Friday, April 25, 2008

My Favorite Children's (Picture) Books

Time is flying by, and I have to sheepishly admit that I've been very slack about preparing for the actual arrival of our baby -- in less than three months' time (and that's if he/she decides to arrive on time!). Granted, I've picked up quite a few adorable little onesies and various outfits since this past January, most of them during the sales (and more than I expected, when I take a step back and do a quick inventory -- YIKES, how did that happen?! They say you always have TOO much for the first three months...), and I bought a few used items thanks to a friend who hooked me up with the MESSAGE group in Paris. But otherwise, equipment-wise I'm not exactly what you would call prepared. And my boyfriend and I have pretty much decided that we don't necessarily need to prepare a whole room at this point; a little corner will suffice, until we figure out where we're going to settle down for the long term. Plus, his sisters will be passing on quite a few things to us, so it's really hard to tell how much we will really need once they've given us a hand -- something I'm incredibly grateful for, trust me! I may break down and purchase this children's dresser, though, basically because I LOVE the sweet green color, and I just think it will be useful for years to come, more so than a table à linger or actual "baby" furniture so to speak.

But if there is one domain in which I feel sufficiently prepared (as if it were that big of a priority, I know!) it's the book arena... One of the first things I bought for my baby-on-the-way was a book, several actually, while back in the U.S. for New Year's. Some of you may already know that I worked for a few years in the children's book department of a bookshop, handling everything from meeting with the sales reps (and getting so excited about the books that I practically sold them for them!), selling my favorite books to grateful customers, choosing and ordering the books to stocking the shelves and decorating the windows. Some days I really miss that job, but I definitely don't miss the stress it entailed (believe it or not!) nor the negative level of communication between the management and employees -- to say the least. But I digress...

In any case, in my time spent there I was brought back to my childhood again, in so many ways, and I was brought back to those years that I was so passionate about books in general. (As a little girl, I was the "nerd" who loved walking up a sunny summer street to the local library, where I would spend hours in the air conditioning poring over books until I had to go home again for dinner...) And if there's one thing I can say for certain, I am eternally grateful to that time in my life for reconnecting me to a part of my nature and my personality that I never should have left to fall by the wayside. (I'm also pretty happy to have picked up a wonderful man along the way as well, but that's another whole story!)

During my fairly short stint as a bookseller (and buyer), I managed to collect a few of my favorite children's books to hole away for safekeeping until my own little ones arrived -- some people would be surprised to see how many kiddie books I had on my shelves, without the children around to enjoy them! But these books have always been a pleasure for me as well, so I impatiently await the moment when I will finally be able to share these stories with my own first child.

Now, we're not talking about a library full of books, trust me, but merely a few shelves full of picture books and board books, with a couple educational books squeezed in there and one fabulous collection of children's stories that I know will forever remain a classic. I managed to track down several of my own books from when I was a little girl while I was home in January, including our well-loved, tattered copy of The Cat in the Hat, as well as a copy of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends (and boy, does that collection of poetry bring back memories...).

This is a post that I started writing, in fact, months ago, before I even knew I was pregnant. I wanted to share a bit about my favorite children's books, just because it's a world I so love, but now that the Baby Bloomer is soon to arrive, I have all the more motivation to get these titles out there! Please feel free to share a few of your favorites with me as well, in the comments. I'm always happy to hear about little-known titles, or ones that I've simply forgotten about over time! (And how I love rediscovering books from my childhood!)

Of course this list isn't exhaustive by any means, and it only includes the titles for children up to about the age of 5 or 6 I would say, but I remember savoring the time my mother would read to my little brother, even when I was already 8 years old and he was still very little. I've just always loved reading from picture books, especially when the story strikes the perfect balance with beautiful images. But I have favorites from other times in my childhood as well, including Charlotte's Web and even later still, Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming.

