Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas!

Announcing the Twelve Reviews of Christmas, starting Thursday, December 1st! Each day, I will post a review of a different Christmas-themed picture book, both secular and religious titles included. (By doing them now instead of on the traditional twelve days of Christmas, you’ll have time to find them and check them out before the big day!) Some made me laugh, some made me cry, one made me groan…I’m sure you’ll find at least one or two that you’ll enjoy and want to share with the children in your life!

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How to Teach a Slug to Read, by Susan Pearson, illustrated by David Slonim

How to Teach a Slug to ReadHow to Teach a Slug to Read, by Susan Pearson, illustrated by David Slonim
(2011, Marshall Cavendish Children, ISBN 978-0-7614-5805-0)

On the off chance that you know a little slug that is showing an interest in reading, this book is just the book for you! (In the more likely event that you have a young child who is showing an interest in literacy, this book is also a perfect read!)

Susan Pearson has written a good number of picture books, and slugs are the unlikely main characters in two of the most recent ones, including this title and Slugs in Love (recommended to me by my sister-in-law who has a girlchild of her own about the same age as mine). In this one, a little boy gives ten tips to a mother slug on how to teach her little slug to read. The bulk of the text (and there isn’t much anyway), comes after the tenth tip where the benefits of teaching your “slug” to read are described, from when he first reads to you to how books will “show him the whole wide world…all because YOU taught your slug to read!”

David Slonim (who also illustrated an Eileen Spinelli book, Silly Tilly, among others) provides the illustrations, done in charcoal and acrylic. They are rich with detail and are the sort that older and younger kids can both enjoy without being too complex for the small ones or too “babyish” for the bigger ones. Slug speech bubbles contain little comments that support the text but aren’t necessary for understanding it. Little jokes and plays on words abound; selected rhymes from Mother Slug include a creative “Mary Had a Little Slug” and Little Miss Muffet meets a “slug [w]ho gave her a hug.” An assortment of books that constitute the slug’s favorites include The Poky Little Slug, Slug and Snail Are Friends, and Go Slug, Go!, and the illustrated covers are perfect parodies of the originals. They are colorful and fill the pages completely with close-ups of slugs and bugs and books and everything little kids love!

GirlChild’s Reactions: GirlChild is really into asking me how to spell things lately (and she even caught me unaware by recognizing the word “zoo” when I was trying to be sneaky and spelling out words when talking with my husband in front of her!), so I was sure she would like this book. The first time we read it, she wasn’t overly impressed (that’s what I get for trying to force things on her!), but she really enjoyed it the second time. Her favorite illustration is the one on the cover because it looks like the slug is on the boy’s head, and that really appealed to her strong sense of the silly.

I love this book because the pictures are fun, and it also reminded me that there are steps to literacy that don’t involve formal education, and I need to start taking more of them! I plan to buy a stack of index cards to write down any of the words GirlChild asks me to spell (in addition to spelling them out loud (and sometimes with the letter magnets) as I already do) so I make sure to hit her learning style. (I’m decidedly visual, and my husband is an auditory/kinesthetic, so I know GirlChild could go either way or any combination thereof!) I really believe that the best way to interest kids in reading is to expose them to a lot of books (and print in general) and to ensure that the books we share with them tap into their interests (as opposed to just “good” literature (which I believe to be completely arbitrary!)) and tickle their funny bones or sense of adventure or whatever literary bent they favor. This is a great book to share with budding readers as soon as they start to show an interest in words and how they work (or even just a kid who loves slugs and bugs)!

Additional titles:
Slugs in Love
Silly Tilly

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I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie, by Alison Jackson, pictures by Judith Byron Schachner

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie (Picture Puffins)

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie, by Alison Jackson,
pictures by Judith Byron Schachner
(1997, Puffin Books, ISBN-10:0140565957, ISBN-13: 978-0140565959)

Not a review, just a last-minute recommendation if you happen by the library this afternoon before it’s closed for Thanksgiving and want a little light, seasonal reading for your kids! (Our storytime librarian read this last week.) This would be a great book to read before dinner to discourage the family from overindulging, and everyone from preschool age up through elementary school will find it amusing! (Don’t worry…as morbid as this old story can be, she doesn’t die in the end!)

