I had planned on discussing Seasons by Anne Crausaz on the first day of Spring (Kane Miller, $15.99). But dammit it feels like spring now! However, believe me, I am well aware that around here spring in March does not guarantee spring in April. Seasons, as you might expect, moves through the four seasons of the year, starting with, “Everything is green. It must be springtime”. The text is fairly simple, but flows nicely from one season to the next, “Fireflies, like flying stars. Summer has arrived!” . . . “The colors have changed. Autumn is here.” . . . “Now the fog is so think it’s hard to see. It’s winter.” . . . “Because soon, the flowers will start growing up through the snow, ready for // spring.” Moreover, the illustrations are remarkable. The cover is a clear indicator of the illustrations inside the book. That bright, vibrant yellow, with the simple flowers and bird are lovely. Similarly, each page concentrates on one or two aspects of nature, allowing the reader to focus in on flowers, lady bugs, water, snails, and snowflakes. All of the children featured are shown engaging with and enjoying nature. From smelling the berries to playing in the leaves, the children are not simply watching the season pass, they are participating in the delights of each one.
A Flower in the Snow, by Tracey Corderoy and illustrated by Sophie Allsopp (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $16.99), is a delightful winter picture book about friendship. Luna and the polar bear are the best of friends and quite devoted to each other. When they find a golden flower growing in the snow, the polar bear gives it to Luna. The flower fades, as flowers do, and the polar bear is distressed to watch Luna fade as well. In an attempt to make her happy, the polar bear sets out to find another golden flower. Both Luna and the polar bear eventually learn that being with the one you love is far better than any gift they could ever give you.
It’s a sweet book — perfect for reading while cuddled up by the fire with cup of cocoa — but it has just enough humor to keep it from becoming overly sappy. The illustrations inspire wistful smiles. I went ice skating in Central Park last weekend, and I can assure you that I am not as graceful a skater as Luna, let alone the polar bear. The polar bear travels far and wide to find a golden flower, but these pages are great because of the jarring disjunct between the polar bear and the surrounding environment. It’s not every day you see a polar bear navigating through the tropics. I can’t say that I laughed out loud — it’s not that kind of book — but my heart smiled. And I was a little jealous, because everyone needs a polar bear to cuddle up with in the winter.
Now the “Twelves Days of Christmas” has to be one of the most annoying songs ever invented (other than this version, of course). I’m sure if I did some research on its history I would come to appreciate the references and symbolism behind the words, but basically I’ve never been a fan of cumulative narratives. However, it makes an excellent canvas for illustrators and there are some really beautiful artistic versions available. I’ll limit this discussion to my top three recommendations.
First, I love all things Jane Ray. I love the details in her work, I love her illustrated borders, I love that she’s done a lot of work on fairy tales. I love that she’s quiet and kind of shy. I get quiet, too, especially when I meet people I admire, so our conversation was awkward at best, but I did have the chance to ask her to sign my copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses at a bookstore Christmas party a few years back. Her rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas (Candlewick, $16.99) is amazing, starting with the cover, which displays a tree branch decorated with ornaments representing each of the twelve nights. The details are incredible; look at each individual leaf and you’ll notice they are all different. My favorite page from the book has to be the “ten lords a-leaping”. Going for a Mary Poppins affect, nineteenth-century British businessmen are dancing on the rooftops of London. Those are some nice moves and I love the alternative interpretations she includes in this book.
Now I expected to insist that Ray’s version is the best to come out recently, but then I took a look at Loren Long’s edition (Dial, $16.99) and now I’m torn. Long’s cover is more subdued, but the illustrations inside are breathtaking. The “two turtle doves’ page is filled with the crisp blue of icy winter. You can’t look at the illustration for too long without getting chills, in both senses. Long has opted for majestic fantasy; her lords are medieval knights on a noble quest. Both illustrators are to be commended and both of their books would make lovely Christmas books (ahem!)
Finally, Jade Fang has illustrated an edition utilizing the AniMotion technology that has been popular lately (Accord Publishing, $17.99). Every page contains a screen vignette that slides back and forth to create movable images. The artistic style is aimed at a younger audience, but the illustrations are solid, if somewhat seasonally cliché. Of the three, this edition isn’t my first choice personally, but I can understand why children ages 2-5 might really enjoy it.
While traditionally the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 and end on January 5, starting today there are only twelve days until Christmas. I hope you all are having a lovely season and enjoying the holiday books. What are some of your favorites?