So, without further ado, voilà my most recent (and constantly changing!) list of faves:

1. The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein - The all-time classic, the only book that gives me chills every time I read it. I'm so lucky to have gotten my hands on a clothbound copy of this treasure while I was working in the bookshop; I will hold onto it forever.

2. The Gruffalo - Julia Donaldson, illustrations by Axel Scheffler - This is one of those books that just so happened to show up along my path while working in the bookshop, and between the sharp, colorful illustrations and the craftiness of the little mouse who outwits the other animals pursuing him before finally meeting the "Gruffalo" (and YES, he does exist!), I just can't get enough of it, especially since it also has a great rhyming rhythm that gets kids right into the story.

3. Morris's Disappearing Bag - Rosemary Wells - For some strange, inexplicable reason, this is a book that stands out in my childhood, and one of the rare books that I STILL have at home, as a reminder of my littlest years. I'm not quite sure what appealed to me the most, whether it was Wells' adorably warm, colorful illustrations or the story of little Morris who feels so left out when his older brothers and sisters get such cool Christmas presents that they each show off with such flair. I love how in the end he makes his magic "disappearing bag" appear even more unique than anything else, and everyone wants to get in on the fun! Such individuality, and I love when that theme is emphasized in children's books.

4. Knuffle Bunny - Mo Willems - Now HERE'S a recent book that bowled me over as soon as I read it the first time -- everything about it is endearing and appealing, as sappy as that may sound... The combination of black-and-white New York street photos with the quirky colorful drawings on top only enhance Mo Willems' portrayal of baby Trixie, just hitting that age when she's garbling away like crazy but is still pretty much incomprehensible -- until she pronounces her first real word at the end! But not before she loses her beloved stuffed Knuffle Bunny, and drives daddy crazy looking for it... I was sold on Mo after his first Pigeon book, when it won the Caldecott Honor in 2003, and I've become a big fan of his naive drawings and wacky, addictive sense of humor. He also really has a way with kids... Apparently he was inspired by his own baby daughter when he wrote and illustrated Knuffle Bunny, which won the Caldecott Medal in 2004.

5. The Magic Paintbrush - (exists in several versions, as it is based on a Chinese fable, if I'm not mistaken; I have the Julia Donaldson edition as well as a tiny French edition) An enchanting, inspiring story about an incredible paintbrush that brings everything it paints to life. But the main character, Shen, who was given this magical gift, has to protect it from the greedy plans of the emperor, who wants to use it to create more and more riches for himself.

6. The Cat in the Hat - Dr. Seuss - Who doesn't know this eponymous tale by Theodore Geisel, most definitely his most well-loved classic, along with Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish? I have a mini boxed set at this point, as well as my worn copy from childhood, but I'm sure this is a book we'll read together time and time again... I have a particular affinity for Dr. Seuss as he was such a major part of my childhood, so I had to hold myself back several times from buying some anniversary collected editions a few years ago. I may regret not getting my hands on those, though...

7. When Everybody Wore a Hat - William Steig - I'm sure some of you out there have already heard of a silly, loveable monster by the name of Shrek, right?! Well, he was invented by none other than William Steig, also quite known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. But his last book, When Everybody Wore a Hat, was the one that really touched me, with the voyage back in time to another era, when Steig himself was growing up in the city, and the many different people he encountered. Something about his childlike drawings here gets to me every time.

8. Frog and Toad Are Friends - Arnold Lobell (and actually the whole Frod & Toad early reading series) Such whimsical, sweet, funny tales of friendship and exchange, these books make me nostalgic for my childhood every time I read them again today. There is even a certain depth to the stories, something that children wouldn't necessarily grasp of course (at least not immediately), but I think that is truly what is so magical about the best children's books out there, how perfectly they capture childhood and its complications, while they presage the difficulties, challenges, and painful moments of adulthood and all that it brings at the same time. Frog & Toad just really bring back memories... And oh, how I love Lobell's drawings!

