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!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

It's the little things...

Two really cool things happened this week.  To anyone else, these things might not seem all that significant, but to me, a mother and teacher, these two little moments were simply awesome.
Both of them involve my two and a half year old daughter.  As I did with her older brother, I have read to her every day since she was a newborn.  It's something I have always loved to do, and I can honestly say that few things in life make me feel happier or more content than being snuggled up with my kids reading a book.  We read at various times throughout the day, but bedtime is always my favorite.  Mostly, this is because no matter how crazy the day was or how stressful the whole bathtime/teeth brushing/pj wrangling/bed bouncing/sibling chasing/bedtime routine has been, cuddling up to read stories washes all of that away.  I've written about why I read to my children before, and these two moments I witnessed this week offer perfect examples of just how influential and meaningful our story times really are.

Here's what happened.

As she so often does, my daughter requested "Just one more story!" before bed.  We turned to the stack of board books on the little table next to our rocking chair, and she requested Sandra Boynton's Blue Hat, Green Hat.  (I strategically leave short books like this one in plain view so that we can read one more story without having it take too long.)  As I opened the book and began to read, I started to do what I always do with this story:  point to each picture as I say it out loud.  ("Blue hat, green hat, red hat, oops!")  My daughter quickly said, "No, no, I will do it!" and proceeded to point to each picture herself, at which point I would read the accompanying text.  Sounds simple enough, I know, but here is what I realized.  She pointed to each picture in the proper sequential order -- top to bottom, left to right -- without any guidance from me.  I waited to read aloud until she had pointed to the pictures, and we went through the whole story that way.  We hadn't read this particular book in a few months (I had recently found it back behind a bookcase), so I doubt she simply had it memorized from the last time we had read it.  I don't always point to the text as I read, but apparently, I do it often enough that my daughter knows to read from top to bottom and left to right.  It's a little thing, of course, but it shows that children learn some of the fundamental concepts of literacy long before they learn to read.

Yesterday, I witnessed another awesome literacy moment.  It was one of those rare occasions where I'm able to quietly listen in on what my children are doing without them knowing that I am there.  (Don't you just love that?)  My daughter was standing by her rocking chair "reading" one of her favorite books at the moment:  Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons.  She got the book out of the bin next to the chair, placed it on the seat, opened it up, and began reading it aloud to herself.  As she went on, I was amazed by three things:  1) She knew the entire story, word for word, even the cute little things Pete says in the illustrations like, "It's all good!"  2)  She knew exactly when to turn the page; and 3)  She read with the same inflection and expression that I do when I read the story aloud to her.  I know she wasn't really "reading," she was reciting the book from memory, but I was amazed, nevertheless.  I wasn't surprised, but I was amazed.
Oftentimes, when we read aloud to our children, we know that they are listening.  (Sometimes, of course, they're not, in which case maybe it's better to try a different story and return to that one another time.)  But it's important to realize just how closely they are listening.  They're taking in so much more than the story line itself.  All of the things we do when we read aloud -- our expression, emotion, intonation, inflection, volume, timing -- come together to tell them the whole story in a way that simply speaking the words cannot.  In this sense, the way we read a story aloud is as important as the act of reading, itself.  And those sweet little listeners on our laps?  They are taking it all in.  Word by word, story by story.

When we read with our children, we're doing so much more than simply entertaining them with stories. We're teaching them about language, expression, grammar, diction, vocabulary and a whole host of other literacy skills in between.  Although we might not realize it, we're laying the foundation for a love of learning and setting them up to be successful readers long before we'd ever expect them to learn to "read." Those amazing little minds are learning far more than we ever intended, and that is a pretty awesome thing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Day 199: Creepy Carrots!

Ever since reading and falling in love with The Curious Garden, I've been a fan of Peter Brown's work.   When I heard he had won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations in Aaron Reynolds' Creepy Carrots (congratulations, Peter!), I knew we had to check it out. We brought this book home from the library a few weeks ago and have been enjoying it ever since.  It's silly and fun, and as the title suggests, a little creepy... though not in a super scary sort of way.

