Brody and Isla live in West Virginia. They moved there from Arizona when their Dad started medical school. And they've just added a new family member—a golden labrador puppy— who will make life extra fun for Brody & Isla, and extra busy for Mom & Dad!
Brody & Isla have some great book recommendations, including some pretty cool nonfiction reads.
Hello Brody and Isla! Who's in your family?
There's Brody (6), Isla (3), Josh (9 months), Mom (Amber) and Dad (David).
What do you like to do for fun with your family?
Brody: Play board games and play hide and seek, wrestle with Dad, fishing, hunting and camping, and swimming.
Isla: Play games and drink chocolate smoothies, help my family, help make dinner, doing projects and (ummm) living with my family and having Dad home because he loves us.
What do you like to do at home?
Brody: Build stuff, play with Isla in the basement, reading and making breakfast: muffins, burritos, and pancakes are my specialty.
Isla: Looking at the stars, wrestling with Dad, jumping on the trampoline or swinging and getting held by Dad when he jumps on the trampoline—he jumps me high.
Bonus book recommendation from baby Josh: I recommend a book that tastes good. And I love to look at all the pictures while Mom or Dad reads to me or my siblings. (Ha! That sounds about right for a 9 month old.)
Thanks Brody and Isla, for sharing your busy, fun-filled life with us! Enjoy your new puppy.
We've linked Brody and Isla's recommendations to Book Depository but if you'd like to search for them on Amazon, here's our link (thank you for supporting WTBA!).
Fun is ambiguous don’t you think? One person’s fun is another person’s special agony (I’ve heard there are people who really enjoy cleaning the oven—never met one, just heard), but most of us find that there’s nothing quite as fun as giving our brain a workout. And brains get a workout when we’re doing anything that's physically, intellectually or emotionally challenging.
So here's a collection of things-to-do that work your brain at any age—with links to books to cement, inspire and connect that wonderful work.
1. Climb a tree—and read a book in its branches. The Promise
2. Try out an instrument—recorder, harmonica, drums, guitar, violin. Playing From the Heart
7. Come up with a personal list of human rights—the things you really feel strongly about. 5 books to connect us all
8. Write a letter to a politician—about one of your human rights perhaps. Dreams of Freedom
9. Talk about peacemakers—especially if you're having trouble being one yourself. Peaceful Heroes
10. Draw—fingerprint art, pencil, paint, stick and dirt. I Am Henry Finch
11. Write something—spoonerisms, limericks, prose. Rip The Page
13. Play board games—or card games, monopoly if you’re brave. Timeline
14. Take a photo—make something everyday extraordinary. A Cool Drink of Water
15. Make a gift—for someone who might be overlooked. Sophie's Masterpiece
16. Grow something—herbs, veggies, crystals. The Gardener
17. Sing—an old favourite, opera, nursery rhymes. We're Going on a Bear Hunt
18. Find a family member older than you and extract a story—about their childhood, their marriage, their career, their travels. The Matchbox Diary
19. Learn about extraordinary lives happening now—refugees, inventors, artists, politicians. Flight
20. Visit a gallery—modern art, private exhibit, a museum. The Museum
And most of all, tell stories! Stories help to solidify and cement the workout we’ve given our brains. They’re like a rest day for a weight lifter and they give us ideas for our next workout, rather like a personal trainer. They connect us to generations gone before and to the possibilities that are to come.
THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER
by John Cheever – Random House USA Inc, 2000
I love short stories for travelling—I can read one or two on a domestic flight and then put it away without thinking about it all day while I’m doing other things. The Stories of John Cheever is a collection of 61 short stories. It was first printed in 1978, and the stories are very much of the time but still relevant and interesting today—or so I’ve heard.
Like SJP, I’m going to give this book a go.
Book Depository has free postage anywhere in the world and great pricing, but Amazon might be cheaper for North American readers.
Image link here.
ME AND YOU
by Deborah Kelly and Karen Blair – Penguin Australia 2017
ages 0 to 7 years / heartwarmers, imagination
I love it when Ivy says something like ‘remember when we went to that park, that was so cool!’ I love it because we're usually just driving away from the park at the time!