As a bookseller, I love giving recommendations, but it’s always great to get suggestions from customers, too. The other day a woman came in and recommended a book to me that one of our staff members had recommended to her last year. She loved the book so much that she wanted to make sure we kept recommending it. A bounce-back recommendation!
The book in question is The Carpenter’s Gift: A Christmas Tale about the Rockefeller Center Tree by David Rubel and illustrated by Jim LaMarche (Random House, $17.99). Beautifully illustrated, this book is appropriate 5-7 year olds, who are better able to sit through a longer story. The narrative is framed as a childhood recollection from the Christmas of 1931. In the midst of the Depression, Henry and his father head to New York to sell Christmas trees. There they meet some carpenters who help unload the trees. At the end of the day, Henry and his father leave the trees they don’t sell with the carpenters, which sparks a ripple of kind deeds that embody the ‘Christmas spirit’. The ripple continues when present-day Henry is asked to donate one of his trees to the Rockefeller Center for their Christmas celebration with the understanding that the tree will then be donated to help build another family’s home.
At the end there are two pages of information about the Rockefeller Tree and Habitat for Humanity. Starting in 2007, wood from the Rockefeller Tree has been donated to Habitat for Humanity, which uses the lumber to build affordable housing. There is a parallel here. I can see now that our customer wanted to perpetuate the ripple started in this book; an unspoken injunction to continue spreading this story of kindness.
Holiday books have officially taken over our front of store. There are numerous editions of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas, some old classics and new favorites. As tempting as it might be to dedicate all of December to holiday books, I’ll try to intersperse other recommendations. But given that it’s officially December, we might as well get started.
The number of Hanukkah books has increased exponentially. While famous character such as Fancy Nancy and Curious George tend to focus on Christmas, some authors and publishers are wizening up and producing books that cross the holidays or offer Hanukkah AND Christmas books. More on that another day. The Hanukkah Hop! by Erica Silverman and illustrated by Steven D’Amico was new last year (Simon & Schuster, $12.99). It’s a delightful romp through the holiday and, as probably gleaned from the title, is the perfect set-up for a dance party. The words tumble out in a sing-song rhythm: “Mommy shines menorahs. // Daddy clears a space to dance. // Rachel swirls with candles // as she sings a bim-bom chant”.
I’ll whirl all night
at our Hanukkah Hop!”
Adult readers will need to practice reading, while holding the book, and swirling and whirling. This is no bed-time book, it demands to be danced to. Rachel two-steps her guests inside, dips and pirouettes, and spins like a dreidel. There are some quiet moments when Mommy tells a story and the family debates the merits of traditional foods. But the party really gets started when the klezmer band appears: two contiguous double-page spreads show the party “swaying”, “snapping”, and “flap-flap flapping”. D’Amico’s illustrations are vibrant and energetic. I personally love the little cat who always shows up somewhere on the page participating in the Hanukkah hop.
One of the things I appreciate about our bookstore is that most of the picture books are organized by subject. Sometimes it can be tricky to find a book, but it encourages the staff members to become acquainted with content. In addition, when customers come in looking for books about “trains” or “dogs”, we can easily point them to a section for them to browse. “Dinosaurs” are a popular request and as you might suspect there is no end of fiction and non-fiction in this subject. My personal favorite story about dinosaurs is Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs, written by Ian Whybrow and illustrated by Adrian Reynolds (Dragonfly, $6.99). This is a UK title, but it is readily available in the US. Harry finds an old box of dinosaur toys in the attic. With his grandmother’s help, and much to his teenage sister’s disgust, he cleans the dinosaurs off and carries them around in a plastic bucket. Harry is a careful researcher and anoints all the dinosaurs with their proper scientific names. The text is cute, but it’s the illustrations that really make this book. The dinosaurs all have individual personalities and they are perpetually delighted with the adventures that Harry takes them on. They mimic his own emotional response to the world — scowling at Harry’s older sister and (spoiler!) expressing fear and anxiety when they get lost. Reynolds has perfectly captured the imaginative world that children create with their toys and has sprinkled in plenty of humor to amuse adult readers. Don’t forget to spend some time studying the endpapers, too!
