Choosing Baby Presents

Dear Blog,

I know, I know– writing again so soon?  An embarrassment of riches, isn’t it?  Here’s the thing: a) I’ve found that writing here is very effective at getting my general writing muscles moving, which is good news for the old dissertation; b) I went to the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline today, which means that I’m bubbling over with inspiration.

Why was I in Brookline?  Well, you see, I have five babies who were either very recently born or are coming into my life imminently.  The Changeling’s birthday is also coming up soon, and I elected to give the four kids coming to her party books instead of loot bags (easier and more fun for me, and hopefully more lasting on the other end than the usual ephemera in loot bags).  So that meant I had nine people in my life in dire need of picture books.  Which means I basically got to go to the bookstore and have a complete blowout.  It was fantastic.  There’s no way that buying online would have been half as fun as browsing those shelves, seeing what was new, and recklessly adding everything that hit my “I love this” button to the pile.

And so, having recently exercised it, I want to share my baby-present-buying process with you.  First of all, is there an older sibling in the picture?  If so, I almost always give the family Here Babies, There Babies because I think it’s great for introducing a toddler or little kid to the wonderful world of babies.  Another book I like to give pretty much every family is A Child’s Garden of Verses, just because it lasts so well: it’s useful from babyhood up to reading it to your own baby.

But apart from those two staunch comrades there’s the rest of the world of books.  My philosophy of books for baby presents is to get books which will speak to the parent, because, well, honestly, anything you’re reading to a newborn you’re reading for yourself, really: the baby just wants to hear your voice.  I remember reading Eleanor Farjeon and Shakespeare to the Changeling.  She didn’t care, but it was fun for me and the cadence soothed her.  So get books the parents will like and will grow with the kid.  That meant that I got an animal-loving family Big Cat, little cat and Madlenka’s Dog, for example.  Another family is getting The Way Home in the Night.

Let’s take a look, though, at a few of the new-to-me books which struck me as being perfect for families to grow into together.

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Consider Emily’s Balloon by Komako Sakai.  The story goes like this: Emily gets a balloon, and she plays with the balloon all day.  When the wind blows the balloon into a tree, Emily is heartbroken.  She had planned to eat supper, brush her teeth, and go to bed with the balloon– what will she do without it?  Her mother promises they’ll get the balloon tomorrow, but Emily isn’t comforted until she sees the balloon is still in the tree waiting for her, gleaming like the moon.  It’s a tender, ever so slightly sentimental story of childhood love for something so simple as a balloon, but what hooked me was the wistful longing at the end: few children’s books dare to have such unresolved endings, leaving you on the note of her hope for tomorrow.  And then there’s the love between mother and daughter, too, perfect for a new mother to read.

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If you want something that sits right on the boundary between funny and sweet, then Love Is by Diane Adams and illustrated by Claire Keane is the book for you or that new baby in your life.  The illustrations tell the story of a little girl who finds a homeless duckling and raises it for a year, but the accompanying text can be applied to so much more.  It begins a bit more specifically: “Love is holding something fragile, tiny wings and downy head,” which nevertheless seems as applicable to a downy new baby as to a duckling, and carries on to the much more general, “Love is in familiar voices, feeling lost, and being found.”  Every line, however has something to tell us about love, both to the new parent and to the child.  I love imagining an older child reading it to a younger sibling, too.  And the funny pictures of the duckling’s antics will keep children of any age enthralled.

Rain!.jpg

This one isn’t going to be a baby present– it’s going to be an instead-of-loot-bag treat: Rain! by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Christian Robinson.  This is exactly the kind of story that’s perfect for Christian Robinson to illustrate: witty and clever with lots of room for the child’s personality to come out.  And he does a stellar job here.  We have two main characters: an elderly gentleman and a little child.  The grumpy gentleman is quite miffed with the rain, while the child is thrilled to get to be a frog in the rain.  The two go their own ways until they literally run into each other in the coffee shop, where the gentleman’s encounter with the child makes him rethink his approach to a rainy day.  Funny and sweet, I can’t wait to see how my Changeling’s friend enjoys it!  (Maybe I’ll read it to the Changeling first, just to give it a test drive– what do you think?)

So that’s how today’s shopping trip went.  How was your day?

And I just realized– there are three birthdays coming up, and all those kids need presents.  What could make a better present than a book?  I wonder what I could find…

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Town Is by the Sea

Do you remember The White Cat and the Monk?  It’s possible you don’t, so I won’t mind at all if you take a moment to refresh your memory, paying particular attention to the wonderful illustrations by Sydney Smith.

