Dec 29, 2012

One Times Square- for New Year's Eve!

***Even if you aren't able to get your hands on this title before New Year's Eve, 
take the time to explore it during the year ahead.***

David R. Godine, Publisher. 2012

My familiarity with Times Square is limited to the view from Discovery Channel's CASH CAB window. I'm willing to bet, though, that even those who walk the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Broadway on a daily basis would be as intrigued as I was by the detailed history of this iconic site portrayed in the 2012 picture book, ONE TIMES SQUARE: A CENTURY OF CHANGE AT THE CROSSROADS OF THE WORLD. Written and illustrated by Joe McKendry, the creator of BENEATH THE STREETS OF BOSTON, this view of Times Square is a fascinating trip through time and history.
David R. Godine, Publisher. 2004

McKendry starts the story at the beginning, when Broadway was Bloomingdale Road on the old Eden Farm in the early 1800's. He guides the reader through time with maps and art that evoke sepia-toned photographic images, vignettes of larger-than-life characters who shaped the heart of the city, and overlaid diagrams that allow you to place the past in the context of the present. Every detail contributes to the sense of time and place, including clothing, hairstyles, vehicles, historic references, iconic images, and signage.
Kirkus Review offers praise for the unexpected history of this very famous intersection.

Sandpiper paperbacks, 1978

In much the same way that Virginia Lee Burton's classic THE LITTLE HOUSE shows the effects of urban development across generations, the transformation of a century is compressed into the pages of a picture book. In that case the text and images are equally informative for younger readers.

McKendry, though, reveals considerably more with his gritty content, meticulous accuracy for dates and data, and a double-page spread in which the two year deconstruction/reconstruction of the Times Square Tower is depicted from September, 1963 through June, 1965.

His final pages include some challenging questions about what the future may hold for this landmark site, as well as references and acknowledgements.

Whether you'll be awake to watch the ball drop on New Year's Eve or catch a clip of it on the news or YouTube, you'll see it from an  entirely new perspective after reading McKendry's book.

Dec 23, 2012

Catching Santa... and Memories

Dad's annual project, minus the star on the peak.
Mom insisted he stop climbing three stories high 
by the time this photo was taken.

Happy times with loved ones rank at the top of my list of personal treasures. Among those the holidays figure prominently, since they present the opportunity to gather more of the family together.

I was lucky enough to know Mom's parents and Dad's mother throughout my childhood. Improved longevity allows even adults the benefit of sharing good times with grandparents these day, but by the time I was fifteen all three grandparents were gone. They provided a lifetime of memories in those short years.

Grandma and Grandpa,
Martha and George
Mom's parents were the spitting image of classic grandparenthood: white haired, soft spoken, loving and gentle to a fault. And, to my eyes, older than dirt even though they were only in their sixties in this photo. Their Appalachian accent contributed to my view of them as being from a bygone era. It was a special treat when they would make the trip from Kentucky and stay at our home during the holidays.

Thirty years ago I wrote a story about one Christmas Eve in the 50's when they provided my most memorable holiday ever. I wrote about it as a gift to Mom and Dad and shared it with my siblings. Since then a Christmas never passes that I don't relive that night through those words. I'm indulging myself by sharing them here, hoping to inspire other grandparents to try something similar with your own wee ones.

Catching Santa
by Sandy Brehl

Christmas Eve had always been the longest day to wait
For children sure that Santa Claus would never dare be late

The big day started early, all the gifts were wrapped and tied,
And those with our names on the tags were rattled, sniffed, and pried.

While Mom was baking pumpkin pies and cookies were still hot
We iced each one and sprinkled bits- we never missed a spot.

Then Dad would bundle, head to toe, to check the outdoor lights,
And even when it took him hours he always got it right.

Besides the windows’ candle glow the trees and shrubs were gleaming.
Up on the roof a lighted star would set us all to dreaming

Of manger scenes and shepherds, too, of Peace, and Joy, and Love,
Of elves, and snow, and "Ho-Ho-Ho", and reindeer high above.

Our wait was nearly at its end once aunts and uncles came.
While Grandma bustled, Grandpa napped and baby did the same.

Then sunset found us seated ‘round the table, candles flickered.
While Dad would say a prayer of thanks, we prayed they’d all eat quicker.

At last the meal was over, coffee drained from every cup.
Each belt was loosened up a notch and Grandpa’s feet propped up.

Then, starting with the youngest, on to each and every one,
The family gifts were opened until Grandpa, too, was done.

