A few of our favorite children’s books

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Can we talk about libraries for a moment, and how wonderful they are? The other day I carefully read through a post on a favorite blogger’s favorite picture books, made a long list, looked them all up on our local library website, and put a whole bunch on hold. A day or so later I walked to the circulation desk and picked up a huge pile of books with my name on them. As I walked out with this armload of wonderful new books I honestly felt like I was getting away with something I could hardly believe. Thank you, libraries and the tax dollars that support them!

All of our kids love books, and both Kristin and I love reading to them. Clever picture books with wonderful illustrations, beautiful stories, thoughtful messages and life lessons, jokes that make both adults and children laugh – there’s almost nothing better. I should say that when it comes to children’s books I do have a bias: I love storybooks and really don’t care much for activity-style books. The ones with stickers or moving parts, or the ones you shine a flashlight through – not a huge fan. I find the activities to be distracting and we end up spending more time on the activities (often when I’m trying to get kids to bed) than the act of reading and listening, which is the part that I love. That’s just a personal preference, however. I guess the one exception to the rule would be the “That’s Not My…” book series from Usborne books. Those are all pretty cute as baby books go.

Without further ado, a list of a few of our my favorite children’s books right now:


Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed

K and I bought this book years before we had kids. We loved the naked mole rats at the Bronx Zoo (sadly, the World of Darkness exhibit is no longer there) and when we saw this one at Powell’s Books in Portland we had to buy it. It’s a wonderful story about a mole rat who is different from the others – he likes to get dressed – and his peers tease him about it, until the whole group learns that it’s OK for everyone to do what works for them.


Mole Had Everything

We’ll stay on the mole theme for a moment. My parents bought this one for us at a cute little shop in Woodstock, NY when I was pregnant. It’s the story of a simple, nature-loving mole who starts to wonder if he needs more stuff, and then discovers that having a lot of things in his home doesn’t leave him time or space to do the things he truly loves to do. A great way to teach kids that having more stuff won’t make you happier.


An Egg Is Quiet

A science-teacher colleague of K’s gave this to us at the baby shower before the twins were born. The illustrations are gorgeous; it might be the most beautiful science book I’ve ever seen. The first couple of pages are filled with eggs all labeled with the name of their creature, and the back two pages have the same creatures labeled, and when Jonah was three he used to love to look at the egg page and ask me which creature came out of each one and we would flip back and forth, back and forth. We would take turns choosing which eggs we thought were the prettiest. I also just realized that apparently this is a series and now we need to get our hands on the rest of these.


Sonya’s Chickens

This one is new to us and I’m in love. The illustrations are so vibrant and beautiful (how did I not know about Phoebe Wahl?) and it’s a really accessible story about death in nature and the circle of life, so to speak. I think that it’s a beautiful story and maybe it also appeals to the part of me that sometimes wishes that we lived in the mountains and had chickens and goats for the kids to tend to. It also features an interracial family which I always see as a huge plus in kids books.


The Colors of Us

Speaking of diversity, we try to talk about the subject of race early and often with our white kids because being silent about it is a common mistake among white families. This book is a very simple one that helps children to understand that people come in a huge variety of beautiful colors. There’s no real discussion of the subject of race, per se, but it’s a good introductory book that’s cute. Jonah (age 4) chose it one night at bedtime and said to me, “I picked this one because I know that you love books about race!” So maybe we’ve been a little heavy handed 😉


Last Stop on Market Street

An award-winning story about seeing your world with an eye towards appreciation and gratitude, and how we can help our children to see wonder and beauty in everyday things, even if others appear to have more than they do.


This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World

This is a bit of a long read, but it’s really fascinating. It starts by introducing readers to seven real children (but illustrated in the book) from around the world, and then walks through their day section by section: this is what I eat for breakfast, this is where I live, this is how I get to school, this is what I learn at school, this is how I play…all with illustrations of each example for each child. Our kids seem especially interested in the illustrations and descriptions of meals for each child, and I found the variation in the dinner hour to be really interesting. At the end there are photos of each child and his or her real family, and a picture of the night sky that they all share.


