Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Our Television versus the Giant Book Monster

The book monster first moved in around Soren's first birthday, when I decided I couldn't bear to read "Double Delight Alphabet" with my handsy one-year-old one more time. I tried hiding it, and even from the crawler's perspective, Soren was able to sense its presence and seek it out, squealing until I relented and read it yet again.

At the time, we didn't have any TV in the house. I believed very firmly I wasn't going to let my kids watch TV. (I was a working mom. There was a lot less time in the day.) I started buying LOTS of books. Pretty much every time I had a few dollars in my pocket, I'd drop them at a bookstore or a thrift store.

Then I got pregnant and we discovered the wonder of Shaun the Sheep. "Shong Sheep" became a daily entertainment staple, once or twice a day, buying me twenty minutes of light-speed productivity, or just twenty minutes to relieve the swelling in my lovely cankles.

Soon Dinosaur Train emerged as the coolest thing ever. Since then I've gotten used to TV being a part of our daily routine. Half an hour or so in the morning, another twenty while I make lunch, and then some again late in the afternoon. I have a guilty affection for TV time.

I now attempt buy an hour of sanity every morning, doing dishes and preparing for the day while the Pteranadon family of Buddy, Shiny, Tiny and Dawn, keep Soren somewhat occupied during the day. I think I enjoy their friendship as much as Soren does.  

However, I've found recently that television has lost its lustre. I am baffled and somewhat dismayed. As a child, watching cartoons or Sesame Street on occasion was like a taste of forbidden fruit. How can my two-year-old be so "over it?" In fact, he's so "over it" that as the impending death of my loyal laptop approaches, I'm considering ditching the TV entirely in favor of a desktop computer. Truthfully, a coup d'estat against the TV wouldn't be a big event in our house. We'd fire up netflix once in a while to play Shaun the Sheep, and the only thing anyone would really miss would be an occasional trip through a time tunnel with the pteranadons.

How can this be? I have only one explanation: Soren loves reading books.

I often turn the TV on as a "treat," only to have him climb into my lap with a library book and turn it right back off. The TV lost the war with the Giant Book Monster (the GBM). Actually, almost everything in my house is losing to the GBM. My living room was slaughtered months ago. The tiny bookshelf in Soren's room is groaning under the weight of the GBM. There are stacks of kids books everywhere.

But when the GBM wins, who emerges victorious?

My kids do. Soren's vocabulary wins. Intimacy between us grows as we snuggle and giggle and point and chatter at the pages of our picture books. I win, because Soren isn't constantly absorbing strange behaviors from television characters. His ability to communicate and express himself and understand his world is exploding.

So will the television outlive the month of March, or will it lose the championship, knocked out by the GBM? I'll let you know. It's not looking good for the tv. But seriously, nobody was rooting for it in the first place. The truth is, I may be the only person here who will miss it.

I just wonder what we'll do with it?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bringing Home the Beach

Soren and I live a mile from one of Florida's finest state parks on the Gulf of Mexico. We have a pristine beach pretty much all to ourselves. There are few things that he loves more than trips to the beach with his grandmother from New York. She has much more energy than I do, so while she's away, we read books about the beach to bring a little of nature's magic home.

When Soren and I read books on a theme, I try to find a range of different kinds of books, each of which serve a particular purpose in that week's learning journey.

While Soren greatly enjoys long stories, I find that "baby" books like Usborne's Look and Say Beach board book provide us with a low-pressure opportunity for Soren to do the reading. No, he doesn't read the words, but he generates all the talking and I encourage him to make up a story. This book shows happy clay children and their beach fun with nothing but picture dictionary style key words.

Then I choose some books that employ elegant poetry that flows seamlessly. We read it all the way through, I don't leave an opening to stop and chat. If we want to do that, we can go back and just look at the pictures and talk about it. It stretches his attention span. It encourages him to sit still and just listen. It imparts a sense of respect for poetry and prose.

Hello Ocean by Pam Munoz Ryan is an absolutely beautiful book. A girl and her family visit her old friend, the ocean. Love of nature, the sand, the salty sea, the bright sky is a romance that even my two-year-old can start to understand.