Then we passed around the cookies, but the best were first unpacked
To be set aside with carrots and cold milk for Santa’s snack.

By then it was past bedtime for the youngest of us all,
And the rest were getting sleepy when “To bed!” we heard Mom call.

But we had hoped for just one peek, our eyes forced open wide.
“A little longer, PLEASE!” we begged, and that’s when Grandma cried,

“You’ve never seen that jolly elf or caught him by your tree?
We’ll fix all that this Christmas Eve, just leave it up to me.

In houses without chimneys how he’ll come is hard to say
So Pa will guard the kitchen door if Santa comes that way.

“And I will watch the hallway door, it’s closer to the tree.
I’ll hear those hoofbeats on the roof before he can spot me!

“I’ll hide myself completely in that corner by the chair,
And I will be so quiet that he’ll never know I’m there.

“We’ll watch and wait and listen for a sign that Santa’s near.
Then Grandpa’s famous whistle will wake you while he’s here.

“We’ll catch old Santa in the act when he comes by tonight.
Just close your eyes and say your prayers when your folks turn out the light.”

With Grandpa settled near the door and Grandma’s watch begun,
It wasn’t hard to fall asleep to dreams of Christmas fun.

It seemed no time ‘til we awoke to Grandpa’s whistling tweet.
Then we heard Grandma cry, “Come quick!” and sounds of stamping feet.

We didn’t pause for slippers as we tumbled down the stairs
Where we saw Grandma pointing past two scattered kitchen chairs.

“Pa almost had him! Go, you’ll see!” We heard some bells a-jingling.
Out to the snowy porch we ran, our bare toes fairly tingling.

And there stood Grandpa, hands on hips, a smile from here to there.
“I almost had that slippery elf!” His words puffed frosty air.

“Look up now, past the rooftop. He took off ‘round that tree!”
The oldest shouted, “There he is!” We short ones couldn’t see.

How close we’d been! Yet back inside our toes told us to go,
But not before we spied his tracks- deep bootprints in the snow!

Beneath the glowing Christmas tree were presents piled up high.
But dolls and cars and games galore still left us with a sigh.

If only we could all have seen St. Nick as he stood there,
As close as Grandpa by the tree and Grandma in her chair.

To see him close enough to touch that red suit, soft and furry.
To see his smile, his snow-white beard… oh, why must Santa hurry?

But Mom and Dad reminded us how far and wide he’d roam
Before his Christmas rounds were through and Santa could head home.

Reluctantly, we turned for bed, and that’s the moment when
We saw the empty glass and plate where cookies once had been.

No doll or dress or bicycle, no toy from Santa’s pack
Would ever thrill us half as much as spotting Santa’s tracks.

If Christmas is for children, as so many people say,
Then there’s nothing like a grandma and a grandpa on that day!

* * * 

Grandma Brehl generated memories, too, but they'll be shared some other time. For now, here she is pictured at the center of our lives. Dad and Mom are directly behind her, Uncle and Aunt to the sides, and baby sister in Mom's arms. The squirt in the dark plaid jumper is yours truly.

Can you imagine anything further from the images of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in the recent release, PARENTAL GUIDANCE? I haven't seen the movie, but it sounds like a story of modern day memory-making. Times change, but it's still true...there's nothing like a grandma and a grandpa at Christmas!

Happy holidays, everyone.

Dec 20, 2012

New Titles, Old Souls

 Are you feeling the need to provide every bit of bling and bauble on someone's wish list? Before you use these final shopping days to run out and buy more, read MORE, by I. C. Springman, illustrated by Brian Lies, a book that extends far beyond the usual "less is more" mantra. I wrote about this title in a previous post, and now it's making the rounds on various Caldecott buzz lists. Check the comments on the post and you'll see I predicted that, which wasn't hard to do.

An even more recent release is SKY HIGH, by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine, originally published in Switzerland. It's narrow, vertical format is perfectly suited to the ambitions of wealthy neighbors whose competitive and conspicuous consumption results in self-destruction and isolation, not happiness. (Zullo/Albertine's LITTLE BIRD is also making some Caldecott buzz lists.)

My recent post featured holiday titles by Patricia Polacco. She is undeniably an  icon among author/illustrators and has many fans.

Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin) 2012
Tomie DePaola surpasses the level of icon. He's a living legend, acclaimed for more than two hundred titles, the winner of countless awards. Among the prestigious winners of the Sarah Josepha Hale Award, he was the first to be known primarily for children's book writing. His stories offer something for everyone, every age, and wear well over time.