She re-tells all the wonderful things that happened, even though I was there the whole time and it was only 20 minutes ago. The talking is lovely and draws us closer together.
I think shared experiences and the memory of the sharing is so very important in little lives. It’s the foundation of strong relationships—we share connections, learn to empathise and grow to understand one another. It helps us create and maintain our individual and shared identities.
Me and You by Deborah Kelly is about these kinds of experiences. It’s a fun and beautiful celebration of the activities and relationships that make up a child’s life, written in verse. In it a young girl shares with us all the important things that she loves about her life. Things like:
I love our arty-crafty days,
our cut-and-paste and colour days,
making things all kinds of ways
with scissors, paint and glue.
I love our grubby-garden days,
our wriggly-worm and mudpie days.
We plant tomatoes, beans and maize,
and water them all, too!
Each verse is accompanied by delightful watercolour pictures showing the activities being shared with parents, grandparents and friends. They're a lovely reminder of the important things in life, like taking the time to make memories and the joy of reliving them. And it reminds us that simple, small things can have a big impact on little lives.
Plus, it’s a wonderful reminder to have more fun!
Me and You is a sweet and endearing book that leaves me reminiscing on my childhood and making plans for fun-filled days with my children (Ivy thinks there are some great ideas in it!). It's written for 2 to 7-year-olds but the rhythm and style make it a lovely book to read to younger kids too (Angus loves it at 6 months).
THE GRAND GENIUS SUMMER OF HENRY HOOBLER
by Lisa Shanahan – Allen & Unwin, 2017
ages 8 to 14 years / chapter books, emotional resilience.
Beloved by parents, in part due to the cloistered risks the trip offers to children, camping is the stuff of dreams for many children too. Except when it’s not.
For Henry Hoobler, who will go into year 3 at school when his family camping trip ends, there's some mild anxiety going on.
There’s the family expectation that this is the time when he’ll learn to ride his bike without training wheels; there's the thought of actually being away from home; the benign bullying from one of other kids camping with the family; even a bit of worry about playing card games.
Henry is concerned—but he knows he's safe in the loving embrace of family and other adults who care about him.
In the course of the trip, he discovers many things about himself. For example:
It turns out he is genius at figuring things out by noticing things; he can ride a bike; and he is brave enough to risk telling the truth to a friend.
Henry's camping trip is full of adventure moments - he touches a wild stingray, bikes down a steep hill, sneaks out at night, and more - making this a totally relatable, and aspirational, story.
As well, there are many, many precious story moments to add to the storehouse of memories, thoughts and ideas that can help your child make emotionally and socially beneficial choices. Some of these story moments speak directly to a parent’s heart. Mostly they expose the tender learning heart of a child, and beautifully connect all ages.
Here are some of my favourite thoughts from the book:
Fathers love differently to mothers, but no less ardently. Henry, who has a wonderful relationship with his dad, surprises him by asking to go on a big bike ride. It's a surprise because Henry has finally learned to ride without training wheels—something his father has been working towards for the entire trip:
“Henry heard it then, in that tiny crack [in his father’s answer].It filled him with a strange and terrible wonder. There it was, love so big, so wild, brimming away in his dad’s chest like a rising flood, close to bursting. ‘Son of my heart,’ whispered Dad.”
That big, wild, rising love is, I think, a universal description of a father’s love. Dad’s love and pride isn’t so much in Henry’s bike riding as it is in Henry’s love for him
Parents, at their most loving and most effective, are like a safety net. When Mum is ever so carefully guiding Henry through his leaving-home anxiety, Henry recognises something about her:
“His mum wasn’t so good at making cakes and slices for fundraising days either. Or remembering school notes. But she was good at knowing things. Yes, his mum was good at knowing things inside him that he didn’t even have words for yet. There was something reassuring about that, like he was a trapeze artist in a circus, swinging through the sky, with the biggest, strongest safety net in the whole universe stretched out wide to catch him.”
