The Tale of Peter Rabbit

By Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter is somewhat of a legend among children’s authors. She writes these incredible little stories featuring different animals. Living in the country, Beatrix was inspired by her own animals and surroundings, and it shows in both her writing and artwork.

Her first, and most well-known work, is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. This is one of those beloved tales that will live on eternally; who doesn’t know about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail? (And Peter, naturally). It’s such a wonderfully whimsical story, full of relatable and realistic characters.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit is the, naturally, the tale of Peter Rabbit. Sent out to play while his mother goes shopping, Peter leaves his three good sisters to gather blackberries on the lane while he goes to munch on vegetables from Farmer McGregor’s garden. Eschewing the rules, he gets lost inside the garden, then spotted by the villainous farmer. Fleeing, Peter must hide from the farmer and get out without getting caught.

Peter is a very naughty rabbit; he disobeys his mother, is terribly frightened, nearly captured and killed, and loses all his neat little clothes. Little boys take note! Don’t disobey your mothers, or enraged farmers might chase you down too. (Though, I admit, if my son snuck away to eat vegetables from a farm, I would be a very happy mother indeed.) I love how believable little Peter Rabbit is; he’s defiant and uncaring at first, then scared, almost gives up until encouraged, then runs the gamut of terror and tears. More children need to cry in stories when things get scary – I don’t think it happens enough. But it’s a true representation of what you would do.

I love this story. When you think of Beatrix Potter, this is the story you think of. First published in 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was the first of her many, many stories. And there are a lot of them; I was given The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter by my grandparents in 1989, and I still don’t think I’ve read all the stories therein contained (23 of them). Some of them are classics, other’s I could never get engaged in. Some are quite dark, but that was Beatrix’s style, and it works very well.

She was an observant lady, watching the movements of animals, developing a very unique and beautiful style of art. I admit, I love the art more than the story, and she uses it in a unique way. Rather then full-page illustrations, her stories are decorated with small pictures, sometimes three to a page, each next to a paragraph to illustrate that particular happening. Sometimes I wonder if she wrote or drew her stories first; they fit together perfectly.

If you don’t own this story, go pick it up. I often say that a book that’s still in print 20 years after first being published is a good book; this tale is still around 110 years later! If that doesn’t say something about Ms. Potter, nothing will.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

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Christmas Specials – The Twelve Days of Christmas

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It’s beautiful and rose-coloured, making us long for Christmas Specials passed. Never mind how incredibly bizarre some of them are. A lot of Christmas specials fall into this category – but then again, so do a lot of children’s shows in general.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is the story of a melancholy princess, the persistent suitor, the squire, and a crossword puzzle.

Intrigued yet? The suitor, a knight, has been pining over the princess for years, and is determined to finally have her. He sends his squire Huckleberry to steal her Christmas list so he can give her everything she desires. He accidentally steals the answers to her father’s special crossword puzzle, and ends up giving her the answers as presents. This idea might still be impressive, if only she wasn’t allergic to birds. In the end, however, Huckleberry produces a laugh from the princess, and ends up with her hand in marriage.

This special is cute and harmless. The animation is cheap and nothing special, but the story is different to say the least. For a 30-minute Christmas special, it’s not bad; the characters are diverse, and most go through a character development arc, which, while not hard, is difficult to do. So, congrats to the writers for managing to accomplish that – it’s silly and educational all at once! Though it’s not nearly as sweet as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

There are a few things that are annoying, but those come mostly from my own personal preferences; first and foremost that I dislike wimpy heroes. He never gets any stronger; just more henpecked by the princess and the knight. The narrator, served by the Partridge who lives in a pear tree, is equally annoying. But then, I dislike an omnipotent narrator who is part of the story – it defeats the purpose. And she’s no Boris Karloff.

There are highlights: the father is delightfully reminiscent of the Sultan from Aladdin, and I love chubby, loving, doting obliviousness in my father figures. I enjoy the princess as a character, mostly because she speaks to the uncaring teenager within me. I can’t say much for her taste in men, but she just wants someone to make her laugh. Can’t fight with that.

Despite the simplicity of the special, I have to say that most children probably won’t get the nostalgic shout-outs that are present as the “12 Days of Christmas” singers. For each gift, there’s a singer/s impersonating well-known artists (such as Elvis) as they sing their verse. I know I certainly missed that reference when I was young, and almost missed it now. I’m going to blame that on bad singing and worse animation though.

Check out this silly special. I don’t see it on television much, and it’s a nice way to break up the traditional lineup.

Plus, you can just see it below.

The Going to Bed Book

By Sandra Boynton

It is a testament to the durability of board books that I still have my original copy of The Going to Bed Book. It’s one of my mother’s favorites, and she can recite it to me perfectly without even glancing at the cover.

