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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The Balloon Tree

By Phoebe Gilman

Have you ever told your child a bedtime story? I haven’t, but I’ve read reports of people who have. You start out with something fairly mundane – like a car ride. And then all of a sudden you take off to the moon and the car ride story turns into an epic adventure against the furry bat-men of Mars. Or something like that.

That how this book feels to me. It’s like Gilman’s children asked for a story about Princesses AND balloons, and this story is what resulted. I love it.

The Balloon Tree has it all. A princess in a castle, an evil Archduke, peril, secret passageways, a desperate quest, magic, salvation, and balloons. Pair that incredible artwork that features a ton of interesting, minute details, stories within the art and you have an amazing book.

Princess Leora’s father has to leave for a tournament. Scared of her uncle the Archduke, the King tells her that if anything goes wrong she should just release a bunch of her beloved balloons from the top of the tower and he will come rushing home to her. A great plan until the Archduke attempts a coup, destroying all the balloons so Leora can’t alert her father. With some advice from her friendly court wizard, Leora must now find one whole balloon so that she can summon her father.

Epic.

I think this book is a must-have for any little girls library (and little boys too). I’ve said it before (see Something From Nothing), but I love Gilman’s artwork. Not only does she create fantastic (and touching) stories, but she creates incredible artwork. The main pictures are well done, colourful, interesting, and lively, yes, but there’s more. Sometimes she shows the knights traveling, or creating movement by having someone break the barrier. It’s sheer magic.

Just look at the colours, the attention to detail! And these are two of the less Easter Eggy pages.

To me, this book is a lost classic. I think we read it to pieces, and I have no idea where my copy has gone (thus, “lost”). If you notice in the cover picture, this book has been around for 20 years, which tells me a lot of good children’s books came out in the 80’s. But more then that, it’s a testament to how good Gilman’s books are. I think children still know the name Jillian Jiggs, who has wonderful pigs that I made my mother make for me. And if you don’t know Jillian Jiggs, you are a heartless person who either suffered cruelly as a child, or is making your child suffer. Go, go, discover Phoebe Gilman. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Suggested Ages: 3-6+ (or all ages)

 

The Secret World of Arrietty

I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. I watched his older movies (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro, Castle in the Sky) long before the explosion of awesomeness that was Spirited Away ever hit North American shores. And while I love the newer movies, I admit they don’t hold the same magic touch that they used to. Howl’s Moving Castle is fun, but Ponyo just confused me. His latest offering, a remake of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, had me very excited. I loved the 1997 movie, so add that with my favorite movie maker, and I was right there in line!

I’ll admit up front: I was disappointed again. Not because it was a bad movie; it just confused me.

Having only read synopsis’s of The Borrowers online, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to follow the pattern pretty well. A young boy, Sean, is sent to his Aunt Jessica’s house to rest before a critical heart operation. Meanwhile, small Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing. You can probably see where this is going, and Ariretty ends up being seen silouetted through a tissue. Having seen a little person, Sean is now intent on finding her and making friends.

Another person bent on finding the little people is Aunt Jessica’s housekeeper Hara. Hara is, to be kind, a few slippers short of a shoe closet. She is insane. Without much/any proof that Sean has seen a little person, she starts to follow and spy on him, trying to catch him talking to a little person. When she discovers a hole in the floor that leads to the Borrower’s house, she traps Homily (the mother) to prove to everyone she’s not crazy. But magically, all the proof she’s collected disappears and she’s left looking certifiable to the pest control operatives and Aunt Jessica.

I have two big criticisms about this movie: one is the relationships the characters have; the second is the pacing.

The character interactions sometimes border on the cartoonishly weird, only they’re not funny (sometimes). Sean is a very deliberate, slow-moving, calm sort of person, but it comes off creepishly stalker-esque when he meets Arrietty for the first time. Pod is strong and stoic and communicates primarily through grunts. Homily is a basket-case of worry, but that seems true to the book, and she’s actually my favorite character. Hara deserves her own special post, I can’t even describe how little sense she makes. And Spiller, who makes two appearances in the movie, is reduced to a caveman, albeit, a caveman who can fly with his magic flying-squirrel cape or…something.