Parents understand their children. Henry’s mum beautifully helps him to process his anxiety about leaving home and then about leaving the campsite. She does it by sharing personal experiences—perhaps the best and most connective way to teach anything. When Henry is finally in the car and driving towards the family holiday, Mum muses about the way she once felt about change. She shares her own worries and when Henry asks
“What do you do about it?”.... Mum answers: “Oh well …I don’t l know. I think I just notice it and even make a little room for it. Maybe I even say, Ah, there you are! But I also remind myself that it’s not the whole story. That I’ve had very enjoyable holidays in the past and this one will likely be the same.” And then she says … “Lolly, anyone?”
Friendships can (and probably should) cross gender, age, socio-economic and any other boundaries. When Henry meets Cassie, who lives full time at the campground, he knows they can become special friends. So when Henry is teased about Cassie being his ‘girlfriend’, (‘You gonna kiss her, Hen?’) he:
“… brushed past, shaking his head. He didn’t have any words handy that could express the fullness of his scorn. Why couldn’t a boy and a girl just be friends? Why did everyone have to go like a stupid ninny-head the minute a boy and a girl talked for one tiny second?”
Children will often cross imaginary boundaries (thank heavens for that). Henry is in grade 2—but it’s true of any age don’t you think, why can't a boy and a girl be friends? Or a young person and an older person? Black and white? Rich and poor? Tall and short?
It’s hard to discern the ways of the world—knowing when it is helpful to ask a question and when it is kinder not to, is tricky stuff even for adults. Children often struggle to understand the formalities of polite society, and why wouldn’t they? Most of those formalities are cultural constructs and since there's very little explicit teaching about that, they take a while to figure out. Here, Henry finds himself wanting to ask Cassie a question:
“It was roosting in his head like a bird. But he wasn’t sure. Maybe some questions weren’t right to ask, especially if they were snoopy and nosy and made someone’s heart sorer than before. But then again, what if he didn’t ask? What if no one asked anything important, just slink back into their shells like shy snails? Would that leave people sometimes feeling lonelier than ever before?”
That’s a wonderfully mature insight, but it seems entirely appropriate for Henry to be contemplating big questions like that. The way Henry thinks is exactly the way a grade 2 boy might think—though perhaps phrased a little more clearly than if he had to find the words himself.
Saying sorry is not a simple matter of repeating an empty word or phrase. When Reed, one of the other children camping with Henry and his family, is told to stay in his tent for the night because he refused to say sorry, Henry’s little sister Lulu says, with a bit of misplaced sassiness:
“ ‘Maybe some people are just big scaredy-cats about saying an incy-wincy word like sorry!’ … Henry … didn’t think sorry was an incy-wincy word. It always felt like a word that weighed a lot. Sometimes after he had done the wrong thing and spoken it out loud, the space still ached where it used to be, in a way that was both happy and sad.”
Such a beautiful expression of a feeling everyone knows.
To discover that we are, really, more than we thought, is one of life’s greatest joys. Henry is allowed to play cards with the big kids for the first time. To his and everyone’s delight, it turns out he's a genius at noticing things—and that translates into being a pretty great card player. As Henry reflects on a wonderful day he understands that:
“… it wasn't the winning or the three-scoop sundae or even discovering that he was a genius at noticing things that was the best part of the day.
It was the surprising.
Yes, that was the best thing ever. Everyone seeing him one day at the beginning of the day and then everyone suddenly seeing him differently at the end, his dad and Patch and all their friends and, now he was thinking about it, maybe even himself.”
Reading that part left me feeling more determined to take delight in the achievements of my family and more careful to notice the many good surprises in life.
Emotions often masquerade as different feelings. When the families are breaking camp and packing the car, there is, realistically, quite a bit of snappiness and stress going on. Cassie is there with Henry, watching and helping. When Henry notices that, “Everyone’s been so mad today,” Cassie answers:
“ ‘Well, my Nan always says being mad is just another way of being sad.’… Henry … chewed that thought over in his mind for a second. He hadn't thought of getting mad like that before. … Maybe if you were a grown-up, getting grumpy was a little bit easier than bawling your eyes out.”