Sandra Boynton’s books, which include other classics like But Not the Hippopotamus, and Moo, Baa, Lalala are still widely available in stores 30 years after they were first published. They are probably still among the first books read to a child, and they make perfect little board books. The words are simply and rhyme without being complicated. They have a certain repetition in the pattern that’s wonderfully mnemonic, which is probably why my mother can remember it 20 years after she stopped reading it to me.

Even better are the illustrations. Given that this book is targeted for newborns-3 years old, everything has to be simple. There are no clever little details; everything is very clean and simple in lines, with simple colours. Board books are small, and Boynton makes great use of what she has; her characters come down the stairs and run to the bath when the text says “Now everybody goes below/ to take a bath in one big tub/ with soap all over – SCRUB SCRUB SCRUB”. It’s a great tool to help children associate up and down and other vocabulary.

Another great quality of a board book is just that – it’s a tough, sturdy book made out of cardboard. They’re small, tough, and portable. Your baby is going to want to touch and yank; regular paper is not going to stand up to their grabby little fingers. A board book, for the most part, will. Like I said – I still have mine, and it went through two grabby youngsters. The edges are worn, but there is nothing else wrong with it.

I highly recommend these little books, especially by Sandra Boynton. They all save the same rhythmic narrative, with similar schemes. This makes it nice for baby, who will learn to predict the rhyme. Repetition repetition repetition is key key key.

A Horse Called Starfire

By Betty D. Boegehold

I had a conversation at work the other day, telling my coworker about my blog and how hard it was to find materials for boys. “I feel bad,” I told him, “that my blog is primarily female-centric.” Because I am, in fact, a girl, using a lot of my own books as materials. “What about the authors?” He asked. “Are they primarily women too?”

I paused.

“I’m not sure.”

“Has it always been this way, traditionally? Have books always been targeted to women?”

His questions got me thinking about the demographics of the books on my blog, and I resolved to try harder to find materials that were written by men or for boys. I tried; really I did. And yet, I present to you A Horse Called Starfire. Umm, it has male secondary main characters?

The book is set in the early days of British North America, when Europeans were just starting to come over and explore, and the Native Americans were relatively isolated from the white man. A Horse Called Starfire tells the story of a golden horse, Estrella/Starfire, who crosses over from Spain. Her master dies in the New World and she is alone. Luckily, it isn’t long before she’s found by a Native American father-son duo, Lone Owl and Wolf Cub, who adopt her and take her to their village.

Not much to the story, really, but then, this book is designed to help young readers make the leap from picture books to real novels (quote/unquote). It’s a level 3, so the highest level of transitional novels. Interestingly, for such a high level, there are a lot of illustrations; every page, in fact. If pressed, I would say it reads more like a picture book with more pages and text. But the illustrations are beautiful, rendered in colour pencil. I remember liking this book as a child simply for the illustrations, which are almost breathtaking. Especially well-done are the background scenes.

This book is a tad outdated, especially for its Native American themes, with the father-son listening to the ground to tell them where the animals are, or Wolf Cub communicating with the spirit of the horse. You probably wouldn’t see much of that around nowadays, for better or for worse. Regardless, any little girl will love this book. What’s not to love, after all? It has beautiful illustrations, pretty ponies, and beautiful illustrations of ponies!

Boys might be a little disappointed.

Suggested reading age 6-9.

There Were Monkeys In My Kitchen!

By Sheree Fitch

By far one of my favorite books from when I was a child. Sheree Fitch, if I was to be asked, is one of the best children’s author out there, especially when it comes to her poetry. Books like Toes in My Nose, or Mable Murple are classics. If you do not have a book by Sheree in your collection, you need to run out now and read one.

There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen! is a zany tale about Willa Wellowby who wakes up and find her house has been invaded by a myriad of different types of monkeys (including, but not limited to, gorillas, orangutangs, baboons, and chimpanzees), who are busy causing ally types of mischief. They’re bouncing basketballs, playing bagpipes on her bed, taking bubblebaths! And no matter how many times Willa calls the beloved Canadian institution, the RCMP, no one seems around to help her.

The entire book is written in rhyming couplets, which makes it a complete joy to read aloud. It’s bouncy, fun, and flows. The whole book follows the same tempo, without the need for awkward gear shifts.

The illustrations, provided by Marc Mongeau, fit the story perfectly. The colours are fantastic, and the linework is wonky and silly – which is a perfect fit for this story. The scene were Willa winds up in the bath with such a silly look on her face is priceless, and has to be one of my favorite illustrations ever.

There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen! won the Mr Christie Award in 2002 for Best Children’s Book (ages 8 and under). I would recommend this book for 3-5, though there are some vocabulary that will undoubtedly stump your child. The vocabulary never seems forced, and you get to pull double duty: entertaining and educating your young one! Without them knowing it, even! Seriously, parents, does it get any better then that?

