Story time is the best time of the day. Whether we're snuggled up on the couch or cozy in our pjs before bed, reading stories with my little ones is one of my favorite things to do. Everyone has a favorite book they remember from their childhood, and every day, parents and kids are discovering new classics of their own. There are many fabulous children's books out there, some of which everyone knows about and others we would have never discovered had my son not simply pulled a random book off a library shelf. I created this blog to share some of these wonderful stories with you. Think of it as a year's worth of the best children's books around, since no day should be without a great story. In the end, I hope we'll all have discovered at least a few new titles that will have made their way onto our list of family favorites. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Day 120: Ox-Cart Man

I've been waiting to write about this book since the day I started this blog.  Now that fall is in full swing and it is October, I just can't wait any more!  The Ox Cart Man has long been one of my absolute favorite picture books.  There are so many things that I love about this story that I hardly know where to begin.  From its very first line, the Ox Cart Man takes us into the life of a family in early nineteenth century New England: "In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.  He packed a bag of wool he sheared from the sheep in April.  He packed a shawl his wife wove on a loom from yarn spun at the spinning wheel from sheep sheared in April.  He packed five pairs of mittens his daughter knit from yarn spun at the spinning wheel from sheep sheared in April."  And so it goes.  We follow the ox cart man as packs up the things his family has worked so hard to make and grow throughout the year and brings to Portsmouth Market to sell:  birch brooms, woven linen, candles, potatoes, apples, goose feathers, maple sugar.  He proceeds to sell everything he has brought with him, including the wooden box he carried the maple sugar in, the barrel he carried the apples in, the bag he carried the potatoes in, his ox cart... even his beloved ox.  (I'll admit that part makes me a tear up sometimes.  I know.  I'm a sap.)  When he has nothing left but a pocketful of coins, the ox cart man wanders through the market himself, buying new things for his family to get them through the year ahead.  An embroidery needle for his daughter that had come all the way from England on a boat.  A Barlow knife for his son for carving birch brooms.  An iron kettle to hang over the stove.  Two pounds of wintergreen peppermint candies.  And when he finally returns home to family, we see the whole cycle begin once again.  "His daughter took her needle and began stitching, and his son took his Barlow knife and began whittling, and they cooked dinner in their new kettle... and that night the ox-cart man sat in front of his fire stitching new harness for the young ox in the barn..."  

Hall's prose is beautifully written, and I can't help but feel like I am a part of the story while I am reading it.  Each time, I am overwhelmed by a sense of what life was like in those days gone by, and am in awe of its simplicity and difficulty all at the same time.  The gorgeous illustrations, done by the amazingly talented Barbara Cooney, earned this book the Caldecott Medal in 1980, and they are the perfect accompaniment to Hall's story.  Simple, soothing, telling, and beautiful.  At first, I was worried that my son might find this book boring, but he never has.  I think he, too, is fascinated by how our ancestors lived and the ways they depended on nature and the land for their survival.  Seasons change, years pass, and life goes on, but this book will always be one of my favorites. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Day 119: Where's My Mom?

We first checked this delightful story out of the library several months ago after we fell in love with Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo.  Given that I had just featured one of her books, though, I decided to wait and come back to Where's My Mom? another time.   My son happened to notice this book again the last time we were at the library, so we brought it home and have read it several times since.  I am happy to report that he loves it just as much now as he did a few months ago, and I'm glad to have been reminded to feature this adorable story here on our blog.  A little monkey is lost in the jungle and unable to find his mom.  A friendly butterfly eagerly sets out to help him, asking questions about his mom's appearance along the way.  "Hush, little monkey, don't you cry.  I'll help you find her," said butterfly. "Let's have a think.  How big is she?"  "She's big!" said the monkey.  "Bigger than me."  "Bigger than you?  Then I've seen your mom.  Come, little monkey, come, come, come."  Excitedly, we turn the page, only to find that the butterfly has led the little monkey to... an elephant!  Each time the monkey describes some other feature of his mother -- her tail that coils around trees, or the fact that she leaps and springs and lives high in the treetops -- the butterfly is convinced she knows where to find her.  And each time, the poor monkey is brought to the wrong animal mother.  We love anticipating what animal the butterfly might take us to next, and my son finds the whole series of mistaken identities to be incredibly silly.  When the monkey is brought back to the elephant again, we can't help but laugh and feel sorry for him, not to mention wonder why on earth the butterfly keeps leading him so astray!  Donaldson has a clever reason why, of course, and once we find out what it is, the story becomes even more charming.  Finally, our little monkey friend is happily reunited with his parents, at which point my son usually requests to go back and read the story again.  The illustrations are cute and colorful, and the verse flows easily and well, overall.  At first I wondered, though, why some of the rhyme schemes seemed a bit off ("Come little monkey, come, come, come.  It's time I took you home to mom.")  "Come" and "mom" clearly don't rhyme...  But then I learned that the American version of the book has been changed ("Mum" is the original word in the British version, which flows much better), as has the title.  In the U.S., this book is called "Where's My Mom?", but in the U.K., it is called "Monkey Puzzle."  I'm not sure why publishers felt the need to change the title and some of the words, but there you go.  My little guy calls me "Mum Mum" anyway, so I just change "Mom" to "Mum" as we read so it sounds nicer.  Either way, we both thoroughly enjoy this book and think that you will, too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day 118: Flotsam