Well, today I happened to have a few minutes to spare while I was waiting to meet a friend in Harvard Square, so I happened to saunter into the Harvard Book Store, and I happened to end up in the picture book section where I happened across this book: Town Is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by the said Sydney Smith.  And then I happened to find myself at the cash register, buying it.  That sort of thing happens to happen.

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Dear readers, I have so much work to do, but I couldn’t resist telling you about this book, so bear with me if I rhapsodize a little and turn a bit Canadian on you.  I’ll be brief.

Have you read any stories by Alistair MacLeod, the great Canadian novelist and short story author?  If you haven’t, I’m really, terribly sorry.  Start with any of his short stories– I remember enjoying his collection Island.  If you have, believe me when I say that if Alistair MacLeod had written a picture book, it would have been something like this one, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay anyone.  This book shares his literary qualities: it has the same beautiful blurring of light and dark, joy and sadness you find in his work: not something you normally expect to find in a children’s picture book, and requiring extra skill to navigate without completely bypassing a child’s comprehension.  Joanne Schwartz, originally from Cape Breton and now living in Toronto, has that extra skill.

Let me tell you a little bit about Town Is by the Sea.  First of all, it’s a Cape Breton story, dealing with the sea and with the coal mines.  It’s told from the perspective of a little boy running through his summer day: all day he enjoys the sun sparkling on the sea while his father is deep in the darkness of the mines.  There are moments of homelike peace (his lunch, the chicken stew for supper), and moments of childlike joy (swinging with his friend at the ramshackle playground).

And there’s poetry.  Take the opening: “From my house I can see the sea.  It goes like this– house, road, grassy cliff, sea.”  Read that aloud and tell me that Joanne Schwartz wasn’t paying some attention to the cadence of her words.  Apparently she’s a children’s librarian, and I swear it comes through; she has the ear of someone who’s read lots of children’s books aloud in her day.  That poetry of sound binds together the book, both the light of the boy’s day and the darkness of the father’s, and then, at the end of the day, the peace of the family sitting together, overlooking the sea.  Until the ending: “I think about the sea, and I think about my father.  I think about the bright days of summer and the dark tunnels underground.  One day, it will be my turn.  I’m a miner’s son.  In my town, that’s the way it goes.”

I swear I choked up when I was reading that to the Changeling.  Times turned and things changed, but, as the author’s note at the end of the book says, “Even into the 1950s, around the time when this story takes place, boys of high-school age, carrying on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, continued to see their future working in the mines.  This was the legacy of a mining town.”  And we know how dark, grueling, and unhealthy that work was.

If the poetry of the language draws together the light and dark of the book, the illustrations both delicately highlight the distinctions and pull the book together into a harmonious whole.  Sydney Smith was the ideal illustrator for this task: his rough, sketchy style deliberately resists romanticizing the scenes he’s depicting, and his palette for the home scenes is even a little muted, I could even say drab– until he gets to the sea and the flowers at the grave of the boy’s grandfather.  Those stand out in warm colour.  The mining scenes, by contrast, are completely, unapologetically dark.  Black, relieved only by the light from the miner’s helmets.  And yet, even the muted home scenes and the black mines have a beauty under his brush (“ink, watercolor, and a bit of gouache,” according to the book’s notes).

Altogether, then, this is a book of genius.  This tender, but unrelentingly realistic, Canadian story is not just for Canadians, and I was thrilled to see it in a Boston store.  It’s a story for anyone who’s grown up by the sea, or loves the sea.  It’s a story for anyone who knows the grim story behind a coal mine.  It’s a story for any child who misses a parent at work.  It’s a story for anyone who loves to see the beauty emerge from a realistic story.  It’s Hard Times or North and South, but aimed at children.

My recommendation?  Grab some Alistair MacLeod for yourself and a copy of Town Is by the Sea for your children, then go for a vacation to Cape Breton, or, if you can’t make it to Cape Breton, a seashore of your choice.  And then lie on the sand and read.  Enjoy.

(Note: This book was way too old for the Changeling, who’s nearly four years old, although she enjoyed it.  I just read it to her because I wanted to read it aloud and hear the words sing.  I think six or seven might be a better age for this book, or, of course, just read it for yourself.  I’m thirty, and it was perfect for me!)

Some Books

Dear Readers, today was a blend of the awful and the great.  The “awful” began early with a dentist appointment.  There are those who can face the dentist with equanimity; I am not of their number.  I remember once, in my youth, when I allowed someone to talk me into a waxing appointment.  As the hot wax was being poured onto, then yanked off of, my skin I told myself, “At least I’m not at the dentist.”