Jasper Rabbit loves eating the carrots in Crackenhopper Field and snacks on them whenever he can.  On the way to school, going to little league practice, coming home at night... He just can't get enough!  Until one day, the carrots start following him.  "He first noticed something strange after the big game against the East Valley Hards.  Jasper was about to help himself to a victory snack... when he heard it.  The soft... sinister... tunktunktunk of carrots creeping."  (My son always gets such a kick out of that part.)  Before long, Jasper is seeing creepy carrots everywhere... in the shed, while he's brushing his teeth, in his bedroom at night.  But it's just imagination.  Or is it?

I just love Peter Brown's illustrations in this book and think they are the perfect compliment to Reynolds' story.  I especially love the way Brown contrasts the orange carrots with the otherwise black and white illustrations.  His choice of tones and color gives the story an eerie feel, similar to how music can make scenes in a movie feel more scary.  Fortunately, for my kids, at least, they find the story hilarious.  Were Jasper being followed by monsters instead of carrots, it probably would seem pretty frightening; but he's not.  I mean, vegetables being scary?  Carrots creeping around?  The very idea is silly enough in itself that my kids don't find the story at all scary.  I love the subtle message about not being too greedy, and also think the story helps kids see that while their fears might be irrational (for example, there is no such thing as monsters), they are real but within their control.  For us, this book offers just the right amount of suspense and humor to make an all-around entertaining read.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Day 198: How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends?

As I read this book for the umpteenth time with my daughter last night, I realized that I should probably write about it and share it with you here.  I also got to thinking about how much I love putting a little book in each of my kids' Easter baskets, and that the board books in these series would be perfect for anyone looking for a great non-sugar basket stuffer.  I just love the sturdiness and convenience of board books such as this one, which are always perfect for stuffing in a diaper bag or purse when we're on the go. But back to why we love this book...

We have many of the books in the "How Do Dinosaurs" series (again, thanks to our ever-generous Uncle Jeff), but this is one of our favorites.  It lives in a permanent pile on the little table next to our reading chair in my daughter's room, along with How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs?, How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms?, Jamberry, and whichever Sandra Boynton book happens to be our favorite at the moment.  Our first experience with this series was the original How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?, which, given my son's infatuation with dinosaurs, was an instant hit.  My 2.5 year old daughter loves these books, as well, and I always love:

1) How short they are.  They offer the perfect solution to the nightly requests for "Just one more story... please!" because they take less than a minute to read;

2) The cute little messages within each story to which my kids can always relate; and

3) The variety of dinosaurs featured in each book, along with the fact that their names appear somewhere on the page

The only down side to the board book versions is that they don't have the spreads on the inside cover featuring illustrations of all of the dinosaurs in the book, but the small, handy size more than makes up for that for me.  This particular story is especially perfect for any little ones who might be struggling to learn to share and play nicely with their friends.  I like the way the story demonstrates the wrong way to play (always prompting my daughter to say, "No!"), followed by the nice way.  When a dinosaur's friends come over to play, "Does he hog all the swings and the sandbox and slides?  Does he not give his friends any tricycle rides?"  No, a dinosaur doesn't!  "He shares all his toys and gives turns on his bike.  His friends get first choice for the games that they like."  It's a fun, quick, enjoyable read that my kids and I love.  If you haven't yet discovered this wonderful series by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague, look for it the next time you are at your library.  We hope you and your little reader will love it as much as we do!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Day 197: Penny and Her Marble

Kevin Henkes is one of our favorite authors, so whenever I see a new one of his books on a library shelf, I excitedly check it out and bring it home right away. We just love Henkes' classics like Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Wemberly Worried, My Garden, and Kitten's First Full Moon, and Penny and Her Marble is no exception.  It's a early reader chapter book similar in style and reading level to the Henry and Mudge series (which we also absolutely love.)   I always love Henkes' darling illustrations of his mice protagonists and their friends, and his books always have a lovely message to which I think all kids can relate.  