Sad masquerading as mad is a lovely way to think about temper tantrums as much as about adult grumpiness don’t you think?
Recognising the power that we have to impact others means that we are happiest when others are happy too. Henry puts up with snide remarks and sarcastic teasing from Reed, one of the family friends camping with Henry’s family. He doesn't like it and he tries to avoid Reed. But, when a chance to do something kind for Reed arises, Henry does it. It’s an act of generosity and one that gives Henry pause,
“Because this was the thing he was pondering; maybe a grand genius holiday wasn’t a grand, genius holiday is someone nearby was feeling horribly miserable, even if that person happened to be an infuriating bossy smarty-pants!”
A small reading hint:
This is really well written book. It’s easy to read out loud—and I can’t recommend that enough—but it’s also great for early readers to read alone. It’s fast paced, with lots of dialogue, making it easy to follow the story and to get wrapped up in Henry’s life. If you a have proficient reader from about 8 years and up, they’ll enjoy reading it to themselves, but I think it would be a shame to have only that limited age engage with this book. It’s really a book for the whole family—marvellous for reading together on a car trip.
All those fabulously insightful moments are part of a story that's high energy, funny and chock full of been-there-done-that moments. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some share the worrisome world of a young boy, and some are glimpses of a loving family’s life. It’s the sort of book that parents will hope their children read but won't have to push them into it—because it’s such a great story. After all, doesn’t everyone want the same thing Henry wants?: “a bright, loud life.”
THIS MOOSE BELONGS TO ME
by Oliver Jeffers – HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2012
ages 2 to 8 years / emotional resilience, funny
Ownership is a slippery concept, especially where pets are concerned. Is it really possible to own another living thing —and how does the pet view your relationship anyway! It gets even more complex if your ‘pet’ is actually a wild animal.
Wilfred is pretty sure he owns a moose! He calls the moose Marcel and gives him a list of rules, some of which the moose follows really well, others not so well.
But Wilfred is happy and content in the knowledge that the moose belongs to him.
He has just started making long-term plans when "... he makes a terrible discovery …Someone else thought they owned the moose.”
An old lady calls the moose Rodrigo and beguiles him with an apple.
Wilfred insists he owns the moose and when things don’t go his way he storms off home. In a funny set of coincidental moments that he ascribes to his ownership of the moose, Wilfred is rescued and he and the moose reach a compromise:
“The moose would agree to all of Wilfred’s rules … whenever it suited him.”
It’s a very funny story about mistaken identity, confused roles, and tenuous ownership. There are some great teaching messages too, including these:
Ownership is rarely as cut and dried as we imagine. Wilfred finally recognises that, perhaps, 'he’d never really owned the moose anyway.’ Often what we perceive as ownership is more akin to friendship or stewardship. And perhaps that can extend to more than a one to one relationship. Wilfred and the old lady both seem to ‘own’ the moose – and then at the very end, another ‘owner’ appears.
Rules are not always effective, even if they seem to be working! Perhaps this is more a message for adults than kids. Wilfred thinks the moose does really well at obeying the rule about ‘Not making too much noise while Wilfred plays his record collection.’ But of course readers know that a moose was never going to make that much noise anyway.
Authoritarianism seldom trumps kindness. When Wilfred tells the moose to ‘Heel’ with confidence and authority, the moose completely ignores him in favour of an apple proffered by the old lady.
Arbitrary rules, made without consultation, will rarely be effective. I love that immediately after naming the moose, Wilfred “began following Marcel, explaining the rules of how to be a good pet.” Surely every parent has experience with the utter futility of metaphorically following a child and explaining rules.
Sometimes we can be happy with the relationship that’s available rather than the one we imagine we want. Wilfred ends up quite happy even though the moose is clearly doing whatever he pleases. We can’t always control other people (and perhaps we shouldn’t seek to) but we can be happy with the relationship we have.