It's no surprise that his work never disappoints, and it takes no psychic power to predict that this latest will stand the test of time. In this seasonal release, THE BIRDS OF BETHLEHEM, he offers a unique view of the familiar and often retold story of the nativity. Page by page, in spare but poetic art and text, pairs of birds gleaning seeds in the field share their observations of noteworthy events: a long line of people traveling, a full inn, a couple resting in the stable, angels in the night sky.
They follow the shepherds, to learn more.
What they see there, watching from the stable rafters, is the greatest miracle of all: a mother, her husband, and their newborn child.
They witnessed the miracle of birth, of life, of family.

These pairs of birds recognized the greatest gifts when they saw them. We can, too.

And we can let our children know, daily, that even the birds in the trees celebrate their lives, that they are loved, that their lives matter.

Who needs to shop, unless it is for books like these?

Houghton MIfflin Books for Children, 2012
Chronicle Books, 2012

Dec 16, 2012

Something for Everyone...a Polacco Christmas Collection

Penguin Putnam Books for young Readers, 2002

It was inevitable that a Patricia Polacco title would be among Holly Mueller's ten favorite picture books in her post at The Nerdy Book Club blog. The challenge must have been to choose only one from among Polacco's many titles with themes centered on Christmas. Her choice of CHRISTMAS TAPESTRY had me nodding my head in agreement, then digging out my copies of her other books.

Aladdin, 2000

cried out for a mention.  Offering Polacco's characteristic 
illustration and story-telling style, an abundance of ethnic details, and a high-stakes plot, it would stand up well on any "best of the holidays" list. The fact that it expands a Christmas story to engage neighbors who celebrate Hannukah gives it bonus points by my standards.

Philomel, 2004

Then AN ORANGE FOR FRANKIE caught my eye and it was a three-way race. Polacco's stories are often rooted in family history as well as American history. In this case Frankie is from a generation removed, but his story feels near and dear to my heart. 
In a previous post I wrote about my mom's Appalachian childhood. Her holiday memories focused not on gifts but on music, at church and at home with her family. When she told of waking to find an orange in her stocking, with a few nuts and a peppermint stick for good measure, the expression on her face was very much like Frankie's on the cover illustration. His acts of spontaneous generosity and the support of his large family are further reflections of Mom's stories from childhood.

Puffin Paperback, 2002
Judging only by the cover, readers are likely to feel WELCOME COMFORT is the most logical choice of all. Although set in Union City, it is firmly rooted in fiction rather than history. 
Goodreads says:
"It's not easy being Welcome Comfort-a foster child always moving from home to home and getting picked on by the kids at school. Even Christmas, the most wondrous time of the year, isn't so wondrous for Welcome, since he has no family, no presents, and no Santa Claus. But when Welcome meets Mr. Hamp, the school custodian, he finally finds a friend. And when Christmas comes around, Welcome is taken on an extraordinary adventure that changes his life forever."

Polacco is so prolific and her stories so distinctive that you may have favorites of your own. Further suggestions are always welcome. After all, they may be deliciously rich and satisfying, but they're calorie free!

Dec 9, 2012

Who's Afraid of Christmas?

If you had to think twice before answering that question, you haven't met SCAREDY SQUIRREL, by Melanie Watt. If you find yourself in that unfortunate circumstance, please move this titile to the top of your holiday wish list.

I've been able to make some progress on my holiday to-do list-- so far. Even though gift buying, decorating, and cookie baking have proceeded without major mishaps, I feel some familiar seasonal anxiety developing as the clock ticks and calendar pages turn.

Just in the nick of time, as he always is, Scaredy comes along with a new book to warn me and help me prepare for potential Christmas mishaps.
Kids Can Press, 2012

SCAREDY SQUIRREL PREPARES FOR CHRISTMAS: A Safety Guide for Scaredies is the definitive book for anyone who tends toward nervousness at holiday time. Scaredy carries out his precautionary directives in third person voice (I wonder if that is a germ-prevention measure?) and leaves no holly leaf unturned in his relentless pursuit of safety.

Before proceeding to the eight detailed and ditzy chapters, the reader confronts pages in which Scaredy introduces himself, warns about keeping the book away from germs and volcanoes, forbids its use by monsters, lobsters, vampire bats, or killer bees, offers an anxiety test, and even creates a surprisingly upbeat holiday horoscope.

This is a book that can and should be reread often, if only to assure that none of the minute details, throw-away lines, and subscripts are overlooked. Multiple readings are not a chore because Scaredy offers something for every demographic, a testament to the range and scope of his phobias and Watt's clever writing and illustration.