All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon (2009-09-08)

This one is another new favorite of mine, maybe tied with Sonya’s Chickens. The pictures are dreamy, and for some reason our kids immediately found K and I and each of themselves in an illustrated character that they follow through the book and locate on various pages (the characters are never named, as the words are more poetic and universal and less of a character narrative). The words are as lovely as the pictures. It’s hard to describe this one but it’s wonderful.


Things to Do

Another poetic one that walks through things that all sorts of natural elements do. The language is beautiful and playful. For example, “Things to do if you are dawn. Shoo away night. Wash the eastern sky with light. Wake the sleeping sun: rise and shine! Rouse resting roosters. Set songbirds singing.” This one is Kristin’s favorite from the huge stack of library books I brought home.


The Book of Mistakes

More incredible illustrations here. An abstract and amusing look at how sometimes mistakes can lead to even more wonderful ideas that you might not have considered otherwise. If you have a kid who gets discouraged by mistakes, this is a good one to pick up.


Miss Rumphius

I’m pretty sure that I can remember this one from my own childhood. I can’t even explain why I like it so much. Maybe it’s because it tells the story of a female protagonist who was inspired by her grandparents and went on to independently create the life of her dreams, and took great pride in making the world more beautiful.


Strictly No Elephants

A completely adorable book about the importance of including everyone, and how it feels to be left out. Our kids seem to especially love the page on which all of the kids with unusual pets (who weren’t allowed to participate in the neighborhood pet club meeting) are walking down the street with critters like a bat flying along on a leash and a narwhal in a fishbowl being pulled in a wagon.


The Spiffiest Giant in Town

It’s actually really difficult for me to choose my favorite Julia Donaldson book. Vivienne used to be completely obsessed with Stick Man and The Gruffalo is incredibly clever. And I love A Squash and A Squeeze, but I think that this one is special because it’s about being kind and generous just because, and how appreciated that is. It still makes me tear up when I read it.


I Love You, Stinky Face

This is just plain silly, imaginative fun and all about the enduring love of a mother. We recently discovered that there are more of these, including Happy Halloween, Stinky Face which the kids are really enjoying this month.

Ada Twist, Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck

The illustrations and writing in these are all incredibly clever and funny and they all have wonderful messages about pursuing your passions no matter what. I can’t wait for them to write one about every student in the class.


Families, Families, Families!

We bought this one when Jonah was two and we realized that we had zero books that featured families like ours. This is a cute little book with funny illustrations of animal families that represent the wide variety of families in the world. Our kids always shout when we get to the koala family and say that it’s our family because it happens to have two moms and three baby koalas, and they love to point out who’s who. Accessible for even the youngest children.


A Family Is a Family Is a Family

 

Slightly more subtle in its illustration of different families, this one is also wonderful and I love the illustrations. A teacher asks her class what makes each of their families special, and each child shares something unique that isn’t always about the composition of their families but manages to communicate that anyway, for example, “Both my moms are terrible singers, and they both like to sing really loud.” The last page is an awesome nod to foster families and it made me want to cheer.


These are a lot of my current favorites, but the kids would probably pick a few that I didn’t include, so there’s a lot of mom-loves-reading-these-to-us bias going on in my list. We’re always searching for more amazing books, so I’d love to know what your favorites are. Please share them!

Crying over lost chicken

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Two nights ago I went to bed quite late after a lovely family movie night (Moana), and found myself sobbing over a small stuffed chicken. I’d been losing sleep over chicken all week long, ever since we’d been unable to find him as we left for school on Monday, but this was the first time I’d cried about it. I lay there in bed fully cognizant that it was, frankly, ridiculous that I was crying over a lost toy when there were so many more horrible things going on in the world that were worthy of tears, but I couldn’t stop.