Bubbly waves
that kiss the sand
wide open water
before my eyes,
reflected in a
bowl of skies... 

I try to include a silly story, a fun rhyme that will make Soren laugh. To the Beach by Thomas Docherty is an imaginary journey by a boy on a farm, through his window on a rainy day, traveling by airplane and sailboat, helicopter and camel to the beach and back. He's bound only by the limits of his imagination.

I look for a story that parallels Soren's own experience with what we're reading about. With a subject like the beach, that's pretty easy to accomplish. I recommend Sea, Sand, Me! by Patricia Hubbell. Take an adorable trip to the beach with a little girl and her friend, play in the sand, build a castle, put seaweed in your hair and sip some lemonade with them.

Stories like Sea, Sand, Me! and At the Beach by Anne and Harlow Rockwell give Soren a chance to basically tell me the story. I stop and let him fill in nouns and verbs. He's building an early kind of reading comprehension, and is often able to help me read a story the very first time we open the book.

Finally, I try to find a book that will stretch his mind with an element of critical thinking, wild imagination, basic science, or a story with a moral. Nothing too complicated, but something that will challenge him.

All You Need for a Beach by Alice Schertle is just such a book, building the essence of the beach one element at a time, starting with a single grain of sand.

And (of course) no book theme is complete without a visit from our favorite mischievous primate. Curious George is Soren's soulmate. This particular story is delightful as George encourages his shy friend Betsy to overcome her fear of the water and play with him at the beach.

Friday, February 25, 2011

W, X, Y for Yak, Z!

The first things out of your mouth in the morning, what are they?

Mine are normally a groan, a groggy and yawning sigh. Stumbling down the hall to get Annika. Feed her once more before releasing the dragon taming bunny keeper from his big boy bed.

The first words out of his mouth? They're different every day. Sometimes a delighted "MOM!" as if he's surprised to see me again? Sometimes he immediately asks to read the fourth book I declined to read him the evening before. He didn't forget. He probably drifted to sleep staring at it the night before. Sometimes it's something truly odd, like a request to finger paint before breakfast.

This week, he woke up with snippets of ABC's floating around in his head. I was delighted to hear him repeat "ABC" and a string of letter-like imposter sounds, punctuated with a sing-song "W, X, Y for Yak, Z!"

I haven't tried to teach my little guy his ABC's. He just turned two, it didn't feel necessary, and I assumed that at some point he'd pick them up naturally - as he has with most things. I'm not big into flash cards (though I know they have merit when used appropriately), and I just want to enjoy a learning lifestyle before I pitch him head first into curricula and worksheets with big letters and tracing and all that jazz.

But his funny little alphabet got me excited. With the exception of a delightful Kiboomu alphabet app, everything Soren knows about letters he learned from alphabet books. Apparently it's sticking! I'm looking for new alphabet books to put into our permanent rotation. I feel like I'm just putting more fuel on a fire that he lit on his own.

I thought I'd share a few ideas for other parents of wee ones for how to make the most - in a sneaky "hidden veggies" way - from alphabet books.

  • Sound it out! - For example, "A to Z of Animals, a Wildlife Alphabet" famously lists every letter and an example, "Y is for Yak". I embellish with basic phonics, "B is for b-b-butterfly" and "Y is for y-y-yak."
  • Get into the details - So Soren doesn't think that the bright blue thing on the page is a "b-b-butterfly", I follow up with questions. What color is the butterfly? B is for blue butterfly!
  • Trace the letter - I read slowly enough that I know I can draw attention to the big "B" on the page, following the shape of the letter with my forefinger. I don't need him to do the same. All I need is for him to realize that the symbol on the page is connected to the word below, and that that word describes the picture, the thing. I don't need him to have the coordination to do the same, and I don't need or want him to try to write it. At some point he'll recognize the letter, and like an old friend, be excited to see it out and about.
  • Embellish - add what isn't there. Name more things that start with the letter B, like something in the bedroom? A ball? A bed? A blanket? Recall other favorite animals and add them as well. D can be for dolphin and for dog! What magic!
  • Diversify - while there are animal alphabet books in abundance, who doesn't love a change once in a while? A few of our favorites below!
  • Recap - even when you're not reading together, throw out an open-ended "Y is for..." and see what you get! Sometimes it'll be the wrong letter, and that's okay! Clarify, encourage, and praise the effort!