I saw the movie when it was populated primarily with small children. I will give them credit, for a bunch of 6-year-olds and under, they were quiet and engrossed in the movie (except for one little boy in my row who decided that beating up the chair in front of him was more important, but hey! he never talked). This astounded me, because the movie takes a lot of time to show us the boring, mundane tasks of the two houses. That’s not a bad thing, and the movie is set up well. The problem comes when you realize they’ve spent an hour and a half to set up the movie before trying to cram action and resolution into 30 minutes. Homily’s capture and rescue by Sean and Arrietty is really the only tension in the movie, and daddy Pod is missing from the entire act! Deciding the home isn’t safe anymore, the Borrower’s move out, and into another house. This, after the movie spends a good deal of time talking about how there’s a dollhouse built specifically for the borrowers. They never use it. Why?!

Despite how much vitriol I’m spouting, I did not dislike this movie. It has the traditional Miyazaki touch, with beautiful artwork and animation. There’s nothing scary about it (unless you count Hara’s over-the-top villain antics) which makes it good for the kids. They might get bored, though, especially on repeat showings when they realize nothing’s happening.

Go check out this movie. Or even any of the other Miyazaki movies from the beginning if you’ve never seen one before. There’s something in them for everyone, old and young.

The Lorax

By Dr. Seuss

Today I saw an ad for a new children’s movie, coming soon! It was colourful, bouncy, environmental… it was Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.

I love Dr. Seuss. His stories are unique and entertaining. Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, Green Eggs and Ham. Who hasn’t read these stories? They’re seminal in the literary development of children, and The Lorax is no different.

To me, The Lorax was the Dr. Seuss story I could never find. I still don’t own it as a story on it’s own – I’m not even sure it exists in it’s own paperback. I first read it in a Seuss treasury, and I found it rather dark. The story opens on a desolate, over-industrialized location, where an unseen man/woman/thing called the Once-ler hides behind bordered windows, but is willing to peer out to tell you a story for the right price.

The story of The Lorax is a tale of industrialization. The land is clean, the colours bright and sunny when an entrepreneur sets up shop, and starts cutting down the valuable Truffula trees for his business. As the business becomes more successful, he starts over-cutting. The eponymous Lorax appears, saying that he speaks for the trees and tells him to stop. But the Once-ler keeps on cutting, slowly developing a great industrial marvel while destroying the land. When the last tree is cut, the Lorax takes all the displaced and harmed animals away where they can’t be hurt anymore.

It’s a simple, but effective story. Watch the colour cues, and the way industrialization is dark while the environment is light. All mixed in with Dr. Seuss’ silly drawings; my favorite is his depiction of the garment the entrepreneur makes.

So, back to the movie. Obviously, since it’s not out yet, I can’t really comment, but I admit that I’m a bit concerned. For more movies, the issue fans have is that you are, inevitably, cutting things out. Whereas with Dr. Seuss, we have proven that an entire story can be told in a 30 minute special. The solution is that a lot of extra padding is added, as evidenced by How the Grinch Stole Christmas or The Cat in the Hat. So far, it’s had mixed results.

The Lorax will be done in animation, rather then real life, and the animation looks good! I admit, I will go see it when it comes out. I’m interested to see how they will interpret the story. There will be padding, for sure. But what will they focus the padding on? Will they keep the ending the same? The ending and the beginning is what makes The Lorax so effective.

What do you think? Will you go see The Lorax when it hits theatres? Do you think children’s picture books should be made into movies?

The Muppets Christmas Carol

I admit, I’ve never been much for the classics. I’ve never read them, except for when forced to by school, though I think most of us are in the same boat. Safe to say, however, that I’ve never read Dickens, and have never really had an interest. I’m sure he’s a wordsmith, but he’s never made my list of books I want to made. Jane Austen barely made it, and she’s as girly as it gets. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted and re-adapted dozens and dozens of times; I could pick any version from screen or stage to review, and I think everyone has their favorites. My – and my family – have laid our favorites in the child-friendly muppet version, the aptly named The Muppets Christmas Carol.

This is the movie we always watch on Christmas Eve; that’s our tradition. The Muppets Christmas Carol is a musical, done with muppets, puppets, and people. You might start cringing when you think about muppets doing their take on a serious Dickens work, but I’ve always thought the managed the line very well. They balance kid-friendly comedy with Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo with the serious themes of death, rejection, and hopelessness.