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Topsy and Tim series, by Jean and Gareth Adamson

Today was library day, but I have a proofreading job that arrived today that I need to complete this weekend, so I am posting this review about some books of ours that aren’t library books but are some of GirlChild’s favorites anyway!

Topsy and Tim series, by Jean and Gareth Adamson

We discovered Topsy and Tim when one of my husband’s coworkers—a native of England—gave her son’s small collection to GirlChild when her son got too old for them. The coworker had read them as a child, and her parents gave some of the newer editions to her son when he was three like GirlChild.  They’re probably not going to be in your local library unless you’re in the UK, but they’re available for purchase on Amazon if you’re interested in them. The editions we own have copyrights between 2003 and 2006, but I am under the impression that they are updated editions of some of the original works from fifty years ago; someone correct me if I’m wrong! (I know that several of the titles from the 1990s and early 2000s, at least, were relaunched with the new illustrations starting in 2009.)

Original artwork:

1990s and early 2000s artwork (what we have):

Most recent artwork:

Topsy and Tim—a set of twins—were created by British wife and husband team Jean and Gareth Adamson back in the late 1950s.They wanted to write upbeat stories about realistic children in a time when there was little of that sort of literature available in the UK. The lady who gave us these books described them as “wholesome,” and while they certainly are, they aren’t the sterile sort of non-stories that Dick and Jane—the closest thing I could think of in American children’s literature (if you can call basal readers that)—are. (All the other “firsts” stories and everyday living stories I could think of featured animals or Sesame Street characters in the main roles instead of “real” children. And they weren’t that great.) The authors researched each book thoroughly, and they often based books on events they experienced with their children, so the realism is pretty impressive. Gareth Adamson died in 1982, and although new titles continue to come out (Topsy and Tim Go for the Gold is due out in February 2012) and Belinda Worsley has been illustrating them since 2009, the books still bear the original author and illustrator names. I haven’t been able to figure out if all the newer books are just updated and revised editions of the originals or if new titles are actually being written…does anyone in the UK (or who is just really smart) know enough about this series to help me out?

The stories themselves feature twins Topsy (the girl) and Tim (the boy). They appear to be between three and five years of age (the ages recommended by Ladybird Books) since our books feature playgroup (which appears to be kind of like American preschool) and primary school (and their class seems a lot like American kindergarten). (I noticed that there are some books recommended for ages 5-8, and Topsy and Tim appear older in the illustrations, too. I just don’t have any of those books on hand.) Their behavior is also pretty typical of these ages; although the books are “wholesome” (as our gifter called them), the children are not perfect in the slightest. (Neither are the adults, to be honest, and thank goodness!) They are kind children, but they make mistakes, misbehave, wander off…all things real children—even the nicest and best-behaved ones—do from time to time. The stories contain a lot of dialog and basic narration in short sentences that make them perfect for reading aloud to the younger crowd and for independent reading for the upper end of the intended audience. For this Austen, Heyer, and Rowling-loving mommy, the introduction to British terms and spellings is an added bonus. (GirlChild first heard the word “mummy” in these books, so when we told her that a Halloween-themed rubber ducky was a mummy, she asked what happened to the “mama duck” that she had to be wrapped up in bandages. She was so glad she had a rubber duck dressed in surgical scrubs to help her out.)

The editions that we have are hardback copies about the same size as a typical adult paperback (but only about a quarter inch thick, including the covers), so they fit well into small hands. The illustrations are done in bright primary colors and have clean lines and simple backgrounds. The pages themselves vary from yellow, blue, green, and pink throughout a single book. (The newest editions, which appear to be larger, squarish paperbacks, look to have white backgrounds on all the pages.) The facial expressions lend a lot to the text in that they sometimes convey an emotion (like frustration on the part of the parents or indecision or worry in the case of the children) that would be difficult to explain in the brief text but is an important part of the event. Some of the books even have a few simple activities–matching, mazes, spot the differences–at the end.

