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, December 22, 2011

Day 131: The Polar Express

Chris Van Allsburg's classic, The Polar Express, is always at the top of my Christmas reading list.  I actually just read it with my son for the first time this year, but I remember reading it with my brothers each year when they were younger.  It is a beautiful story that captures the magic and wonder of Christmas; one that is bound to bring you back to your own childhood every time you read it.  I still remember lying in bed at my grandmother's house on Christmas Eve, knowing that I should fall asleep, but determined to hear Santa's sleigh land on the roof above me.  One year, I was convinced I heard the pitter patter of hooves up there.  I still feel that same sense of wonder each Christmas Eve, even though now I have little ones of my own who can't fall asleep in that same room of my grandmother's farm house.  Van Allsburg's classic tells the story of a young boy who is magically transported to the North Pole one Christmas Eve aboard the Polar Express.  If you're at all familiar with Van Allsburg's work, you know that his illustrations are gorgeous.  In the Polar Express, I love the contrast between the cold, dark images of the winter night and the warmth within the train.  But I also love the timelessness of the story itself.  Upon arriving at the North Pole, our young narrator is chosen by Santa to be the lucky recipient of the first gift of Christmas.  His request?  A silver bell from Santa's sleigh.  Once back on the train, the other children are eager to see the bell, but our poor narrator realizes he has lost it.  All that lies in his robe pocket is a hole.  Christmas morning, however, he opens a tiny box to find the bell, along with a note from "Mr. C" himself.  Overwhelmed with joy, he shakes the bell, which makes the most beautiful sound he and his sister have ever heard.  "Oh, that's too bad," said his mother.  "Yes," said his father, "it's broken."  When he'd shaken the bell, his parents had not heard a sound.   I'll admit that I'm overly sentimental, but the last page sometimes brings a tear to my eye:  "At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.  Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.  Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe."  If I were with the narrator, I know I would hear the bell.  I believe.  But I know that someday, my children will question whether Santa is real.  I hope they always believe in the magic and wonder of the season as I do, and that they, too, would hear the bell ringing.  This beautiful book makes a wonderful Christmas gift for children of all ages, and I know it is one we will read and enjoy in my family for years to come.  May your holiday be filled with all the wonder, magic, and love of the season.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 130: Owl Moon

Owl Moon is one of our favorite wintertime reads.  Together, author Jane Yolen and illustrator John Schoenherr have created a beautiful masterpiece about a young girl's owling adventure with her father.  "It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling.  There was no wind.  The trees stood still as giant statues.  And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine."  Father and daughter head into the cold, wintry woods in search of a great horned owl.  Throughout the story, Yolen's descriptive verse enables us to feel the girl's growing anticipation and excitement at the prospect of finally seeing one, the way her brothers have before her.  I also love the way we can feel the cold of the night throughout the book, and I am always reminded me of how my cousins and I used to cross-country ski in the moonlight on my grandmother's farm when we were younger.  Anyone who has taken a walk on a cold winter night will appreciate such descriptions as, "I could feel the cold, as if someone's icy hand was palm-down on my back.  And my nose and the tops of my cheeks felt cold and hot at the same time."  Or, "My mouth felt furry, for the scarf over it was wet and warm."  I just love that particular line for some reason.  Schoenherr's illustrations, which earned the book the Caldecott Medal in 1988, are a stunning complement to Yolen's story, as well.  From the darkness of the woods to the blue light cast by moonlight on the snow, his watercolor illustrations are simply gorgeous.  If you haven't yet discovered this wonderful winter tale (or other books by Jane Yolen), look for it the next time you are at your library.  It is perfect for reading on a cold winter night or at any time of year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 129: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

There are so many classic books to read at this time of year.  I always love story time, but for some reason, snuggling up to read bedtime stories before Christmas feels (as my son would say) "the coziest of all."  I've already featured some of the books that are on heavy rotation at our house in December, but this is one of our favorites!  We love Dr. Seuss' books and his whimsically wonderful style, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas is no exception.   Like many people, I would imagine, I grew up looking forward to watching the Grinch on television each Christmas season, but I actually never had the book until I had children.  The classic movie, of course, is essentially an animated recitation of the book, with a few songs added in for good measure.  I have always loved the message of the story, so I was thrilled to get the book as a hand-me-down from a relative a few years back.  I always make it a point to emphasize my favorite lines when I'm reading this with my son, which, in my opinion, are increasingly more relevant in this era of over-the-top Christmas commercialism.   If you've read the book or seen the movie, you must know the part.  (And if you haven't, my apologies for not giving a synopsis here -- but you must read it!)  "Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, was singing!  Without any presents at all!  He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming!  It came!  Somehow or other, it came just the same!  And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling:  "How could it be so?  It came without ribbons!  It came without tags!  It came without packages, boxes or bags!"  And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch though of something he hadn't before. "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.  Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!"  I hope my children always understand the true meaning and magic of Christmas, and feel the joy, love, and wonder of the season the way the Whos do.  And while the book doesn't contain the closing lines from the movie, I think they are well worth repeating here, too:  "Welcome, Christmas, bring your cheer. Cheer to all Whos far and near.  Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.  Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we.  Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart, and hand in hand."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 128: The Night Before Christmas