Parenthood is so strange and complicated and powerful. I become more and more aware of all of the baggage (both useful and burdensome) that we carry with us from our own childhoods, and even things that our own parents carried into ours. I have a thing about stuffed animals, I always have. I struggle mightily to view them like other toys and to this day if someone steps on one I wince and want to rescue it. I can’t explain this phenomenon exactly, and honestly I wish it weren’t the case. I’ve always hated The Velveteen Rabbit (do any children truly enjoy that story? Do adults?), and when we became parents I tried to avoid stuffed animals, because I knew that once we had them I’d never be able to get rid of them. But then everyone else started buying the kids stuffed animals and now we have dozens that no one plays with stuffed into bins and cradles all over the house.

Jonah never really got attached to a particular stuffed creature; he didn’t really have a comfort item per se (well, besides me). But Jude and Vivi like dolls and stuffed things more, and when Jude got this small yellow chicken in his Easter basket from Grandma Sue this past spring, he took to it. He’s taken it to school on a number of occasions, it travels with us, and he sleeps with it often (though he’s perfectly able to sleep without it, so it isn’t the kind of comfort item that many children end up with). He doesn’t necessarily ask for it every day, but he has been known to say, “I love chicken so much,” and it’s as adorable as it sounds.

When we went to Northern Michigan this past August, chicken came with us. When we stopped to eat lunch in a town somewhere between Traverse City and Mackinaw City, Jude insisted on bringing chicken in and somehow we left him. We were about 20 minutes away when suddenly, from the back seat, Jude yelled, “chicken!” There was panic in his voice. We turned around immediately, called the restaurant, and they retrieved chicken from the table and kept him safe for us until we got back.

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Chicken was probably just out of this shot, sitting on the table in the foreground.

When chicken turned up missing this week, I kept thinking of that restaurant and Jude’s panicked realization from his car seat. I also thought about my green pillow. When I was tiny I had a small green pillow (known just as “green pillow” much like chicken is simply “chicken”) that I took everywhere.

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I know, I look just like Jonah.

When I was still quite small it was lost somehow. Every night when my parents put me to bed I would ask them to look for green pillow, and they would assure me that they would; this must have gone on for months. I don’t know whether they actually looked for it, but probably not because I believe they told me eventually that it was left at a hotel. My parents have talked about this loss for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think that I’ve ever asked them how they felt as I went through it.

My dad has been writing these stories for me lately, memories from his youth about all sorts of things. (I’ll write about that another time, but it’s via Storyworth and it’s wonderful). I’ve noticed in his stories that seemingly small things, anecdotes that others might breeze past, still carry tremendous hurt for him.

We travelled to Kentucky Dam Village at Kentucky Lake and stayed in a cabin Tuesday night before heading to Iowa on Wednesday after breakfast. I recall this because we kids were given the opportunity to buy a souvenir of our trip. I picked out a straw hat with a red plaid hat band with the rim turned up all around. Not your typical souvenir but it was what I wanted. I think we bought it on Tuesday. Wednesday morning we had breakfast in a resort log type cabin restaurant that seemed similar to today’s Cracker Barrel but was a local establishment. We finished breakfast and hit the road for Iowa. I don’t remember how far we had gone when I realized I had left my hat at the restaurant, I just knew it was too far to go back.

Reading this broke my heart for the small boy in the story, and I can tell by the way my dad tells the story now that there’s something about childhood sadness in a moment like this that just hangs on and shapes you. There was this one too.

While in Peoria, I went fishing with my brother and sister and the other kids on the river and I caught my first fish. It was small but I was so proud. Bud and Frannie had just returned so everyone was at the cottage and I remember running up from the river to show everyone my catch. It was a small mouth bass and I recall Bud and my dad telling me it was too small and I should have thrown it back. My mother then pointed out to me that it was young and its mother was probably looking for it. I was crushed that I had taken this small child fish away from it’s mother for all eternity. I just bawled and ran out of the house and hid behind the large propane tank and cried and cried. I will never forget that day.