The “great” came right afterward: I had to do some shopping in Brookline, and that means that I could also go to the Children’s Book Shop!  Any excuse to go there is acceptable to me, and I did my errands like a good Mummy and then relaxed with wonderful books, new and old.  And as I was checking out the owner asked me, “Did Sheryl tell you the news?”  News?  We were back to the “awful”– it turns out that Sheryl had to move back home for excellent reasons which nevertheless are sad to me.  Sheryl, you see, has never been mentioned by name here, but her wisdom and perceptiveness guided me to some of the very best books I’ve talked about here: The Hired GirlA Child of Books, and many others.  Basically, if you’ve ever looked at one of my posts and said, “I like the sound of that book,” you may well have Sheryl to thank.  So let’s take a moment to pause and say “Thank you” to the great booksellers who link readers with good books.  Thanks, Sheryl, and I hope lucky stars shine on all you undertake.  The Children’s Book Shop just won’t be the same without your smile and unerring ability to say, “I have just the thing for you…”

But, back to the “great,” I came back with some really good books, so let’s skim through them.  We won’t go into great depth, but I really want to share some of the best books I’ve found over the past few months, and especially today’s haul:

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I snapped up The Way Home in the Nightby Akiko Miyakoshi as soon as I saw it (at the Harvard Book Store, actually).  Akiko Miyakoshi is the author of The Tea Party in the Woods which we talked about long ago.  It features the same exquisite art: dark charcoal backgrounds with the occasional splash of colour enlivening the page (she works in pencil, charcoal, and gouache).  The story is simple: a young rabbit is being carried home to bed and watches night take over his neighbourhood as he goes along home.  The glimpses of other homes are enchanting: a phone call, a hug goodbye, a pie in the oven.  But our focus always returns to the young rabbit who finally, sleepily, bids us all goodnight.  It’s sweet without being saccharine, it’s charming without being unrealistic.  And, in an era where it sometimes seems to me that bookshelves are creaking with the weight of the “goodnight” stories being produced, this one is truly, exquisitely original, both in art and in the story being told.  I loved reading it to the Changeling last night, and I strongly recommend that you give it a try, too.

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Do you know Shirley Hughes’s Alfie and Annie Rose books?  This is one of them: Alfie Wins a Prize.  It’s one of the injustices of the world, to my mind, that there are children out there who don’t have even one little Alfie story.  The Alfie books in general are simple stories bursting with realism: as the owner of the Children’s Book Shop once told me, “The thing about Shirley Hughes is that she knows how to draw children.”  This is true, both of her words and of her art.  In this story, happily discovered at the Children’s Book Shop this afternoon, Alfie enters a painting into the children’s art contest at the Harvest Fair.  He wins third place and is very happy, but he swaps his bubble bath prize with the little girl who was miserable about the “consolation prize” (a humorously described, sad-looking stuffed animal) she was given. The brilliance of this story is in what Shirley Hughes doesn’t say: she doesn’t make a whole moralizing bow-wow about sharing what you have to make others happy.  She doesn’t say that Alfie felt sorry for the deformed sheep or goat (no one can tell which it is) stuffy and wanted to make it feel wanted.  But it all comes through: Alfie’s sympathy for both girl and stuffed animal are heart-warming.  In her true-to-life descriptions, art, and stories Shirley Hughes reminds me of no one so much as Ezra Jack Keats, and I wish she were as well-known in the USA.

Big Cat little cat.jpg

Now for an author and illustrator completely new to me: Big Cat, little cat by Elisha Cooper.  I snapped this up at the bookstore today because I saw cats and I thought of the Changeling.  She and I bond over our shared love of cats.  What I didn’t expect, as I stood in the store flipping through the pages, was that it would bring me to the edge of tears.  You see, this is the story of a cat who lives alone, but then a kitten joins him.  The kitten grows and grows and becomes friendly with the cat.  However, the cat also grows older and older… and one day isn’t there any longer.  (Get yourself a kleenex.)  The text simply says, “And that was hard.”  (Yup, that’s when my eyes started to feel a little funny.)  And the kitten, now a cat, is very sad.  Until one day… along comes a kitten!  Well.  This was our goodnight story tonight, and the Changeling was as entranced by the beautiful black and white illustrations as I was, and cooed over each little pose: the older cats training the kittens to eat, drink, use the litter box, and cuddle and rest.  This book tells any reader, cat-lover or not, about the cycle of life, love, and trust.  It tells you of the pain you suffer when someone you love is gone, and of the joy you can find in welcoming someone new into your family.  It’s beautiful, heart-wrenching, and heart-warming.  Toddlers and up will love the illustrations, and adults will fully appreciate the life-cycle.  In other words, I think this is definitely an “all ages” type of book.

And those are three books to occupy you until I find the time to come back again!  Enjoy!