He wins me over with his proactive approach to fear, finding ways to explore a world that is as intriguing as it is scary. His no-nonsense advice is presented using informational text formats, making this a must-have title for anyone pursuing Common Core standards.

There's no end to Scaredy's helpful tips so be sure to check out his guides on other topics of concern:
Scaredy Squirrel Makes a FriendScaredy Squirrel at the BeachScaredy Squirrel at Night, and Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party.

In this special holiday book, his final "Scaredy Tip" offers perfect advice:
"Why not mix panic with pleasure?"
In his case, when playing dead in the snow a little creativity and a few slow but graceful moves stretched out over two hours will produce a lovely snow angel!

My final advice for a perfect holiday season?
If you find yourself running out of time to complete that to-do list, drop everything and read a picture book!
Care to share the status of your seasonal to-do list, or some titles?

Dec 2, 2012

Counting the Days Until...

This holiday season is nothing if not rich with traditions. Your own traditions at this time of year may be rooted in religion, ethnicity, or family beliefs, but I'm willing to bet my new oven that a spirit of giving plays a central role. Notice, I said "giving", not "gifting".

When I was growing up (just a few decades beyond the stone age), my parents introduced a  Christmas ritual that encouraged caring and sharing (and not just avoiding elves who might report back to Santa if I pinched or teased a sibling.) A mantel stretched across one end of our living room above a fireplace flanked by bookcases. Dad would carefully extend the slightly yellowed rolls of cotton, arranging them across the full length of the mantel. Little cardboard houses, complete with sandpaper rooftops, were fitted onto a string of lights to create a "village". At the center of the display was a Nativity scene. Of course, there was no baby Jesus-- yet. What's more, there was no straw in the little wooden manger that would be His bed. 

It was our job to earn the straw for the manger.  Each evening after dinner we were expected to report on our own acts of kindness or sharing that day. Then we could add a blade of straw to the manger bed for each kindness we had demonstrated. Whether we were told this or not, I believed that if we did not provide a suitable welcome, He might not come. 

In a blog post earlier this week I read this quote from Frances Myers Newman: "God is the good in each of us." Perhaps what I believed wasn't really far from the truth.

Rather than decry commercialism, greed, and secularism, perhaps these weeks leading up to gala celebrations could be filled with books that explore the values of kindness and sharing.
Nancy Paulson Books, 2012
Heading up my list of suggestions is EACH KINDNESS, written by Jacqueline Woodson and gorgeously illustrated by E. B. Lewis. It was recently featured on GREAT KID BOOKS blog, among others, and deserves all the attention it is receiving. I rated it at five stars on Goodreads, with this note:
An excellent companion story to Woodson's THE OTHER SIDE, this is a superb example of wounding "by omission": by refusing to return a smile, choosing not to play with someone, judging by appearances, etc.
Bullying is often seen to be overt, aggressive, but this passive rejection, the isolation of a peer because s/he is not... not what? Just not, that's all.
The uncomfortable truth of the ending is that sometimes lessons are learned too late to "fix", but not to late to change us.

Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2002

Another title worth exploring is ORDINARY MARY'S EXTRAORDINARY DEED, by Emily Pearson, illustrated by Fumi Kosaka. A chain of good deeds ripples incredibly far when Mary picks some blueberries and shares a bowl with her neighbor. From that point on each act of kindness (at this stage, blueberry muffins), is passed on to five others, each of whom does a kindness to five more. And so on, and so on. A page at the back lays out the math of the extraordinary possibilities in sharing blueberries.
Young children can hardly wait to begin the process, imagining that their smallest deeds, like the flutter of butterfly wings, can change the world. 
Older readers inevitably raise the question of "what if"- someone breaks the progression, or only passes on a single kindness.
While their awareness of the reality of human nature saddens me, it is heartening to hear others chime in with comments that "a lot of good happens anyway", or "maybe some will help more than five others." Best of all is when a child of any age offers this: "We can at least do the best we can no matter what anyone else does."
Picture Book Studio, 1989
Add this out-of-print title to your library search. It suggests anonymity when doing a kindness for others. MAGICAL HANDS, by Marjorie Barker, illustrated by Yoshi, celebrates the power in each of us to provide simple joys while savoring our secret power to produce happiness in others.
My wish for you, and for all of us, is to begin today to make a place for goodness in our hearts and lives, then share it with others. 
If you know of other titles that foster this spirit, please suggest!

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.