In Penny and her Marble, sweet little Penny goes out for a walk and discovers a beautiful, shiny marble in the yard of her neighbor, Mrs. Goodwin.  The marble is so shiny and beautiful that Penny simply can't resist.  After deciding that it mustn't belong to Mrs. Goodwin, Penny picks it up, puts it in her pocket, and heads home.  Penny admires her marble all afternoon -- it's so smooth and fast, and looks like a piece of the sky -- until she sees Mrs. Goodwin standing in her yard, right where the marble had been.  Penny hides the marble in her dresser drawer and starts to worry.  Was the marble really Mrs. Goodwin's after all?  What should she do??  

All children face a finders-keepers scenario at some point in their lives, and I love the way this adorable story demonstrates how they might handle such a situation.  Penny's reactions and emotions throughout are so real in a way that is probably quite validating to children, I would think.  I also love how the story gently introduces the idea that sometimes people can feel sick just from worrying about something.  Fortunately, I don't think my children have ever had that experience, but as silly as it sounds, I like knowing that they now know that can happen sometimes.  Who knows, maybe that will help them make sense of their own feelings someday.  It's little things like this, along with Henkes' adorably charming illustrations, that make me love his books so much.  As a Kirkus review of this book claimed, "Henkes continues to plumb the emotional world of childhood as few authors/illustrators can."  YES.  I couldn't have said it better myself (which is why I didn't.)  

The ending is just perfect and my son (age 5) has been requesting to read this story each day since we brought it home from the library.  Although it is a chapter book, there are still illustrations on each page and the text is short enough that even my 2.5 year old daughter is perfectly content reading this story.  This is also a great book for children who have recently started reading independently but aren't yet ready for books without any or few illustrations.  I was thrilled to learn that there are several other books about Penny, as well.  Needless to say, they're at the top of our list for our next library trip.

** UPDATE:  We have since read the other two books in this series, Penny and Her Song and Penny and Her Doll.  While the other two are cute, Penny and Her Marble is our favorite of the three.  **

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Day 196: and then it's spring...

Two days ago, only a few piles of snow remained in our yard and I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to play outside without having to bundle up in full snow gear.  We even spent some time creating chalk art in the driveway in the late morning sun.  It was positively lovely.  Today, we have 16" of fresh snow on the ground.  Maybe more.  UGH.  Actually, it really is beautiful and I was happy my husband got a snow day out of the deal, but I still can't stop dreaming about warmer days.  That one day last week gave me the slightest taste of the sweet spring I know lies ahead (hopefully sooner rather than later.  You'd better not be lying to me, Groundhog!)

Julie Fogliano's and then it's spring captures exactly how I feel every year around this time.  "First you have brown, all around you have brown."  Then comes the planting of the seeds and the wish for rain -- and then the rain! -- until the brown becomes a "hopeful, very possible sort of brown."  Caldecott winner Erin E. Stead's gorgeous illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to Fogliano's text:  gentle, sweet, and remarkably expressive for work so seemingly simple at first glance.  We follow the young boy as he plants his seeds and anxiously waits for them to grow, worrying about whether perhaps the birds got to them, or the bears.  Most pages have just a line or two of text, with the exception of perhaps my favorite page that captures a child's thinking so beautifully. "...maybe it was the bears and all that stomping, because bears can't read signs that say things like "please do not stomp here -- there are seeds and they are trying."  The young boy's anticipation is captured perfectly throughout the story, and I can't help but feel it, too.  When will that magical day arrive when we wake to find green?  It's the same way every year, just as Fogliano describes.  We are surrounded by brown -- the grass, the old leaves that escaped the rakes of the previous fall -- and then suddenly, it happens!  The trees come alive and the leaves jump out and everywhere there is green.  This is a sweet, beautiful story that makes a wonderful bedtime read, especially at this time of year.  I love its message of patience and the way it beckons us to slow down, go outside, plant some seeds, and take time to soak in the beauty of the natural world around us.  Our poor bulbs and seeds might be buried under a blanket of snow, but I know they are waiting, ever so patiently, to come alive with the first signs of spring.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Day 195: Duck! Rabbit!