Firefighters make everything awesome. Especially the alphabet. This is a beautiful book that I hope will come live with us someday. For now, we just drool over it at the library on a regular basis.

"A to Z of Animals, a Wildlife Alphabet" was a budget find at a Borders books. I think it's worth its weight in gold. It's a large format book, great for several little ones to sit on laps and snuggle up next to and soak in the beautiful illustrations. It's simple, but draws in little readers and holds their attention long enough to trace letters, stripes and spots.

Food is possibly the easiest thing for toddlers to connect with, and I love this one because it gives us an opportunity to say "we haven't tried that one yet", look at it at the grocery store, and bring it home. I love Lois Ehlert's bold style!

Jerry Pallotta has an extensive collection of alphabet books. Looking forward to reading many of them - courtesy of our public library.

This one lives in our car. Any time I anticipate a hopelessly long wait somewhere, it saves the day. It's more of a picture book than a dictionary. I let Soren pick a starting place and we pore over the pictures, talk about what George is doing, and discuss colors and numbers and all sorts of wonders. My son is a Curious George addict, and this book is a real treat.

I'd highly recommend the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Museum ABC" for a child slightly older than my two-year-old. He enjoyed it, and it passed the "twice in one day" test, but there is so much wonder and beauty in this masterpiece, he was only able to absorb so much. I'm certain we'll bring it with us someday when he's old enough to visit this famous museum and play a little game of "I spy."

Finally, I know it's another animal-themed alphabet book, but this is a book I enjoyed reading every time I was asked to do so. During the week it visited with us, I read it many, MANY times. Delightful rhyming quartets taught Soren important animal names like "narwhal" and "quetzal." It's a winner for sure.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Smiling at Pancakes

I was reading (for the 413th time) Curious George Makes Pancake to Soren this morning. My sweet little Annika was propped up on my lap, watching the book go by. I turned a page, and she lit up - grinning so big her gummy toothless mouth opened wide - her blue eyes dancing. She was thrilled by something she saw on those pages.

Perhaps a reader is born?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mom's Survival Guide to Public Libraries

Confession: I remain intimidated by visiting the public library with my two small children. I have visions of Curious George's visit to the library, careening towards an exit on a cart laden with books. I'm always astounded that the man with the yellow hat continues to leave George alone in public places with nothing but a warning of "don't be too curious"? What is he thinking? Will he never learn?

Fact: My paranoia is justified and rational.

Soren (2) and Annika (4 months) and I visit my childhood library home.  Once a week, my mom would take me, my brother and sister to the library. Armed with thin plastic cards and well worn tote bags, we'd fill our bags with all the wonder of the universe. I was enraptured with castles, my brother with outer space. Other kids who visited the Vanderbilt Beach branch had to get lucky to get their hands on these treasures of ours. (A few years ago, the library confiscated my expired card with my name scribbled on the back. I still miss it.)

Now, I go with my two little ones to the same branch. The magic hangs densely in the air for me. Every trip feels a little like deja vu, except for the nagging suspense of bringing a volatile toddler to a sacred place. Almost every trip we've taken there has gone wonderfully, but nonetheless, I push the stroller to the front door and my palms sweat. We stop before the entrance and recap the library rules. Soren remembers them pretty well and controls himself as best he can. But once in a while, there's an anomaly.

This week's trip, for example, was such an anomaly. We arrived Monday morning as the doors opened to a surprise pre-K story hour. I was not amused. I should have just rolled with it, but I hadn't prepped Soren for how to behave, letting him know what would happen. The cheerful librarian was fantastic, but we weren't ready.  Soren, having discovered how truly awesome the mammalian king of the jungle and desert is, spotted a stuffed elephant on a shelf, and had to have it. With lots of noisy children around, I tried to sneak out and check out our books while my mom stayed with Soren. He perceived my not-so-stealthy departure with baby in tow, followed me out, and proceeded to have a tantrum when we explained that the elephant wasn't up for adoption, that he lived at the library, and he loves his home.