GirlChild’s Reactions: GirlChild cannot get enough of these books. She relates completely to Topsy and Tim, so much so that I would purchase the appropriate book for her before she deals with something like being in (the) hospital (British English doesn’t have the “the”) or taking swimming lessons.  She loves the illustrations and notices little things about them (such as the fact that in Topsy and Tim New Lunchboxes, Topsy is eating Tim’s banana (his is missing from his lunchbox, but hers is still there)), and she asks questions about why they’re doing things (especially if the image doesn’t match up exactly to what the text is saying at the time) and what different things are if she doesn’t recognize them. GirlChild also uses a lot of vocabulary that I know she gets from these books because they’re atypical (or nonexistent) in American fare for preschoolers, like “glum,” “cross” (the grumpy variety), and “plimsolls,” so I feel pretty good about broadening her horizons in that way. I know that a reference to an event in a Topsy and Tim book (such as going camping or putting medicines in a locked cupboard) will bring instant attention and compliance from her. She has actually requested blackcurrant jelly (although she said, “Jelly curtain, please…you know, jelly in a bowl!”), cheese and cucumber sandwiches (although she picked out the cucumber slices before she ate), and peanut crunchies (for which I haven’t been able to find a recipe that matches the description in the book, so I wonder if they’re just something the authors’ family made and aren’t common), all foods mentioned in the books we’ve read. We compare places we go and things we do to where Topsy and Tim go and what Topsy and Tim do, and it feels like a completely organic learning experience instead of a forced one. Given their ability to introduce GirlChild to new situations, new words, and a different country’s way of life, I heartily recommend these books to any parents with children in the target age group who like to spice up their lives with a little bit of culture with which their kids can identify.

By the way, I got all the information I used to write this review that isn’t opinion from these two websites:

http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Author/AuthorPage/0,,1000000048,00.html (author information)

http://www.topsyandtim.com/ (publication information)

Other titles we own:
(Ours actually has a different cover, but this is the same generation of illustrations. Oddly, Topsy is dressed the same in ours, but Tim’s clothes are different, and the doctor’s hair is lighter on ours.)
(This one’s about bullying.)
(This is the newest generation of illustrations; for some reason our version of this one isn’t available on the U.S. Amazon…try the UK one perhaps?)
(This is, again, the same generation of illustrations, but this is a different edition than ours. Oh, and let the arguments about “airplane” and “aeroplane” begin…GirlChild cannot let us pronounce it “aeroplane” without correcting us!)
(Ah, the shopping trolley and “one more job” for the twins to do!)

(Probably GirlChild’s favorite overall! I’m not sure why the Amazon image wasn’t showing because it’s available on their site, but this one comes from Ladybird Books.)

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Knock at the Door and Other Baby Action Rhymes, by Kay Chorao

Knock at the Door and Other Baby Action Rhymes

Knock at the Door and Other Baby Action Rhymes, by Kay Chorao
(1999, Dutton’s Children’s Books, ISBN 0-525-45969-3)

Knock at the Door is a collection of illustrated action rhymes and finger plays for very young children. Parents, caregivers, and storytime librarians can benefit from the step-by-step picture guides to the motions that are provided next to each line, and children will love doing the actions and exploring the rich illustrations on each page.

Kay Choroa provides the illustrations for this collection of twenty traditional action rhymes and finger plays—from “Pat-a-Cake” to “The Teapot” (“I’m a Little Teapot” to most of us)—which are conveniently listed in a table of contents in order to easily locate them within the book. This book is clearly not intended to be read aloud in a single sitting; I can only assume it’s meant more as a reference for adults who can’t recall the action rhymes of their childhoods and need ideas of ways to engage with babies in play. (Since it’s been a long three years since GirlChild was this age, it’s been a somewhat helpful reminder to me as well!) Some of the rhymes, like “This Little Piggy,” seem very obvious and don’t really require the otherwise useful motion illustrations (in small boxes with each line of the rhyme), but others are much more obscure. Some of the lesser known rhymes, like “Knock at the Door” from the title, are perhaps not likely to enter into regular rotation at our house, but there were a few cute ones that were new to me that we may start using (after I memorize them; see GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions below for the reasons why).