This book has caught my eye several times at the library before (perhaps because it looks like there is a big eye staring at me from the cover), but I always told myself I would save it for another visit.  Finally, the other week, we got around to checking this one out.  I'm so glad we did!   This has to be one of my favorite wordless picture books out there.  David Wiesner's illustrations are impeccably detailed, and I am amazed by the elaborate story they are able to tell in and of themselves.  Flotsam takes us on a fabulous journey through magical undersea worlds, imagination, and adventure as a young boy discovers an old, underwater camera washed up on the shore as he is playing on the beach one day.  After confirming that no one on the beach has lost it, he opens it up and finds a roll of film inside.  Curious about where this camera might have been, the boy takes the film to a one-hour photo shop to be developed, being sure to replace the film with a new roll while he is there.  Upon viewing the photos, he is fascinated by what he sees:  a magical underwater civilization where mechanical fish roam, sea turtles swim among seashell palaces, and giant starfish islands play.  The most curious image of all, however, shows a girl his age holding a photo of another child, who is holding a photo of another child, who is holding a photo of another child... and so on and so on, around the world and back in time.  Of course, in the end, the boy takes his own photo in a similar fashion and casts the camera back into the waves.  Unlike him, though, we are lucky enough to see where it travels before being discovered by another child in a land far away.  Flotsam is brilliantly creative and such fun to read to children of all ages.  What I love most about this book is the sense of wonder and imagination it instill in its readers, and the way it encourages anyone, child or parent, to be their own storyteller.   Each image is truly worth a thousand words in this book, and the endless details found within the story allow to it to be told and retold time and again.   Flotsam is also one of those rare books that is truly appropriate and enjoyable for a wide range of audiences.  As a middle school teacher, I can imagine my students loving this book just as much as my preschooler does.  I love the photo on the back jacket cover of Wiesner on the beach at age 5, too.  My son loves playing on the beach more than just about anything, and I'm sure we'll think of this book the next time we are playing in the waves and exploring our own undersea worlds. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Day 117: The Beeman

I was thrilled to spend a gorgeous autumn afternoon at our local community farm's Fall Festival yesterday!  There were great activities for kids, hayrides, a chili cook-off, a little petting zoo (my son was so excited to pet "Sally" the chicken), music, farm tours, and of course, delicious home-grown veggies.  The weather could not have been more perfect; it was truly a quintessential New England fall day.  One of my son's favorite books we've been reading this past week is Laurie Krebs' The Beeman.  I knew he would be able to check out the bee hives and beekeeping display at the Festival, so I thought this book would be the perfect way to introduce him to the amazing world of bees before we went.  Plus, he asks to eat yogurt with honey for at least one meal a day, so our honey bear is a permanent fixture on our kitchen table.  Learning opportunities all around! 

The Beeman is an absolutely fabulous story about a little boy and his grandfather (The Beeman), who takes his young grandson out to his hives to learn all about beekeeping.  From the protective clothing they need to wear and the inner workings of the hive, to extracting the honey and caring for the bees all winter, we are given an incredible glimpse into this fascinating process.  The verses of the story are incredibly informative while flowing beautifully from page to page, and the illustrations are equally as enjoyable.  My favorite features of this book, however, are the comprehensive endnotes that are full of fun and unique facts about bees and the vital role they play in the natural world.  Even after this wonderful story has ended, you and your child can learn about pollination, the different types of bees and their varying responsibilities within the hive, how honey is made and processed, and even how honeybees dance to communicate with one another!  And as if that wasn't enough, the Beeman also includes a recipe for Grandma's Apple and Honey Muffins.  Reading and baking are two of my favorite things to do with my kids... I mean, really, what could be better?  I absolutely love stories that are not only beautiful and fun to read, but that also teach me and my children something new.  If you're looking for a great book that is as educational as it is entertaining, be sure to check out The Beeman.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Day 116: Ten Little Ladybugs

