States government. That occasion was designated to celebrate the end of the country’s war for independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Even then, thanksgiving did not become an annual national holiday. Each state individually called for days of thanksgiving whenever they saw fit. It took a 36-year-long crusade by a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale to officially put Thanksgiving on the calendar. Hale published numerous editorials and sent countless letters to five consecutive U.S. Presidents, urging them to unify the nation in a single celebration of thanksgiving.

In the midst of the Civil War, Hale’s call struck a chord with President Abraham Lincoln. In his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Lincoln set the holiday as the final Thursday in November and called on his divided country to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

As evident in Lincoln’s words, Thanksgiving had evolved into a day in which Christians took the opportunity to thank God for their many blessings, a tradition that continues today. But the roots of the thanksgiving tradition are secular, spanning cultures, continents and millennia. The holiday’s foundation is as a harvest festival, celebrated in ancient times by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and by Native Americans for thousands of years before the Mayflower arrived. In fact, the Pilgrims’ own feast was non-religious, aside from saying grace, due to their puritanical rejection of public religious displays.

And sadly, the finalization of the holiday’s date has more to do with the notorious post-Thanksgiving shopping. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the fourth Thursday in November (rather than the last) in hopes of encouraging earlier holiday shopping during the Great Depression.

In summary, I think it’s clear Thanksgiving is neither an anniversary of a first thanksgiving nor a Church-initiated holiday. And while there are many that get giddy over a masterful Black Friday shopping plan, the idea of Thanksgiving simply marking the start of the holiday season stands in direct contradiction to very definition of thanksgiving – expressing gratitude for what one already has.

Gratitude, it seems, may be the only consistency in our nation’s complex history of thanksgiving celebrations. And while dramatic re-imaginings of the Pilgrim’s meal may fascinate schoolchildren and make for great picture books, it’s in the simple but intentional expression of gratitude that I’ve rediscovered the “point” of Thanksgiving. Whether directed toward God or simply celebrated within one’s own soul, giving thanks achieves what Sarah Josepha Hale intended for the holiday she championed:

“There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing, in which whole communities participate. They bring out…the best sympathies in our natures.”

And there’s no one who practices thanksgiving quite as well as children’s book creator Dallas Clayton, author and illustrator of the “An Awesome Book of Thanks.” Clayton writes:

There didn’t use to be boats.

There didn’t use to be cars.

There didn’t use to be people.

There didn’t use to be stars.

There didn’t use to be anything.

But now there’s a lot, so when I look around at all that we’ve got

I say, “Thank You.”

Without a turkey, pilgrim or Indian in sight, Clayton has distilled the essence of Thanksgiving. Sure, he gives thanks for the familiar, those things we typically think of when saying Thanksgiving grace:

But he also gives thanks for the silly and obscure, a viewpoint my daughters enjoy. Each night we say this simple mealtime prayer: “God is good. God is great. Let us thank Him for our food.” Afterward, we spend a few minutes naming all the other things for which we’re thankful. Charlotte, our 2-year-old, always shouts out “Blankie” before anyone else can get a word in. She’s the Linus type. Eloise, who’s 3, amuses herself by naming unexpected things like frogs and books and rocks. Clayton is of the same mind, opening the reader’s eyes (whether child or adult) to all the simple things that make life so much nicer, things like tape dispensers, toothbrushes and toilet paper (and who would want to imagine life without toilet paper?!).

“It’s so easy – we see these things every day – to forget to say thank you in every way.”

“An Awesome Book of Thanks” is Clayton’s sophomore project. His 2008 debut in children’s literature was “An Awesome Book,” a project he conceived to encourage the imaginative and unrestrained dreams of his son. Clayton has harnessed those dreams in this book, as well, giving thanks for the fantastical imaginings of a child: girelephants, gigantic dinomachines, basketball-wizards, and kind-hearted sea monsters.

Clayton also touches on intangible concepts that may some day sink in for younger readers but certainly resonate with adults: “having all the times it takes,” “patience and hopes and rewards and revisions” and “finishing last because first isn’t always the best place to be.”

As our family prepares for Thanksgiving, Clayton’s book has inspired what I hope will become a long-lasting tradition that gives definition to a holiday with undefined or inaccurate parameters. This year, when we sit down to a dinner with loved ones, we’ll all take part in the creation of our own book of thanks. In a fashion similar to Clayton’s marker doodlings, we’ll put to paper the things for which we’re grateful. Blankies and frogs and princess outfits will likely make the list, but so too will my gratitude for finally reaching the stage at which my toddler girls will play peacefully for an hour in the basement without intervention.

And here’s one more reason to give thanks for “An Awesome Book of Thanks:” it and its predecessor (“An Awesome Book”) are available in their entirety at veryawesomeworld.com, the website for Clayton’s Awesome World Foundation. For every book the foundation sells, Clayton donates one to a school, hospital, library, camp or shelter somewhere in the world in an effort to not only promote literacy but also spread his messages of big dreams and gratitude.

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The New York Times Book Review announced this week its list of the 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2011, with features and artwork to appear in the Nov. 13 printed edition of the Book Review. This list has been a frequent source of favorite picture book finds, particularly as it’s released with ample time for Christmas shopping. However, I’ve found that titles that make the list sometimes sell out quickly and become nearly unavailable as December 25th approaches.

My must-haves (already en-route from Amazon) from this year’s winners are: “I Want My Hat Back,” written and illustrated by Jon Klassen, and “Me…Jane,” written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell.

I also adore the artwork from “A Ball for Daisy,” but I crave a book with more words. And we already own “Along A Long Road,” which was purchased for my bike-obsessed daughter.

Happy browsing!

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