Besides the basic, unobtrusive drawings to guide the actions, there are whimsical full-page illustrations for each rhyme done in what appears to be colored pencil. The style fits well with the traditional rhymes; the illustrations are very detailed with bright but soft colors that bring to mind the old Mother Goose stories and Beatrix Potter’s work, with plenty of animals and babies and flowers and toys on each page for small children to explore. You wouldn’t have to do the rhymes with a child for him or her to enjoy the drawings (in fact, I would say it would be hard to do the actions while having the child look at the pictures, too), so they add another opportunity for interaction between parent and child and the book.

GirlChild and BoyChild’s Reactions: I got this book because finger plays and action rhymes are great ways to interact with infants, and there aren’t any infant storytimes available in our area except during BoyChild’s morning nap!  Although this book seems to be meant to share with a small child—one with whom you would typically do this kind of action rhyme—BoyChild would have none of it. I had him sitting in my lap on the floor with the book in front of us so that I could manage both him and the book at the same time. Ha! He did not want me moving his arms to the actions and struggled forcibly to be free, and if I let go of him to (for instance) walk my fingers up his arm or beep his nose, he would lunge forward and try to rip the pages out of the book.  (I think he liked the pictures. A lot.) Always up for that sort of sport, GirlChild likely would have sat and watched me wrestle him into doing these finger plays all day long.  (She also wanted me to do the “Knock at the Door” one—the one where you knock at the child’s noggin, tug at the child’s hair, poke the child’s nose, and stick the spoon into the child’s mouth—with her at lunchtime because she is clearly at that stage where she is jealous of even the strangest things she sees her little brother getting to do. BoyChild, on the other hand, got mad at me for poking his nose when he was trying to eat.) Maybe he’ll like the action rhymes better when he can do the motions himself instead of being my pudgy little puppet…

I think this book is a good resource for parents wanting to have some one-on-one interaction time with their little ones, but if the publishers really wanted parents to share the book with a baby, they should have printed it as a board book instead of with paper pages so that it wouldn’t be destroyed!

Additional titles:

The Baby's Good Morning Book

Baby's Bedtime Book

Related titles:

Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose

Beatrix Potter The Complete Tales

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The Perfect Thanksgiving, by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi

Eileen Spinelli is the wife of award-winning children’s and young adult author Jerry Spinelli, and she is well-known in her own right; this is just one of her more than fifty books for young children. GirlChild also loves Callie Cat, Ice Skater, and I’ve got my eye on Baby Loves You So Much, so it wasn’t hard to choose this Thanksgiving-themed book off the holidays shelf at the library!

The Perfect Thanksgiving, by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi
(2003, Henry Holt, ISBN 0-8050-6531-8)

Abigail Archer’s family has a picture-perfect Thanksgiving, but the narrator’s family quite clearly does not! While pretty much everything about these two families and their celebrations seem to be different, one thing is the same: their families are full of love!

This book tells the tale of two Thanksgivings, using rhyming verse to contrast Abigail Archer’s perfect family celebration and the narrator’s chaotic one. The mood and vocabulary used in each section changes to fit the atmosphere of the house (words like “dainty” and “organdy” for the perfect house and “slurps” and “a-quivering” for the narrator’s home), and the humor of the contrast can be played up when reading aloud through exaggerating changes in pace and tone when alternating between reading about the two families. A quick read-through before reading aloud to your child might be useful to get the rhythm down for a flawless performance, but it’s simple enough to adjust to as you’re reading if you’re relatively comfortable with typical poetry for children. (The meter is definitely not the stressed-unstressed pattern that some of the more contrived children’s poetry sometimes has, but it’s not overly complex either.) The story itself proceeds through the typical family meal, the post-meal activities of adults and children, and finally the overnight stay of out-of-town guests. It ends with the conclusion that, although the families are very different, they are both “ultra perfect” at loving.