There’s a hint of irony in the telling of this story right from the outset. (That’s pretty much true of all Oliver Jeffers books, don’t you think?) Understanding irony as a comic device is super important for kids—it helps them laugh at the karmic ups and downs of life.
A small reading hint:
The rules that Wilfred makes are set in a handwritten style of font. If you point to those words as you read it will help to distinguish them from the narrative. And if you read them with an authoritative air, their absurdity will be more obvious.
This is a story that will appeal to young children for its comic value—the very idea of lecturing a moose is funny. And then to have not one but two alternative owners show up: hilarious. (For adults, it might prompt a bit of healthy guilt over notions of ownership and rule-setting and enforcing.)
It’s also a really good read-it-before-you-need-it story because at some stage we are all going to have to think about ownership, control, authority and power—and how to exercise those things ethically.
P.S. In case you like to see how the moose was painted, here’s a fun clip with Oliver Jeffers.
CRY, HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK
by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi – Enchanted Lion Books, 2016
ages 6 to adult years / emotional resilience, heartwarmers
Because grief, when it visits, consumes us and seems to blanket all the world in sadness, our inclination is to shield children from its depths, or to show them how to escape as quickly as possible.
It’s a strange, if quintessentially human, response. Our great love for the children we care about motivates us but we act as though we wish, in a way, to limit their experience of what it is be human and to love. Grief is, after all, the outgrowth and expression of great love that feels suddenly lost or irrevocably changed.
And yet there is no shield that is completely effective against grief. So we are each left to embrace it and learn from it and, hopefully, emerge to peace and brighter days. And, when loss is imminent, the fear of grief to come can be as overwhelming as the grief itself. Especially when we wait for the death of someone we love.
In Cry, Heart, But Never Break four children wait as their beloved grandmother dies. Death visits one night and the children recognise him even though he has left his scythe outside—they know he has come for their grandmother.
In the depths of their sorrow and their fears, they try to distract Death with endless cups of coffee, hoping that he will leave when morning comes, without their grandmother.
Death is compassionate and tells the children a story about two brothers called Sorrow and Grief and two sisters called Joy and Delight, and how they fell in love because:
“Each couldn’t live without the other.”
The children aren’t sure they fully understand but they know Death is right when he says:
“It is the same with life and death …What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”
And, as the children begin to come to terms with their grandmother’s passing because: “Life is moving on. This is how it must be”, Death quietly invokes them:
“Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.”
They do. And:
“In the years that followed, the children lived with their joy and their sorrow, but they always remembered Death’s words and took great comfort from their hearts which grieved and cried but never broke.”
For the reasons below and so many more, this is book to own, read often and love:
Death is characterised not as evil, terrifying or lifeless, instead, “Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.” Comforting words, and true. Death shows great love and respect for life.
It's a lovely metaphor for grieving in different ways: The children each deal with Death in their own way. The oldest children close their eyes, so great is their sorrow. A younger child tries to ignore Death, and Leah, the youngest, ‘stares straight at Death.’ Each child comes to understand Death, but they start at different points.
The complimentary nature of Grief and Joy, and Sorrow and Delight are beautifully explained:
Before they met, Grief and Sorrow lived in a valley, and Joy and Delight lived on the hill. When they marry, both couples build houses ‘halfway-up and halfway-down the hill. This way the distance to their old homes was the same.’ Grief and Sorrow do not simply become the same as Joy and Delight, rather they all understand that they are most fully themselves when they are together. Grief is complete only with Joy and Joy is complete only with Grief. Sorrow and Delight are the same. It’s a hopeful and profound way to love and live.
When Death does take grandmother he understands the pain of the children. When he beckons grandmother he says, “Fly, Soul. Fly, fly away” in a voice that is ‘somewhere between a cry and a whisper.’ Death’s compassion and feeling and the gentle morning breeze blowing through the window are echoes of grandmother’s love for the children.
The grieving hearts of the children are poignant and real. Children who have personal experience with death will understand the sorrow of the children and will be able to take hope and courage from the way they children remember their grandmother. And for those children who have yet to live through those feelings, there is an opportinity to grow in empathy and understanding.