For some unknown reason, my son was obsessed with ladybugs when he was around two years old.  His grandmother gave him this book after seeing it in a bookshop in North Carolina, and it was an instant hit!  Now, almost two years later, he still enjoys reading it, and it has lived in his bedside bin of books all this time... until his sister (14 months) recently found it, that is.  As soon as she laid eyes on the colorful cover and saw the three dimensional ladybugs on the vine, she claimed that book as her own, dragging it with her into her room and sitting herself down on the floor to read it.  Fortunately, my son didn't seem to mind, and this is another one of those books that he can read to her, which is always incredibly cute.  Ten Little Ladybugs is a fabulous story for babies and toddlers, alike.  It's colorful, engaging, has fun, rollicking rhymes, and the little ladybugs sticking up off each page just begged to be touched by little hands.  It also teaches children to count down from ten to one, with a clever design that captivates little readers from beginning to end.  What child can resist the ladybugs sticking up off the right-hand page or the opposing holes that await them after the page turn?  I know mine certainly can't.  As far as my daughter is concerned, this book doesn't even need words.  Just give her the ladybugs to play with and the holes to stick her fingers through and she would be perfectly content.  The simple, rhythmic verse makes this story even more appealing to her, though, and the accompanying illustrations are captivating without being too busy.  "Ten little ladybugs sitting on a vine, along came a butterfly -- then there were... (turn the page) NINE little ladybugs skipping on a gate, along came a caterpillar -- then there were... EIGHT..."  You get the idea.  My daughter is quite picky about her books these days, but this is one that she wants to read over and over every time we pick it up.  I've been impressed, too, at how well this book has held up.  After many, many reads, the ladybugs are still holding on strong and showing no signs of falling off.  If you're looking for a fun, interactive story that will grow with your child from infancy and beyond, my little ladybug highly recommends this book.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Day 115: Big Red Barn

This was one of the first books my mom gave to my son after he was born.  The way I saw it, any book picked out by someone who had raised three kids over twenty years and read hundreds of children's stories along the way just had to be good.  It took a while for this story to become one of my son's favorites, but as he neared his first birthday, he fell in love with it!  Thank goodness it comes in board book form, as it wouldn't have lasted two days otherwise.  This is definitely my favorite of Margaret Wise Brown's books, and I only recently made the connection that illustrator Felicia Bond is the same artist for the "If You Give a Mouse" series. Big Red Barn is a perfect story for toddlers, telling the story of the animals' day on the farm in gentle, rolling verse with cute, charming illustrations.  "By the big red barn in the great green field, there was a pink pig who was learning to squeal.  There was a great big horse and a very little horse.  And on every barn is a weathervane, of course... a golden flying horse."  My son used to ask me to read it to him over and over in the car as he turned the pages, and he just loved all the sounds the animals made on the farm.  I think there must have been at least a two-month period in which he wanted to read this several times a day.  (My daughter is just now starting to love this book, as well.)  My two favorite pages show the animals playing together in the field, then later seeking the warm shelter of their barn to settle in and sleep for the night.  It's a wonderful bedtime story, and although I think the meter could be a little better at times, it is soothing and perfect for lulling little ones to sleep. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Day 114: The Pigeon Wants a Puppy

If you have a preschooler and have not yet discovered Mo Willems' Pigeon books (or any books by him, really), you must go to your local library immediately and find one!  Seriously, you are missing out and need to read one of his fabulous stories as soon as possible.  You won't be disappointed, I promise.  We LOVE Mo Willems here in our house, and he is one of the few authors for whom I feel the need to own every single one of his books.  We featured one of all time favorites Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus back on Day 64, but felt we just had to share one of the equally hilarious sequels, The Pigeon Wants a Puppy.  If you're familiar with the Pigeon, you know that he pretty much is a preschooler in bird form:  he is funny, independent, charming, cute, clever, and wants what he wants when he wants it (which is usually NOW!)  He can go from endearingly sweet to tantrum mode in about .5 seconds, and doesn't like taking "No" for an answer.  The story begins in Willems' classic conversational form, with the Pigeon greeting us with a friendly, "Oh, hello.  How are you?  I'm fine.  Thanks for asking."  And then, as would any three year old intent on getting something he wants, he gets right to his point.  "By the way, do you know what I want?  What I've wanted forever...? [and then, in more of a secret whisper] At least since last Tuesday...?  A PUPPY!!"   He promises to take care of it and water it once a month (insert fits of child giggles here), only to then get mopey and defensive that we don't seem to be buying it. "Oh... I get it.  You don't want me to be happy, do you?  You don't want me to take a piggyback ride on my puppy!  Or play tennis with it!"  Just as his fit reaches its peak, we hear a "Woof!" off in the distance... and the pigeon gets his wish!  The comedy ensues as the pigeon meets the puppy (who is much bigger and slobbery than expected) and ultimately decides that he has changed his mind:  what he really wants is a walrus!  I'm always amazed at how much emotion Willems can convey in such simple drawings, and love the way he uses the text to emphasize the Pigeon's mood.  The font gets smaller when the pigeon is feeling sad, and bigger as his intensity and volume increase.  Be sure to read the pigeon's list of "Things I Want" on the title page; it is positively hilarious!  I know the day will come when my children are begging and pleading for a puppy in their own pigeon-style, but until then, I can simply sit back and enjoy reading this delightfully silly and engaging story.  Enjoy! 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day 113: Mouse Soup