My mom whisked my screaming toddler out of the building, while I stood, surrounded by annoyed retirees who had been disturbed from the placidity of their books. I was mortified. My fears had manifested themselves, and had it not been for my mom, the scene would have escalated from ugly to grotesque.

I am certain that these fears are not unique to me, and that any reasonable parent shares these concerns. Who hasn't seen this face on their own child before?

So what is to be done? Shall we raise the white flag and decide that the public library is not an appropriate place for budding literary enthusiasts? I think not. Truth be told, it's a risk that a good parent must take. That is, unless that parent has the good fortune of an enormous book budget, and in that case, I buy gently used books. Email me.

So, out of solidarity with all other rational and book loving parents out there, here are my pointers for mitigating a chaotic, loud and embarrassing visit to the public library with your toddler.

  1. Practice talking in quiet voices. Explain that the library is a quiet place, and that you have to be quiet to be able to borrow books from the library. I suggest you do this days before your first visit.
  2. Talk about organization. Every book goes in a special place. If they don't go there, they are lost, and if someone wants to read that book, they won't be able to find it. When you arrive, show the cart where books are placed to be properly re-shelved. Encourage them to put the books you read together on the cart for you.
  3. Time your visit well. We go right after a meal, our stomachs full, lots of energy, and well before naptime. Don't take a tired kid to the library, you'll regret it.
  4. Bring one big toy, or two small ones. We bring a large stuffed animal, for example, or I have two matchbox cars tucked into our book bag. If we get out of control taking books off shelves faster than Mommy can put them back, put a toy in each hand and little fingers hit a happy speed bump.
  5. Go with a list. If you read books on a theme like I do, going prepared is the only way to go. My list is separated by fiction (title, alphabetical by author's last name) and nonfiction (call number). I make a note of which books are board books, and may jot down a movie.
  6. Enlist an accomplice. If you have too much kid to control, call someone and ask for help. My mom goes with us almost every week. You could ask a friend to join you, someone with more hands than you. My mom reads with Soren while I scan shelves for the books on my list and random treasures.
  7. Avoid fines. Kids strapped into car seats, I set an appointment with a reminder on my phone's calendar: library books due March 7. I keep all our library books in a bin in the living room. They STAY in that bin. The receipt goes on the refrigerator, and on return day, rounding up library books is easy. Always look under the sofas first for missing books.
  8. Keep videos somewhere safe. Mine stay in the car, where I have a DVD player. They're a life saver on long trips, I don't spend a fortune on movies, and we keep the TV monster at bay: in the car, and out of the house. They're also already in the car when it's time to the return them after just a few days.
  9. Make a date. We go weekly. You could go every other week. If you go regularly, you never incur fines for forgetting to go. Make it a habit.
  10. Librarians have seen everything. They've certainly seen screaming toddlers before. If things go south, leave and come back another day. Most likely, everything will go swimmingly, and you'll leave feeling like the stellar parent you are.

In the end, the important thing is that you do go, that you do read with your kids, and that you do it as often as you can.

Captain Jack and Firefighter Chris!

Soren, Annika and I have had an enormously fun run of very busy days and weeks. My wonderful mother-in-law came to visit, we went on exciting field trips, read some awesome new books (gifts from MeMaw) and some great borrowed books from the library. I learned that I don't enjoy solo trips to the library with two kids, and that even the most angelic two-year-old is a little more two on some days than on others.

For three weeks, we read a medley of books on the themes of firefighting, the beach, and farms. I find that even after we "end" a book theme, we keep reading on it. A lot of the books I got from the library on this week's theme, firefighting, did not pass the Soren test: he must pick it out of the book box and ask to read it twice. If he doesn't like it enough to ask for it again, it doesn't make it onto this blog.