The movies starts lightly enough, with some moody acting from Michael Caine (as Scrooge), balanced by the eternal optimism of Kermit (playing Bob Cratchit). There are sad moments from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but the appearance of the ghost of Christmas Future is quite intimidating and terrifying, at least as far as the Muppets go. Even the narrators – Gonzo and Rizzo – run away until the finale, breaking the fourth wall as they go.

The songs are a great part of the movie. The opening song “Scrooge” is very enjoyable, introducing the main character while showcasing the traditional Muppet group-singalong. Caine’s introduction is delightfully chilly. The second song, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is the reason my family watch this movie on Christmas Eve – it’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas! And we all sing along with Kermit, naturally. This is balanced by the beautiful, sad song Belle sings at the middle of the movie; a song that, sadly, has been cut from some versions of the film. I’ve never been sure why; perhaps because it does not, technically add to or move the plot forward.

The puppeteering is, as always, fantastic. The Muppets have some of the most talented puppeteers around, and each Muppet has their own look, personality, movement and life on-screen. I’ve always loved the Muppets, and this movie only increases their nostalgic power.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope your holidays are restful, festive, and full of excellent food! And remember: only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

Christmas Specials – How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

Based on the work of Dr Seuss

If you were of the right age (which I am not), you would swoon over the pair of Dr. Seuss and Boris Karloff. Or you would cock your head and go “whaaat?”

For those of you not in the know, Boris Karloff was an actor in the 1930’s who played, among others, the iconic role of Frankenstein’s Monster. Basically, a horror movie actor of extreme popularity. What does this have to do with Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas!? Why, he was the narrator! And the Grinch’s voice. And it’s probably the only reason kids today might have any clue who Boris Karloff is. Though, to be fair, at least he’s still known for being mean, green, and terrifying. Or at least green.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is one of those classic Christmas specials that should and will never die. It is short, sweet, and captures the story of Dr. Seuss’ story perfectly. We all know the story, and if you don’t then please go watch the video below; we cannot let this travesty continue.

In brief: every Who down in Whoville loved Christmas a lot. But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not. Therefore, he decided it was an excellent idea to steal Christmas by taking all their presents!

Okay, so that doesn’t rhyme very well. Or at all. Luckily, Dr. Seuss’ version is much more readable. But that’s the gist: the Grinch hates Christmas and wants to take it away. Because he especially hates the noise of the presents and the Whos singing, he decides to steal the presents, dressing as Santa Claus to escape notice. When the night is done and he’s about to dump the presents off the mountain, he hears singing; the Whos are singing a welcome to Christmas despite all their presents being gone. Suddenly understanding the meaning of Christmas, the Grinch rides back down the hill, delivering all the presents back to the village folk.

In essence, the story is about the true meaning of Christmas being not in the presents, but in the spirit of the season; the love and giving. It seems simplistic, but who said Christmas had to be complicated? The part where the Grinch’s heart grows is one of my favorite scenes, and I love the “Welcome Christmas” song the Whos sing. There are only three songs in the special, and each one of them has a special place in my heart. That’s what nostalgia does, kids: makes you miss things you see only once a year. But that means it’s working!

The special is faithful to the book with only a few embellishments (like the songs). While I cannot, at all, be considered an expert or even mildly informed in the art of animation, I enjoy what the special has done. The details of the special mimic a Seuss-ian feel, with simple lines and stylistic angles. When the Grinch goes slithering around the floor after presents, you feel kind of creepy, but it’s funny too. If you consider this like a book, then the animation is great, because it can interest young children without overwhelming them with details.

I have not seen specials on television of late, but perhaps I’m missing the proper times and channels. If you happen to see this special when flipping through your local listings, make sure to call your kids and enjoy 30 minutes of the Grinch.

Home Alone

And now for something with almost no seasonal or religious affiliation (yet somehow retaining both) – Home Alone!

This is one of those classic movies that I almost didn’t see. Please don’t ask me how. I just remember that, when everyone else in my class was excitedly talking about how they were going to see Home Alone and bust a gut over it, I was sitting there with my head cocked going “Home Alone what now?”