When I taught 7th grade world geography, one of my favorite lessons of the year was during our introduction to stereotypes.  The whole purpose of the lesson was to help students understand the value of being open-minded and appreciate how sometimes we all see the world a little differently, even if we're looking at the same thing. 

I used to start each class with a photograph and have the kids write briefly about what they thought it could be and what questions they had about it.  Usually, it was not something I expected them to know anything about, which was kind of the whole point.  At the start of my this particular lesson, my picture of the day was an overhead view of some fishing nets in a muddy, African river.  Seldom did anyone ever guess anything remotely close to what it really was, and I always loved hearing all of their different theories on what it could be: jewelry, an art design, an enlarged view of something microscopic.  Then, we'd move on to looking at pictures like these, and I'd ask them what they saw.  Usually they were split 50/50 on what they saw first.  What do you see when you first look at this image?  A duck, or a rabbit?

With this kind of illusion, of course, it's both.  The tricky part is training yourself to be able to change your perspective so that you can see both images.  My favorite thing about this lesson was that there were always kids who, no matter how hard they tried or strained their eyes, could not see the other half of the illusion.  I loved watching students stand up and point out what they saw, trying desperately to get their peers to see the same.  "It's a rabbit, see!  It's kind of looking up.  This is its nose, these are its ears..." Or, "It's a duck! This is its bill, and its eye and the back of its head... Don't you see??"  Sooner or later, everyone was usually able to see both figures within the illusion, and it always made for a lively class.  Then we'd look at a bunch of other famous illusions (some of which I'll include below) and repeat our conversations.  Once we got around to discussing the main point of all this -- that other people's perspectives might be different than our own, but that doesn't make them wrong -- we were able to open the discussion up to times in our lives when we've felt misunderstood, wanted people to see things our way, or were convinced that we were right and someone else was wrong.  It was a great little lead-in to future conversations about stereotypes that are so important to have, especially with middle schoolers. 

But isn't this supposed to be a book review?  You're probably wondering where on earth I'm going with this.  If you've hung in here long enough and are still reading, I'll finally cut to the chase.  Rosenthal's Duck! Rabbit! is a cute, clever take on the very conversations I always had in my classes described above.  With each turn of the page, we hear the back and forth between the varying points of view.  Is it a duck?  Or a rabbit?  It's definitely a rabbit.  See, it's eating a carrot!  No, see, it's a duck!  It's quacking!  I love the way the simple, bold illustrations help show young readers both points of view, and the ending has an adorable surprise, too.  Is that an anteater, or a brachiosaurus??  My kids got a kick out of that one.  We had fun looking for both animals in the pictures, and my son and both daughter said they were able to see the duck and the rabbit.  It's simple and silly enough, but the message is a valuable one.  When it comes to differing points of view, sometimes both people are right.  It's taking the time to look at things from both perspectives that is important.    


      Do you see a young woman,                            Two faces, or a vase?
              or an old woman?  
      Another cool illusion

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Read Aloud Favorites!

In honor of World Read Aloud Day today, I thought I'd share a list of some of our favorite books to read aloud.  Don't get me wrong -- I love reading ALL books aloud -- but these are some that never fail to make us turn up our volumes, laugh, giggle, sing, dance, and read with unadulterated, silly joy!

Click the title of the book to read my review of it here on the blog, or click the image to see other reviews on the Amazon marketplace.

Happy reading aloud!

The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? by Mo Willems

We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems

If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen

If I Built a House by Chris Van Dusen

Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen

Over in the Jungle by Maryann Berkes

Over in the Ocean by Maryann Berkes

The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet

King Arthur's Very Great Grandson by Kenneth Kraegel
Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin

A Visitor for Bear by Bonnie Becker

Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack by Lynley Dodd

Moo Baa La La La by Sandra Boynton

Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

Press Here by Herve Tullet

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

Jamberry by Bruce Degen

Dinosaurumpus by Tony Mitton

The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen

Cha Cha Chimps by Julia Durango

Bear Wants More by Karma Wilson