So here's the list! This week's heavy hitting winner was:

At the Firehouse, by Anne Rockwell. Little Jason the Dalmation goes to visit Captain Jack and the crew at his neighborhood firehouse. Soren had just been to visit our friend and firefighter, Chris. He did all the same things dalmation Jason got to do: sit in the fire engine, look at the tools, hold the big heavy hose. Soren loves Captain Jack, and regularly references the heroic firefighter while playing with his fire truck, sometimes even out of the blue, while eating lunch for example. I am sad to say this book must be returned to the library.

Fiction pick #2 is "Firefighters: Speeding! Spraying! Saving!" by Patricia Hubbell.  This one was a welcome break from "yet another story about a tour at the fire station." We brought home several that we only read once, and quite frankly, weren't impressive (including, I'm sorry to say, "The Little Engine that Could and the Fire Rescue", which was boring and hard to read).  The cartoon firefighters in this story rush to a fire and save the day. It's poetic, fun to read, and permanently embedded "Wee-ah-woo" as the sound of a Siren in my little guy's brain. Another book I'm sad to say the library owns on our behalf.

Soren's grandma got him a few books from the "Snapshot Picture Library" and I am very impressed with them. They appear to be a little hard to find, but well worth every penny. They are full of beautiful photographs, action shots, and exciting and easy to understand explanations of fun concepts. We read this one often and stop to talk about details in the pictures. Soren adopted the word "someday" as a staple in his vocabulary after reading this book for the umpteenth time. Every time he'd ask "Want that?" while pointing at a helicopter or fire engine, I'd encourage him that it's possible that someday he could have one if he grew up smart and strong and became a firefighter. He now proudly answers his own requests: "Want that fire engine, Mom? Someday..."

This was the best of the nonfiction "about fire engines" books we brought home from the library. "Fire Truck" by Caroline Bingham is comprehensive, again with great pictures of firefighters in action, some basic information about fire safety and lots of interesting facts.

Nothing makes Mommy happier than getting to read a book that Soren loves that also has STUNNING illustrations. "Firefighters A to Z" by Chris Demarest is a work of art and I highly recommend it if you're reading about firefighters. For a kid who's moderately obsessed, I'd say it's a home library staple.

I've included this last choice, "Hannah the Helicopter" as a friendly reminder that good books are ready available in the dollar section at your local Target. I read a nearly life-changing article about the link between reading in early childhood and literacy and life success. It stated that the average child in a middle class neighborhood owns an average of 13 books. I was stunned. While the books in the dollar bin aren't Pullitzer Prize winning by any means, this is one of many $1 books that captivate my little guy's attention. We've read this book scores of times, watching Hannah rescue firefighters battling forest fires, receiving recognition, getting down and dirty while doing hard work. I work our little home library on a tight budget. I rely on the library and great deals. If you aren't reading to your kids because of a similar tight budget, it's time to think outside the box (and read that article!!!).

When Soren and I read books on a theme, we read as many books as we can (at least seven new books a week), and then I incorporate a craft, a field trip, or a movie (last resort) to make the learning experience as tangible as possible.  We were delighted to visit a firehouse in our town. My biggest mistake? Soren is now under the impression that he can walk into any given firehouse at any time and go sit in the driver's seat. We're working on clarifying this small misunderstanding.

When we go on field trips like this one, I take video snapshots of what Soren does and learns, and we refer to them regularly. Take for example, lifting the heavy hose. I remind Soren how heavy it was, and encourage him to eat healthy meals so he can grow big and strong and use heavy tools like that one. I show him the pictures of the neatly organized tools and equipment in the fire truck, and we talk about being orderly at home, putting things where they belong.


I've found that combining books with a little hands-on learning and then some imaginative play is a winning combination! We are having a blast, Soren's interest in books is growing, his vocabulary is exploding, his imagination is blossoming. I must say, all of this is a lot easier with someone to help me. Mom went home to New York City, and she's very missed. This field trip business is a little challenging with 15 lbs of infant strapped to my chest!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Every Day Is Earth Day

While technically "garden week" ended this week, we've only read a few of the many books I wanted to read with Soren this week. And truly, inspired by this library's post of books on plants, "Every Day is Earth Day." I'm certain we will be reading more books on the wonder of living, growing, green things. However, these are our top picks.  All the books I post here are "Soren tested", meaning my two-year-old asked to read each at least twice.