I’ve never been one for comedies, but if I can handle them at any time, Christmas is the time. And Home Alone is one of those classics that should always be played at Christmas. What’s not to love? The acting is great, especially when you consider how old half the characters are, the story is fun, and because it’s set at Christmas time you can do all the fun things and no one will get mad! Because it’s Christmas!

Most of you will know the story: boy (Kevin) gets left home alone while his ridiculously large family flies to France, mother goes insane trying to get home to find him and no neighbours are around to go help him. Conveniently, burglars are hitting up every empty house on the street, and the McCallister house is the perfect target. Kevin decides that he will not sit back and let his house be burglarized, so he sets up a series of elaborate traps to keep the robbers out. Just when things look darkest, he’s saved by the friendly/creepy-looking man who shovels snow and the family all make it home for the holidays. Hugs all around!

What they don’t show you is the family realizing exactly what Kevin’s destroyed while they’re gone, and how many, many years Kevin spends grounded.

Home Alone is a great movie, especially at Christmas time. The focus is on the screwball comedy and both sets of actors (the thieves & Kevin, the parents/adults) carry off their roles very well. We can forgive the child actors for their occasional slips because, hey, they’re kids, and that’s what they do!

There’s even a Christmas message shoehorned into the overall story, which is impressive when you consider that the whole thing is one kid trying to defend his house against two crafty (I use the term loosely) robbers. But it’s there; it even takes place in a church! Kevin even says grace over dinner! I am shocked. Shocked!

This movie is not for everyone. Overall, I think it’s harmless, and most kids in North America have seen it at some point in their lives. It’s a great movie to put in, sit back, and laugh to a semi-Christmas message. And because it does have a Christmas message, I give it a thumbs up for the holiday season.

(please use discretion based on the ages of your children)

The Polar Express

By Chris Van Allsburg

Everyone has their favorite Christmas books. You know which ones I mean – the ones you haul out year after year and read to your children, or your siblings. From the time I could tolerably trip my way through our version of A Night Before Christmas I was reading it to my sister, thus sparking a new tradition: Christmas Eve Fight Night. (No, I kid – I knew Santa was watching and was always very, very good the night before).

One of our favorites, and perennial classic to children everywhere, is The Polar Express. No, not the movie (I’ll get to it later), but the book. I love the book. The illustrations are beautiful, incredibly rendered in gentle colours. They feel soft, in a way; looking at them makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, which is exactly how I want to feel when I’m reading a Christmas book.

The story is the one we all wish we could take part in if this story were real. An unnamed young man, going to sleep on Christmas Eve, awakens to hear the call of a train whistle outside his house. Running downstairs, he is greeted by the conductor and told that “this is the Polar Express”. Initially reluctant, the boy climbs on, and is ushered in to a lively, magical train.

The Polar Express makes its way north, eventually coming to a stop at the North Pole, where Santa will give out the first gift of Christmas. He chooses the boy, who requests to have a bell from the reindeer’s harness. Santa grants this wish and gives him the bell, but on the subsequent trip home, the boy realizes there was a rip in his pocket at that he has lost the bell. Dismayed at the loss, he finds a package under his tree the next morning with the bell and a note from Santa.

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.

I’m going to say it again: I love this book. The illustrations are to die for, beautifully rendered and perfectly conveying the feeling of magic and Christmas. The story is simple, provoking children to reaffirm their belief in Santa Claus and Christmas. After all, if you believe, you too might end up on the Polar Express and receive a gift from Santa.

Suggested Ages: 3+

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.

Mr. Bach Comes to Call

By Susan Hammond

The basic premise is this: A young girl is practicing Bach on the piano, despite any desire to do so. Mr. Bach then appears and teaches her the value of the piano, while simultaneously telling her of his life and music.

Mr. Bach Comes to Call is a great mix of back-from-the-dead autobiography and concert CD. Many of Bach’s most famous musical works are played within the story, both in the background and featured on their own without any interruption. I don’t really remember what I enjoyed most – the story or the music. But I don’t even have to choose, because Mr. Bach Comes to Call gives us both in one.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Hammond, S. (1990). Mr. Bach Comes to Call. The Children’s Group.

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