9. Miss Nelson is Missing - Harry Allard, illustrations by James Marshall - I don't know if I first heard this book when I was really little, or if I heard it for the first time when looking over my mother's shoulder as she read to my baby brother, six years my junior. I used to get a kick out of listening to her read to him, even though by then I was reading plenty of my own books. But there's just something about storytelling time... And Miss Nelson is one of those irresistible tales that gets you smiling from the start. Naughty schoolkids, a sweet teacher, a nasty witch, and a mystery: all the ingredients for the best kind of story!

10. Harry the Dirty Dog - Gene Zion - The memories of this book came rushing back to me when I found a special hardbound anniversary edition of it in a bookshop this past January, just when I was wandering around looking for the best board books of the bunch... Actually, this edition also includes No Roses for Harry, and Harry by the Sea. But the first tale is of course the most memorable one, in which Harry runs away and has a good time getting dirty all day long, but when his family doesn't recognize him he has to find a way to convince them that he's still the same dog!

11. Goodnight Gorilla - Peggy Rathmann - When looking for those baby board books, I fell upon an edition of this adorable "word-free" picture book, full of images that are so perfect that they tell the story on their own. When a friendly zookeeper's animals all follow him home one night while he's trying to close up shop, he has to usher them each back to their cages. But one tricky gorilla keeps getting loose again! I love the one double-page illustration of the gorilla's toothy smile shining in the dark of the zookeeper's bedroom.

12. The Snail and the Whale - Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler (is it obvious that I'm also a big fan of this writer/illustrator team?!) After discovering The Gruffalo, this educational picture book showed up in my book-buying catalogue one day and it was love at first sight. I'm a sucker for Scheffler's flair for color and setting, and this cautionary environmental tale is the perfect balance of fairy tale and modern fable.

Gosh, I think I'm going to stop here with my dozen, although obviously I could go on forever... I also love The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds, which should be put between the hands of any budding artist who has lost his/her sense of confidence -- or for that matter any child who thinks he/she can't draw! And Zen Shorts, another Caldecott Honor winner which has breathtaking watercolor illustrations and a refreshing take on philosophy for the youngest crowd.

Ahhh, I'm turning into a monster! Anybody have any favorites they want to add?! Obviously I'm OPEN to new discoveries! (Even though our sagging bookshelves may not be too happy...) [Oh, and by the way, if you're as into children's books as I am, or you just love a great collection of children's stories, this book is a must-have. I love paging through it and re-reading some of my classic favorites... So many are in there!]

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

All Wrapped Up

Fred's Incredible Care Package, originally uploaded by alwaysace.

Well, a lot has been going on around here, but as usual I haven't been diligent enough about blogging the everyday events of my life. Of course, I'm sure most of it would bore you to tears anyway, but some things are just screaming to be shared. So, inspired by some fellow expat bloggers who opened up their recent Easter care packages (and chocolate booty, I might add -- jealous much?!) I decided to share my brother's fabulous, most perfect care package for the pregnant gal like me who is missing some little silly things from back home in the U.S.

He pretty much thought to include everything -- from the requisite bags (two!!) of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish (let's not talk about the partially hydrogenated oil and such -- we'll just close our eyes on that for the moment!) to the most perfect pregnancy journal I have ever seen -- who can resist The Belly Book?! (Putting aside the fact that I'll have to go back and try to remember the details from the first 5 months!). He even included a little gift for my boy, a huge Western fan, a DVD of 3:10 to Yuma, which ironically has just come out in the movie theaters here. My boy is more of a die-hard old-fashioned Western guy, a big fan of titles I couldn't possibly remember if I even tried, but the first few that come to mind are the ones he dragged me to see in the Latin Quarter a few years back -- namely Red River, with Montgomery Clift and John Wayne, of course, and Last Train from Gun Hill, starring a young Kirk Douglas. I've actually learned to appreciate a few more Westerns thanks to my sweet boy -- but don't try to make me swallow them too often! This is one guy who really likes the Far West and can't resist a Western mainly because "the sky is always blue". Isn't that adorable?!