"My Garden" by Kevin Henkes
This one is easily my top pick. The story is rich with imagination, it's charming, beautifully illustrated, and I honestly wish I didn't have to give it back to the library. The little girl in the book imagines the perfect garden where the flowers never die, the rabbits don't eat the plants because they're made of chocolate, and jelly bean trees grow. I'm enchanted.

"The Secret" by Lindsey Barrett George
This was Soren's top pick for the week. We read it over and over, often without another book in the middle. It's visually pleasing for a little person, following the dotted line tracks of garden creatures, sharing a precious secret with each other. The collage-style illustrations are delightful, full of flowers and crawly things.

"A Seed is Sleepy" by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long
I really wasn't sure about taking this non-fiction home. It didn't seem age appropriate, but the vibrant illustrations were too much for me to resist. As it turns out, it's not age appropriate, but Soren enjoyed it anyways. He calls it "Seeds do" because it shows, beautifully, exactly what seeds do and how many kinds of seeds there are. I plan to get it again in the future when Soren's language and science skills catch up with him a little.

"Green and Growing, A Book about Plants" by Susan Blackaby
This book thinks to answer questions I never thought to ask like "Do plants have feelings?" It is a fun, quick read, showing the life cycle of a seed and how tiny seeds can make huge trees and tasty fruit.

"Planting a Rainbow" by Lois Ehlert
I'm so glad we own this book. Its beautiful illustrations show the names of elegant flowers like Tiger Lilies and group them according to colors. For someone with beginning language skills like my little guy, it's a great conversational read. We go through it slowly, talking about the colors and patterns. We also love that it's "lap-sized" with big, wide, board pages.

"The Life Cycle of an Apple" by Angela Royston
Again, an age-inappropriate book that turned out to be a hit. It shows every stage in the life cycle of an apple plant, growing shoots, buds, flowers, being pollinated, growing fruit, harvesting or seed dispersal, and beginning again as a baby tree. I found that these kinds of resources in combination with time lapse videos of seeds germinating really helped Soren understand how seeds become plants and how they grow.

"Flower Garden" by Eve Bunting
Truthfully, most of the fiction on gardening we borrowed from the library this week didn't keep Soren's interest, so they aren't posted here. Bunting's "Flower Garden" was an exception. It shows a little girl planting an urban window garden, captures her excitement is she takes plants home on the bus, and the neighborhood's enjoyment of the bright blossoms in the window sill.

This is my last pick for the week. "Kids Garden! The Anytime, Anyplace Guide to Sowing and Gardening Fun" is more for parents than kids, and gave me some great ideas for activities this week and in the future. It helped me shake off my fear of gardening and just go out and put some seeds in the ground. It has wonderful suggestions for recycling, experiments and creative ways to use plants in play. I'd highly recommend you find a copy if you're planning on gardening with kids.

In addition to the garden we planted outside, we reserved a few bean seeds and nestled them into wet cotton balls in a recycled container.  Yesterday, we excitedly discovered that the seeds had sprouted little green roots. It was enormously exciting. He immediately started talking about the seeds outside in the dirt, and I was thrilled to see that he made that important connection that life was happening outside under the ground.

Truly, there are many books we haven't read yet, many seeds we haven't planted, flowers we haven't picked, and holes we haven't dug. Yet. I'm so excited to celebrate living things with my kids every day, every week, for many years. I'm sure we'll be sharing much more fun on this theme in the future.

In the meantime, the three big lessons I learned this week:

  1. Kids regularly need to have dirt under their fingernails.
  2. You're never too little to learn to love all things green and growing.
  3. You can't mess this up. The seeds will sprout, and even if they don't live long, the lesson is learned. Don't take gardening so seriously.