Today, in what was probably just the first of many times this will happen, my son sat down to read a story and informed me that he wanted to read it all by himself.  I asked if I could just sit and listen to him while he read, and he said, "No… I just want to read it myself this time."  He proceeded to read the book carefully and slowly under his breath, while I pretended not to be paying attention from the other side of the room.  I loved it.  What made it even better was the fact that when he finally finished the book, he proudly came running over to me and said, "I read the whole book all by myself!  Now you read it to me, Mum Mum," and we snuggled up on the couch to do just that.  It was really the best of both worlds:  I got to hear my (fiercely independent) little guy read a book to himself, and then cozy up next to him to read it with him again.  The book was Mouse Soup, one of our other Arnold Lobel favorites.  We borrowed it from the library once a while back, and my son loved it so much that I was thrilled to find a copy at our last library book sale (and for only 50 cents!)  It's an early reader chapter book, but unlike the Frog and Toad series, is really one longer story broken up into separate chapters.  In this fun tale, an unsuspecting mouse is caught by a weasel, who threatens to make him into mouse soup.  The clever little mouse convinces his captor that the soup will not taste good without several stories added to it, and proceeds to tell four silly stories -- Bees and the Mud, Two Large Stones, The Crickets, and The Thorn Bush -- all of which are as delightfully entertaining as the end of the story itself.  Our favorite ingredient in the soup has to be "The Crickets," for neither my son nor I can make it through this chapter without giggling.  I love the creativity of the whole book and the silly events within, but I think what I love most about Mouse Soup is how it highlights and encourages the art of storytelling.   I also should add that this book lends itself quite well to reading in fun, different voices, and is far more enjoyable when read aloud this way.  (I just love hearing my son try to imitate my voices for the weasel, the crickets, and the old woman in "The Thorn Bush.")   While I don't love this book as much as Frog and Toad, it is still a great read that never fails to make us laugh.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Day 112: Listen, Listen

Fall has finally arrived here in New England and it is by far my favorite season of all!  It's why I love living here, and is what makes me tolerate the long, cold winters and those hot, humid summer days that can be so unbearable in a house without air conditioning.  The air turns crisp and the days, though growing shorter, are positively lovely.  I love the smell of the air as the nights get cooler and the leaves turn their gorgeous shades of yellow, orange, and red... even when I know that soon enough, we'll be spending countless hours raking them off of our lawn.  I love the sounds of leaves swishing and crunching under our feet, and the way the late-afternoon light hits the trees and makes those radiant colors glow.  The change in seasons can be magical, and I am always very happy to live in a place that has such variety among them.  Listen, Listen is a beautiful story that captures the wonderful sounds of the seasons as they gracefully turn from one to the next:  summer to autumn, winter to spring, and back to summer again.  Phillis Gershator's rhythmic verse and Alison Jay's beautiful illustrations complement each other perfectly, making Listen, Listen a delight to read, hear, and see.  "Listen, listen, what's that sound?  Insects singing all around! Chirp, chirp, churr, churr, buzz, buzz, whirr, whirr... Plop, plop, acorns drop.  Hurry, scurry, squirrels hop... Crunch, crunch, boots clomp.  Grown-ups shovel, children romp... Pop, pop, bulbs sprout.  Leaves grow, flowers shout."  The rolling verse is soothing and engaging to children at the same time, and Jay's crackle-varnish illustrations evoke a sense of timeless wonder and nostalgia.  Take your time to look at the pictures in this book, as well, for there are lovely little details to be found on each page.  Both my son and daughter love reading this story, and it is definitely one of our seasonal favorites.  My daughter loves hearing all of the different noises and sound effects throughout, and my son especially loves the hide and seek pages for each season that appear at the back of the book.  Available in both hardcover and a large board book format from Barefoot Books, Listen, Listen is a beautiful addition to any child's library.  What are your favorite sounds of the seasons?