We have many favorite stories here in our house, but the list of those we read most often changes throughout the year.  All of our winter and Christmas books live together on my son's bookshelf, but once December rolls around, they take their place in a big pile on his bedside table.  One my children's favorites that we read every night at this time of year is Clement Clarke Moore's classic, The Night Before Christmas.   Originally entitled "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Moore's poem was written as a Christmas gift for his wife and six children in 1822.  My son received a lift the flap hardcover board book edition of this poem for his very first Christmas when he was only nine days old, and I have loved reading it to him ever since.  I actually saw our version (shown above) on the bargain bookshelf at Barnes and Noble the other day for only $7.98, in case you're interested.  There are many different versions of this book, some of which are simply gorgeous, but with two eager young ones who love peeking under the flaps, I'm glad we have the one we do.  The board book pages are incredibly sturdy, and we love the advent-style of of the lift the flap feature.   My son particularly loves seeing what is inside some of the presents, and the snowball-making bunnies are pretty cute, as well.  We have read this story so many times that I have the whole thing memorized, and my son loves when I turn out the light and tell it to him again as he is falling asleep.  (And I'll admit, I love curling up next to him and reciting it to him, too.)  "Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.  The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there..."  I considered waiting to post this story until the actual night before Christmas, but decided to share it now since we actually read it all month long.  This poem has already created so many wonderful memories for me of reading with my children, especially at this magical time of year.  As winter draws nearer, I wish you and your children many cozy evenings spent with a great book!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Holiday Gift Guide (and why books make the best gifts!)

Books are some of my favorite things to give as gifts, especially when it comes to my children.  They really are just the best!  Think about it.  Books last far longer than clothes, can be personalized for free, and fit children (and adults) of all shapes and sizes.  They don't require batteries, assembly, or frequent washings.  They don't make noise or need to be fed.  You can pretty much guarantee that you can find a great one for under $10, and they are very easy to wrap.  They inspire imagination, curiosity, and endless learning, and can take anyone anywhere in the world without ever leaving home.  See what I mean?  So, in honor of the upcoming holidays, I thought I’d share some of our favorite books that would make great gifts for the children in your life.  You can also see a complete list of our featured titles by clicking on the "Bookstore" tab above or the "Bookshelf Favorites" to the right. Enjoy, and feel free to share some of your favorites, as well!

For baby: 

For the new mommy and baby:

For your preschooler:

For the cars and trucks obsessed (like my son):

For the dog lover:

For the animal lover:

For the little traveler:

The gift that keeps on giving all year: 
Your Big Backyard magazine (or Wild Animal Baby or Ranger Rick)

Beautiful classics:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Day 127: Bear On a Bike

Books are some of my favorite things to give and receive as gifts.  With both Christmas and my son's birthday coming up, I have been trying to put together a list of gift ideas for him and my daughter.  We are fortunate to have many family members who love giving our children gifts, and this year, as in the past, I am putting many books at the top of that list.  I, of course, always like to get them each a few books, too.  One story that I am excited to give them this Christmas is Bear On a Bike by Stella Blackstone.  There are several books in the Bear series, but this one is our favorite.  In fact, when we were reading it today, my son said, "I want to jump in that book!"  Can't ask for a better endorsement than that!  My children just love following Bear as he travels around on various vehicles -- a bike, raft, steam train, boat, carriage, and rocket ship -- to different magical places.  For a book so simple, it is wonderfully descriptive, and the repetition and rhyming prose make it a wonderful read aloud for even the youngest readers.  "Bear on a bike, as happy as can be.  Where are you going, Bear?  Please wait for me!  I'm going to the market, where fruit and flowers are sold.  Where people buy fresh oranges and pots of marigold."  Then there is my favorite (the page my son wanted to jump into):  "I'm going to an island, where magic star fruits grow.  Where herons fish in secret groves and sparkling rivers flow."  Making the book even more engaging and fun to read are Debbie Harter's illustrations.  Bright, bold colors jump out of the page, instantly capturing kids' attention, and I love the way she incorporates black and white stripes and shapes into her pictures, as well.  Between Harter's striking illustrations and Blackstone's repetitive verse, this is one of those rare books that is equally appealing to babies and preschoolers.  I just love watching my son and daughter read it together!   Many of the Bear books are also available in foreign language versions, with the English words on one side of the page and French or Spanish on the other.  Bear books make great baby gifts and are fabulous additions to any child's library.  I can't wait to add them to ours!