The illustrations, done in gouache (I had to look it up, too!), colored pencil, and collage, remind me a little bit of Lane Smith’s work with Jon Scieszka in books like Math Curse (although much brighter and friendlier for younger eyes). Cartoonish characters are mixed with realistic elements (such as much of the food and fabrics and other items that require a specific texture) that give the appearance of being cut from magazines and glued into the image. (That would be the collage element, I’d guess.) Slightly warped perspective and bright colors make the illustrations very fun, and there is a LOT to look at on each page. Throughout the book, illustrator Joann Adinolfi features two turkeys that represent each family: a funky-looking hand turkey for the narrator’s family and a traditional live turkey for the “perfect” family.  They pop up randomly throughout the book as a part of the crazy collage, and they often have something to say (in speech bubbles) or are engaged in doing whatever the characters on the page are doing at the time. (Kids love looking for these recurring minor characters in books, and many illustrators include them to get readers really looking at the art.) The artist also includes several charts and diagrams interspersed throughout the scenes of family life to illustrate the differences between the families. Although the pages are very, very busy, the art accompanies the text really well as it gives the impression of being done by the child narrator as a part of telling her story.

GirlChild’s Reactions: GirlChild was more than willing to make hand turkeys after reading this book, although they mostly ended up looking like witches’ hands instead because she decided just to put a green tuft of “feathers” at the end of each finger to partially imitate the crudely-drawn hand turkeys in the book. She makes faces on her drawings of people, but apparently the profile drawing of a turkey didn’t warrant a face.  (She talked about the beaks, but she got distracted by wanting to write “great grandma” on one of them, so she never got around to drawing any.) I think she’s a little too young to really remember much about Thanksgiving dinners (which we’ve eaten at our pastor’s house since she was born since we moved a thousand miles from family when she was two months old), and the kids in her church classes are also too young to talk much about their different family celebrations, so some of the story was lost on her, but she seemed to enjoy the book anyway. We read Eve Bunting’s A Turkey for Thanksgiving later on, and she wanted to reread that one a couple times.  She seemed to get more of what was going on (that the turkey was hiding from the other animals because he thought they wanted to eat him) in the Bunting one, so maybe The Perfect Thanksgiving is better used as an easy read for older kids (or a class read-aloud) where they would have a greater experience with which to make connections and might be more impacted by the message of the book.  This is a book that I wish I had with me when I was teaching fifth grade to read to my students who might have struggled with envy regarding their “perfect” classmates and could have used the reminder that as long as you’re loved and loving, none of the rest of it matters.

(Eileen Spinelli has also written a book about kids with deployed family members–While You Are Away–which I thought was a timely one to bring up this Veterans’ Day weekend. I didn’t have this one on hand to review, however, but it looks like a good one! Many thanks to all who have served or are serving!)

Additional titles by the author:

Related titles:

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Parents magazine: Read, Cook, Love, by Monica Bhide

The November issue of Parents magazine had an article that caught my eye because of the possibilities for spending some family together time doing two things my daughter loves to do: read and help cook!  “Read, Cook, Love” is written by Monica Bhide and features four recipes based on some childhood favorite books:


Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Barrett),


The Very Hungry Caterpillar
(Carle),


The Runaway Bun
ny (Brown/Hurd), and


Chicken Soup with Rice
(Sendak).

The author writes on her own website that this is her favorite article she’s ever written and includes an additional recipe inspired by Winnie the Pooh (Milne).

One of the very few things that ever made me wish that I taught kindergarten instead of fifth grade is the fact that many kindergarten teachers do awesome things like serve green eggs and ham and make construction paper turkey hats and whatnot. Now that I have my own small children, I guess I don’t have to envy the primary teachers anymore; I’ll be keeping my eyes open for cooking tie-ins for the books we read together!  (Hint: Some books, like Carrot Soup (Segal), have recipes right in the back of the book so you don’t have to come up with your own!)

Related titles:

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