Like many families, every year at the Thanksgiving meal we are supposed to list the things we are thankful for. I hate this tradition. If you don’t say “family” and “health” you sound like a tool. But hearing everyone at the table list off “family” and “health” is super boring and seems kind of fake to me. Also, we list the things we are thankful for, but often forget to actually give thanks for them. Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning
Message by Chief Jake Swamp and illustrated by Erwin Printup (Lee&Low Books, $8.95) is an excellent alternative and I would like to suggest that reading it around the table become our family’s new tradition. The text is based on the Thanksgiving Message, which is a message of peace and appreciation of Mother Earth and her inhabitants. According to the introduction, the words are traditionally spoken at ceremonial gatherings of the Iroquois or Six Nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onodaga, Senecca, and Tuscarora. The invocation begins, “To be a human being is an honor, and we offer thanksgiving for all the gifts of life” and unifies both recognition and appreciation. The illustrations beautifully capture the majesty of the text and convey the joy of the physical and spiritual world.
For younger children, Tomie dePaola’s My First Thanksgiving (Grosset & Dunlap, $5.99) introduces the Thanksgiving story and ends with a
contemporary image of the family gathering. The book is simple; it presents the core concepts without imparting the oppressive instructional quality that is (far too often) a staple in any holiday book. dePaolo’s illustrations, as always, are a perfect complement.
Finally, for slightly older children, there are two excellent non-fiction books about pilgrim children that balance information and entertainment. Sarah Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl and Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy, both by Kate Waters (Scholastic, $6.99), contain photographs by Russ Kendall of children in the Plimouth Plantation village. Volunteers recreate 1620, and sometimes children volunteer with their parents (but not always and once I did kind of piss off a pilgrim by asking where the children were). The village is carefully researched and the inhabitants meticulously maintain their character. Besides visiting the Plantation itself, these two books are the next best thing for learning about daily Pilgrim life.
November is such a lost month. Poor thing. It’s the introspective child with three very loud siblings. September! Back to School! October! Halloween! December! Hanukkah! and Christmas! November. Thanks.
Cynthia Rylant has a lovely book — an ode to a quiet month — called In November (Voyager, $6.99). Illustrated by Jill Kastner, the book pays homage to the tranquil and transitional elements of this month: the air grows cold, people and animals prepare for winter, we gather to celebrate our blessings. In November we pause.
December is almost here, and our holiday books are slowly taking over the front of store, but there are still a few fall leaves clinging to the trees — at least where I live. I figured it was time to recommend a few good fall books before they are completely eclipsed by winter. I don’t feel like I’m too behind, though, because a recurring theme in fall picture books is concluding the story with the arrival of winter.
Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (Harper, $6.99), is a rather endearing story about Fletcher, a red fox, who desperately tries to keep his favorite tree from losing its leaves. Fletcher loves sitting under the splendor of the tree’s green canopy. He loves the new vibrant red, oranges, and yellows, too, but he becomes increasingly agitated when the leaves turn brown and begin to fall. His resistance against the inevitable is valiant, but futile. His attempts to tie the leaves back on to the branches and his instructions to stay there evoke bittersweet sympathy. Rawlinson and Beeke both capture the beauty and melancholy of autumn. Fletcher’s despair at the loss of his final leaf is heartbreaking appropriate as we head into the dark months. Fletcher, however, discovers a new kind of beauty, when he wakes up under a glistening canopy of white. A necessary step towards the return of the green.
Stories about fall, and the changing leaves, lend themselves to gorgeous illustrations. Other great leaf books include Look What I Did with a Leaf! by Moretza Sohi (Walker, $7.99), which has inventive suggestions for using leaves in crafts and illustrations, The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger (Greenwillow, $16.99), and Awesome Autumn by Bruce Goldstone (Henry Holt, $16.99).
Books for babies is probably our most frequent request. My new personal baby book of choice is Haiku Baby by Betsy E. Snyder (Random House, $6.99). First, it’s just so pretty, but keep looking and it gets better and better. There are 7 tabs about different natural elements and rather incongruous animals with a haiku for each:
high on mountaintop,
hippo watches snowflakes dance—
winter has begun
The accompanying hippo, complete with pink scarf and bird, standing on a mountaintop and watching the snow flakes fall is priceless.
The book covers the various seasons and each page is equally delightful.
in tickly-toe grass,
a buttercup offers up
yellow nose kisses
“tickly-toe grass”?!?!? Can’t you feel it? The hard t, k, and g sounds evoke walking through the grass barefoot in the summer. I love that the words then smooth out into “yellow nose kisses”, perfect for laying outside perhaps snoozing in the afternoon sun.
These haikus dance off the tongue and are perfect for reading aloud while snuggling with a baby. But don’t neglect this book for toddlers up to 2. The illustrations are simple, but there is plenty to look at and offer interactive games. I suspect no one will be able to resist the invitation to tickle those little toes.