The illustrations are heart wrenching but life affirming. Even without the depth and beauty of the written story, they allow us to see what grief, love and happiness look like.
This is a perfect read-it-before-you-need-it book. The story is so enticingly written that it will capture the thoughts and attention of children regardless of their personal experiences with death. And, as they listen to the story over and over again, they will build up a storehouse of responses to grief. They’ll understand that people respond in different ways, that grief is part of life every bit as much as joy, that sorrow is so deep because of the contrast with the delight they’ve already felt.
A small reading hint:
Here’s how I read this book out loud—there are of course as many way to read it as there are readers, but perhaps you’ll find this helpful. I don’t explain the connection with the scythe, at least not on the first reading. The symbol of the scythe is cultural and like all things cultural is best learned through osmosis. (Of course I happily answer a direct question.) I read the page where Death is drinking coffee quite quickly to reflect the urgency the children feel, and then slow down and whisper as I read, “Time passed” on the next page. From then on I read it slowly and quietly because, although grief is part of life and very much a reflection of earlier joy, it is still a solemn and reverent topic.
Grief, of course, isn’t limited to death, though that is usually where we feel it most profoundly. Grief can follow the loss of a dream, the end of a friendship, betrayal, disappointment or failure too. When we read books like this we are preparing children for all forms of grief and adding our own promise that hearts may need to cry, but never need to break.
For over a hundred years now, we’ve been telling ourselves that the pen is mightier than the sword. And although it sometimes it seems that the sword is winning, ideologies and causes and words usually come before the sword. Which is why it’s so important that our words be words of truth and hope and love.
The solemn thoughts in the above quote are from In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner.
They're spoken by a father to his young, beloved daughter as they face the terrors of the Khmer Rouge. The father is talking about why he writes poetry; he’s hoping his daughter understands and feels his love.
She does—and she carries those words and that love with her through the horrors that follow.
Beautiful words need to be always at hand so that they become the language of thought— and anything that isn’t beautiful, lovely, praise worthy or of good report (to quote St Paul) becomes glaring in its inconsistency.
In the Shadow of the Banyan consumed me when travelling through Cambodia—it’s compelling reading under any circumstance. Half Spoon of Rice is a harrowing but hopeful picture book about the same events.
And here are a few other picture books you might like (we do!) about the power of words:
WHAT CAN I BE?
by Ann Rand, illustrated by Ingrid Fiksdahl King – Princeton Architectural Press, 2016
ages 4 years to grownup / imagination
There’s an architect’s sensibility running through this book—probably because both author and illustrator trained as architects. It has a feel for space and design that's modern yet classic, a bit like an excursion to a modern art gallery.
Simple shapes become the stimulus for stunning graphic pictures—for example: ‘an apple that’s ready to eat or a lollipop or the sun before it sets behind a high hilltop?’:
But there are so many other possibilities.
This is a book that will appeal to adult eyes and minds. The ideas that we have freedom within the hand that life deals us and that beauty is waiting to be discovered in the commonplace are among the most hopeful of promises—and the underlying theme of this book. The reminder of those implicit promises makes this a book that adults will reach for often when it’s time for a story.
But kids will love it too, here's why:
The images are detailed, graphic and modern—they seem open-ended, leaving plenty of room for new imaginings.
By asking the reader to come up with other ideas for the shape to be, the reader becomes part of the story. There’s time to pause for imaginings and space to come back later when you have a new idea.
There’s encouragement to try both drawing and thinking—the last page reads:
‘there are so many things that I could be WE’LL HAVE TO WAIT AND SEE JUST WHAT YOU MAKE OF ME’
It’s like the author passing the baton to the reader—it becomes our story rather than one we simply read.
A couple of small reading hints:
If you're reading this book with a young child, you might like to show them how to trace the shapes with their finger. Some, like the straight lines, are easy; others are quite complex for little fingers. Tracing like this is great for fine motor skills, eye development and pre-writing.