Do you ever wonder what your children will remember and what will truly shape them? My dad is so sensitive in such a beautiful way, and I know that I get a lot of my sensitivity from him. When he told me the fish story one day recently before having written it down, he cried. That moment hurt him so deeply as a young boy, and sometimes I’m overcome with fear that the mistakes I make with our kids may scar them in ways that never quite heal. I feel like I make at least a dozen potentially significant parenting mistakes every day.

I listened to a podcast awhile back (edit – found it thanks to Kristin) and the episode involved a scientist who also happens to be a parent. The scientist was talking about how much we change over time, not just in personality but every one of our cells. They were also talking about memory. We have memories of significant things that have shaped us, but every time we recall those memories we corrupt them in a way and they change ever so slightly. So even memories of our most significant times begin to change along with our cells. But memories from our very earliest years, we can’t recall those later in life. Most of us can’t remember anything from before the age of four or so. And so the researcher concluded that perhaps that’s one thing that stays with us as we grow. Those very early memories are incorruptible because we cannot recall them and inadvertently alter them, so perhaps they’re always there and always the same.

As the week wore on and chicken still hadn’t turned up, I felt heavier and heavier. Every day I’d comb the house again, go through baskets at preschool drop off just in case he’d been left there, ask the teachers to keep an eye out, and I started to worry that something terrible might have happened. Had he fallen out of the minivan and been left in a parking lot somewhere? With my stuffed animal neurosis that was more than I could take.

In families with multiple siblings it’s easy to feel like there isn’t a lot that truly belongs to the younger one(s), and that feels especially true when it comes to Jude. Vivi has such a big personality that she asserts herself and everyone knows what she likes and what makes her uniquely her. But Jude? He’s so easy going, so easy to please, and he’s happy to play with Jonah’s toys and take Jonah’s hand-me-downs, and to tag along with the things Vivi loves. There are so few things that seem truly special to Jude and that are his alone, and chicken was one of those few.  Despite the fact that Jude didn’t seem all that concerned about chicken’s absence (save for a tiny bit of upset on Monday), I could not let this go. Maybe in the back of my mind I knew that this was more about my baggage, my sensitivity, my worries about not giving enough of myself to each of my children, my attachments and losses, than it was about Jude’s. But I couldn’t let it go. An ocean of parental guilt washed over me when I thought that perhaps my carelessness had contributed to chicken’s disappearance.

At 11:30 on Friday night as I lay in bed sobbing there was no way that I was simply going to sleep. I got out of bed and grabbed a flashlight and began looking everywhere, again. Kristin seemed bewildered by my emotional state and need to find chicken, but she was incredibly gracious and took up the search alongside me. I went out to the van, I searched the basement again, Kristin searched our bedroom closet and Jude and Jonah’s drawers, we both went back into Vivi’s room where Vivi and Jude were sleeping (and where chicken is most of the time) and started going through everything again in the dark. I put my hand inside of the blankets at the bottom of Vivi’s mattress and felt something fuzzy: chicken. I pulled him out, whispered to Kristin, and then collapsed into her lap and cried.

Is this even the tip of the heartbreak-iceberg for any of our children’s lives to come? Of course not, so it’s the sort of episode that makes me wonder if my heart is even cut out for something as emotionally wrenching as parenting. Glennon Doyle Melton has a quote that I love: “We think our job as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain. Maybe that’s why we all feel like failures so often – because we all have the wrong job description for love.” I know that I can’t protect my children from pain, and that doing so wouldn’t really equip them for the world anyway, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing that I could. I hate to think that my oversensitivity might leave them sobbing over a stuffed creature at midnight decades from now, or that someday they’ll recall a mistake I made or words I chose poorly with tears in their eyes.

The next morning, Jude danced into the room where I lay in bed with Jonah. He was holding chicken and he was smiling, and in that moment everything felt lighter. One tiny crisis had been averted, only a million more to go.

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Are you thinking, “that’s definitely a duck, not a chicken”? We know. At some point it was decided that it’s a chick and that was the end of it.