So my brother's addition for my boy will surely be appreciated, even if it will only be considered a "remake of a great classic" -- after all, there's Russell Crowe! Even I'm willing to watch (and tolerate) a shoot-em-up flick for him. Then there's the "Once" soundtrack, which should be nice for some mellow, relaxing listening. And last but not least, the Burt's Bees Mama Bee Baby Belly Butter -- the name of that stuff made my brother laugh so hard that he couldn't resist jabs like "I guess I won't be able to send you any bread for your baby butter!" I'm totally set for stretch-mark-preventage now (along with my Palmer's cocoa butter and the Weleda oil that my boyfriend's sister gave me); here's just hoping the stuff actually works! Precarious Tomato apparently swears by it... (And that gal will make you laugh yourself silly, so be prepared, and don't say I didn't warn you!)

And I know I haven't talked a whole lot about how the pregnancy has been progressing here on the blog either -- morning sickness, symptoms, etc. -- so I need to share some of that as well. Incredibly enough, this week marks officially 6 months, although it certainly doesn't seem like it -- 24 weeks! It's hard enough for me to believe, trust me, so I won't be surprised if YOU'RE shocked as well... The last two months have just flown by, and admittedly I have been feeling overall much better since the end of February, early March. So much better that I ended up overdoing it last week, burning the candle at both ends as I stayed up late plugging away at my volunteer work for SCBWI France. I made some good progress, and it was work that had to be done after all, but my body wasn't too happy about it -- as it decided to let me know over the weekend, when my digestive system did some backflips...

Needless to say, the toughest parts so far were definitely back in the second and third months, in the first trimester, I would say, when mornings were pretty much dismal and evenings required frequent sugar highs and meals at regular hours -- or ELSE! My trip back and forth to the U.S. went well, but trust me, flying is NOT fun while in the early stages of pregnancy -- I even planned on writing out a blog post on how pregnancy and jetlag simply don't mix, but then it just never happened. One evening on my way home from work last December I literally tumbled out of the doors of the RER and plopped myself flat down on the ground, heavy winter coat and all, without even seeking out a bench on the quai... I just needed some air and some rest -- not to mention some food!

Recent ails have revolved more around heartburn, for the most part, although I'm not nearly as tired as I was in January. I slept away the weekends back then, marathon sleeping sessions that were unpredictable and could string together for a few days at a time. My boyfriend would say that I had slept all afternoon and couldn't possibly sleep through the night -- and yet I DID, pretty much every time. Now I'm in the stage of waking up early -- at the ungodly hour of 6:00 a.m. -- and wondering why on earth this is happening. Maybe my body is trying to prepare me for the lack of sleep ahead?! Who knows, but this non-morning person is having a hard time swallowing it... My boy will wake up overjoyed at the early hour, while I'll just roll over and beg for a few more minutes mercy.

Needless to say, the pregnancy has, in many ways, brought my boyfriend and I closer together. It's hard to explain why or how, but I'm hoping we'll continue on this path, because I know I'm going to need all the support I can get in the final months of the pregnancy and especially when the Little Bean arrives. We've had to compromise on some things already, including whether we find out the baby's sex, but we've managed to work things out -- in our own, eccentric, unpredictable ways! (And there's a story behind learning the baby's sex as well, but that will have to be for another time...)

It's hard to put into words the affection I feel emanating from my boy in recent times, the gestures he has made to be closer to me, and the warmth he brings me every time it happens... He still hasn't managed to grasp the concept of placing his hand fully around my belly to feel the baby's movements, and instead taps away lightly with the palm of his hand, while I look down, puzzled and amused (clearly thinking that if he knocks the baby might just answer?!). But I think he's just as excited and pleased to be sharing this experience with me as I am with him. It's his unexpected embrace and smile that make me happiest at any time of the day, and I'm so looking forward to sharing the many months ahead with him, with all of their highs and lows.