If you want to hear the poem before you rush out and buy this eloquent tome, here’s a youtube video of Sheree Fitch reciting There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen!

And Tango Makes Three

By Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

I was speaking with a co-worker the other day, and the topic of banned and challenged books came up. She was shocked to learn that not only are books routinely challenged, nor that occasionally a book is actually banned, but that most of these books are children’s books. Parents have this belief that reading a book will automatically put ideas in that child’s head and turn them into a gay/satanic/drug-using/etc. monster. Mostly these challenges are to school library, where they are not protected by a iron-clad collection policy, and it is there that most challenges win.

One of the most challenged books of the last decade is a small children’s book called And Tango Makes Three. Written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, it’s based on real-life events at New York’s Central Park Zoo, between two male penguins named Roy and Silo. In the book and in real life, they formed a pair, built a nest, even nursed an egg-shaped rock. One year, they were given a real egg from another pair, and the two penguins successfully hatched and raised a female chick named Tango.

The story is simple,  the artwork equally simple and effective. There is nothing offensive about this book; it could equally be a book about any form of adoption. If anything, it’s heartwarming, two penguins unable to reproduce getting a chick to raise. If it wasn’t for all the controversy and the fact the two penguins were male, this book would probably be lost in a sea of other children’s literature.

I like books with a message, and this book would certainly be among the books I read to my child. I don’t think there’s a single thing wrong with portrayals of the gay community in literature for children – if anything it’s necessary. Parents may want to believe that their children will grow up like them, and in most cases they will. But some won’t, and encouraging them, and letting them know there’s nothing wrong with being different, is important to instill at an early age. To me, there’s nothing worse then alienating your child or forcing them to hide because you never told them it was okay to be different.

Targeted for ages 3-5, I recommend reading this book, with or without your child. Read it, then make a decision if you think it should be banned. The worst thing about banned books is the lemming effect it seems to have – one person complains about the subject matter, and everyone joins in without even having laid eyes on the book. Don’t let this be you – be informed, and give challenged books a chance.

East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 4)

By Edith Pattou

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The book is written from five alternating points of view: Rose, Father (Rose’s father), Neddy (Rose’s brother), the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. Each chapter gives a different point of view, and each takes the tale a little farther forward. At first I found this gimmick off-putting, but as the book progressed I found it helped the pace, keeping me engaged and racing for the end.

East gives us plausible characters, realistic scenarios and reactions, as well as a real and solid world setting. Even differing religions and folktales are given a place in East, which makes the religious studies student in me pleased. It is what I wished Ice had been. Some may find the shifting points of view and size off-putting, since East comes in at roughly 400 pages. The chapters are short, however, and can be picked off slowly. A good book for those that love fleshed-out folktales.

Suggested Ages: 9-12+

Pattou, E. (2005). East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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The Three Pigs

By David Wiesner

Almost everything happens in the “white space” of the book, while the story progresses without them. The words are the same, but the illustrations change to reflect the confusion of the wolf. Ignoring their own story, the pigs go exploring other stories, rescuing or being followed by other characters. They decide to go back to their story and re-write the ending as they want it.

The story targets an older audience; one with the ability to understand what’s happening without a lot of text. The gorgeous art easily tells the story, and I recommend it especially as a tool for helping youngsters think outside the box.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

Wiesner, D. (2001). The Three Pigs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Waiting for the Whales

By Sheryl McFarlane

Waiting for the Whales, by Sheryl McFarlane, was one of those books I loved when I was small. It differs a lot from other books in it’s main character; for the first half of the book it is an unnamed old man. He lives alone between the forest and the sea, grows his own food, and spends his days waiting for that one time of year when the orcas will swim by his home.

The artwork is stunning. Ron Lightburn has a beautiful touch, crafting pictures that evoke a wonderful sense of emotion in each page. From the old man’s loneliness to his camaraderie with his granddaughter, to the simple scene of his death, each scene is done with tact and touching simplicity.

Among its five awards, Waiting for the Whales won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Illustration, and the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrators Award.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

McFarlane, S. (2002). Waiting for the Whales. Orca Book Publishers.

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East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 3)

By Sarah Beth Durst

Welcome to part 3! Parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.

The main protagonist is Cassie, who has been basically raised in the research station, where her father tags and researches polar bears. On her birthday, Cassie is paid a visit by a polar bear, and told that she was promised to him as a bride. Spirited away, she tries to make a new life as the bride of a bear.

This book contains a lot of new elements, as one must to flesh a children’s book to a full-sized novel. Bear is not a cursed prince but a magical being in his own right. The trolls have been changed; they are now a race of gelatinous, ever-changing, ethereal beings who want to live but do not know how.

The book started off strong, but ended with a whimper, leaving me disappointed. Read for the good ideas, but be warned it will likely leave you scratching your head.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Durst, S. B. (2009). Ice. Margaret K. McElderry Books

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