Also—since the art is reminiscent of the sort of work you might find in a dedicated modern art gallery, you could use this book as preparation for a gallery visit. Looking for specific shapes and patterns in the art can help to sustain attention and slow down little feet.
The power to imagine a new purpose and place is foundational to living a meaningful life—I think that’s why this is such an appealing book. It reminds us that there’s always another possibility.
Does this pretty much sum up life for you too? (I’m sure there’s a male equivalent: ‘I was going to be the perfect husband. I was to going to paint and build and mow and mow and mow???’)
Check out the rest of Judy Horacek’s 'Topic of the Month' cartoons here—so funny. And Judy is also the illustrator of Where Is the Green Sheep? and The Night Before Mother's Day—a very funny Mother's Day gift for a mum with a sense of humour!
LINE UP PLEASE
by Tomoko Ohmura – Gecko Press, 2014
ages baby to 8 years / funny, s.t.e.m.
Counting is fun. Counting backwards is even more fun. Counting funny animals backwards — best!
In this totally charming book, animals line up roughly by size—and there’s a bossy seagull who keeps them all in line while they wait.
The animals make cheeky jokes, push and shove each other and play a game of animal Word Chain.
It’s all lots of fun and things build to a surprising and funny climax.
The impatient animals start to complain, the rhino threatens to charge, things start to look a little tense and the seagull announces:
“Thank you for waiting! Come this way, but please stay in line!”
So the animals file, in a very orderly fashion, … on to the back of a Whale! And take off on a raucous ride.
It’s pretty hilarious stuff and at the end of the ride the animals agree:
“That was fun!” “I loved that!” “Can we do it again?”
As well as being heaps of fun to read, there are plently more reasons to love this book:
There’s lots of great numbering and ordering happening—the animals line up and are counted backwards from 50. It’s fun to look for a pattern, are they lining up by size? (Not quite.) By species? (Sometimes.) You probably won’t find a pattern that holds for the entire line (I couldn’t anyway) but it’s fun to look.
The animals include a mix of the familiar and the obscure—which is great for learning about new animals. Great too for children who have an animal obsession: they get to show off their knowledge.
It's amusing to play along with the animals—playing Word Chain is tricky when you’re new to spelling, but seeing the words in print is an extra hint.
There's fun and complex math awaiting for the measurement infatuated! Would all those animals really fit on the back of a whale? I have no idea!
It’s great for mixed-age reading—younger children can point to the animals as older children name them.
A small reading hint:
This isn’t a narrative tale, it’s a bit more like reading a cartoon. The words are all dialogue, so you’ll need to distinguish which animal is saying what and I always think the easiest way to do that is to point to the one doing the speaking. But if you’re really good, you could try making different voices and make a guessing game of which animal is speaking when.
This is a cute book, with appealing animals doing funny things—the sort of things you might remember doing too. And your child could be doing them now!
Here’s a wonderful movie that you might like to try for a family movie night.
Children of Heaven is an Iranian film about a boy who loses his sister’s only pair of shoes. Their family is poor and their mother is ill so the children conspire to share the boy’s shoes.
It’s sad, funny, charming and troubling all at once. As well as being simply delightful to watch, Children of Heaven shows just how close to poverty an otherwise 'normal' life can be for children.
The children are well cared for and well fed; they go to school and have a safe and comfortable home where they live with parents who love them.
And yet, a new pair of shoes is an unthinkable luxury.
It's English sub-titled, but there are only small amounts of dialogue and the on-screen reading is pretty simple. Reasonably competent readers will have no trouble keeping up and the words are slow enough that you can read aloud to younger children as you go. The age range is 5 years and up if you’re willing to read out subtitles (though there are a couple of lines you might choose to skip).
There are no guilt trips implicit in the film, but it does leave you with a keen sense of first-world abundance.
And if the idea of shoes as a symbol of security captures the attention of the children in your life, here's a book you might also like:
Four Feet, Two Sandals tells the true-ish story of two young girls living in a displaced persons camp.
When the camp receives a delivery of shoes, they pick up one shoe each of a matching pair.
The girls forge a lovely friendship as they decide how to handle the four feet, two sandals dilemma and eventually settle on sharing the shoes—each taking a turn. Which means that each girl is left shoeless while the other takes her turn.
That’s hard to imagine when there’s a drawer or closet full of shoes for different occasions.
Those special shoes come to symbolise the girl’s friendship and the hope they have to meet again in America.
When we first bought Four Feet, Two Sandals, Louisa couldn't stop reading it. I think she related to the girls—they were about her age and looked quite like her too. It’s a very touching story.
THUNDER BOY JNR
by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales – Little, Brown and Company, 2016
ages 2 to 8 years / diversity, s.o.s.e.
From the story of Adam & Eve to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, literature has reminded us that names matter. Henry David Thoreau wrote:
"A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name aright, he can call me, and is entitled to my love and service."
Thoreau was talking about friendships and the impact of language—and Thunder Boy Jr. finds himself thinking similar thoughts about his own name.
Thunder Boy Jr. knows that his name speaks to who he is and he wants it to be a true reflection of him, not a shadow of his father for whom is named. He wants his name to be spoken (or pronounced) in a way that shows who he really is.
He loves and admires his father; he just doesn’t want the same name. So he starts brainstorming.
"I once dreamed the sun and moon were my mom and dad, so maybe my name should be STAR BOY."
“I love pow wow dancing. I'm a grass dancer. So maybe my name should be DRUMS, DRUMS, AND MORE DRUMS!.”
“I dream of travelling the world, so maybe my name should be FULL OF WONDER.”
In the end, his dad reads Thunder Boy Jr’s heart and gives him a new name—a name that is his alone and one to live up to: Lightning! And Lightning, like Thoreau, offers his own version of 'love and service’ to his dad:
“Together, my dad and I will become amazing weather. Our love will be loud and it will be bright. My dad and I will light up the sky.”
Thunder Boy Jr. will strike a chord in many young hearts—here’s why:
It explores identity in a way that is distinctly Native American, but still resonates with others. Lightning and his family are Native Americans—they're clearly proud of that heritage. But even more than their heritage, the thing that binds them is love. Sherman Alexi, the author, said he wanted to create “a picture book with a healthy Native American family where they respond to big questions in healthy ways." He continues: "And what's the bigger question than, you know, 'Who am I?" The way the family responds to Lightning’s existential crisis is both instructive and encouraging.
The exuberance that Lightning has for the life he lives and his enthusiasm for his own accomplishments are contagious. By the time you’ve finished reading, children will likely be thinking about all the things that make them great too: their ambitions, their skills, their bravery and more.
The pictures are full of story—they tell us more about Lightning and his family than the words alone. Lightning’s mum rides a motorcycle, though it’s never mentioned. His dad plays guitar. Lightning rides a pushbike. There’s a lot to ‘read’ in these pictures.
It’s important to note that there's no reference to a traditional Native American naming ceremony here. Alexie says, "This book isn’t a ceremony. There’s no sacred thing going on. It’s a father and son talking about nicknames."
A couple of small reading hints:
There's some discussion online about cultural insensitivity to the importance and sacredness of the Native American naming ceremony as a result of this story: those discussions are always good to have and Thunder Boy Jr. opens up an opportunity.
And you might find that this is a good place to start talking about naming traditions around the world. You can read about some of them here—they vary dramatically, but they all have a common love for the child and a desire to connect the child with heritage.
Picture books that celebrate diversity without making a caricature of culture are rare but Thunder Boy Jr. is one of those books. The culture of the family is central to the story and they are in every way happy and loving ... children of all cultures deserve to be part of a family like that.
ages 2 to 8 years
One of my uncles was a pilot for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) a few years ago—it was a terribly romantic profession. The goodness and ingenuity of the RFDS is widely agreed upon all around Australia. But, as Australia continues to be quickly urbanised, fewer of us have personal connections and stories about the Flying Doctors and the pilots and the nurses. That’s where Meet the Flying Doctors comes in