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Bedtime Superstars

I would wager a guess that bedtime is the most popular time for sharing stories and definitely the coziest time for reading together! When our oldest was a toddler, every night meant Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny with Daddy. Later, as a family of four, we usually chose 3 picture books to read together at night. As parents, it was one of our favorite things to do and I still have such memories surrounding the bedtime reading ritual : Arthur, Max and Ruby, Baby Duck….so many bedtime friends.

We read lots of laugh out loud books at bedtime, but the ones I cherish most are those that mirrored that warm, cozy feeling of ending the day snuggled together. The books that helped us bring the day to a close and set the stage for a peaceful transition to the darkness and alone-ness of bedtime. The two books I share here did that with such perfection I still *sigh* when I see them or hear the titles mentioned. They are often the books I buy as a gift for a new little one to enjoy.

Time for Bed by Mem Fox (illustrated by Jane Dyer) is a quintessential choice in nighttime stories. The beautiful watercolor illustrations on each double page spread are accompanied by a two line rhyme that starts “It’s time for bed, little….” and fills in the lines with a different animal and a different activity or idea that helps to end their day. The tone of the text is so gentle I think it would be nearly impossible for me to read the book in anything but a quiet voice. Lines like:

It’s time to sleep, little deer, little deer, 

The very last kiss is almost here. (Fox, 1993)

Text by Mem Fox, illustration by Jane Dyer

When I read that text my voice slows down and mirrors the time of day. That’s what I think makes a great bedtime story – it begs to be read to slow things down, to get ready for the calm. The starry backgrounds, the wonderful pairings of young animals and their caregivers – in my book this one is brilliant!

My next choice is Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown (the 1989 printing is illustrated by Felicia Bond). Though definitely not as well known as Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, this book is one of my favorites written by Brown. To be clear, I enjoy the random rhyming and quirkiness of her books – I know not everyone does. In fact, NYC Children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore rejected her books for the library shelves! But there is a purpose to those oddities I think : to “wake up” the reader and keep the story from getting stale or too measured. There are only a few instances of this in Big Red Barn, and mostly they are almost-rhymes or a line split into two:

There was a bantam rooster

And a little bantam hen

With a big clutch of eggs.

Count them. There are ten. (Brown, 1989)

Illustration by Felicia Bond

That last line split makes the reader pause and I think adds variety to the text (and a chance for some counting). There are lots of animal sounds to make and animals to identify when reading the story. Bond’s illustrations are bright and well outlined, and as the story progresses the sky darkens as the animals retreat to the barn for the night. We see them all snuggled in on the final double page spread. A perfect precursor for shutting out the light.

One note about this edition of Big Red Barn – it says the text has been edited by the estate of Margaret Wise Brown. So now my mission is to read the original text and figure out what has been changed and why….

There are so many fabulous stories to share at bedtime and beyond. These two are at the top of my list but I have so many memories of others as well, which – to me – speaks to the sheer power of the picture book.

Brown, M. W. (1989). Big red barn. HarperCollins Publishers.

Fox, M. (1993). Time for bed. Harcourt, Brace & Company.

Featured

Ahh, Poetry!

As I look back, I think my love of poetry came about for a couple reasons. Or in reality, because of a couple of people.

First I think it was Mrs. Wright – one of my amazing elementary teachers – who required all of us to recite and poem (and a book report) in front of the class each month. Unfortunately for her, it was a Shel Silverstein and Narnia love fest among ~11 year olds. I’ve always been curious if she grew to strongly dislike those two after we were done.  Not only was this where I learned to ALWAYS volunteer to go first (since everyone else is too nervous to really pay attention) but it was when I think I really understood that poetry is meant to be read aloud to be appreciated – think Hamilton and the incredible Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman. To this day, when I read Shel Silverstein poems to my students, I can recall which friends recited which ones in elementary school. That is powerful stuff. 

Second, and mostly as a result of the assignment given by Mrs. Wright, I came to appreciate and understand that poetry crosses lines – in my case generational lines. Our across-the-street neighbors growing up – Rhoda and Woody – were older than my parents but younger than my grandparents (or so it seemed to a young me). My sister and I spent countless hours at their house and sitting on their front step – I may have even run away there a few times. I don’t believe Woody had extensive formal education but what knowledge he possessed! So I knew just where to go when I needed a (non-Shel) poem for school . I have memories of him reciting The Owl and the Pussycat, The Village Blacksmith, and much of the lengthy The Highwayman. As a result, I clearly remember learning and  presenting Wordsworth’s Daffodils to my class. I’m not sure they were as enamored as I was with the poem, but I would guess Mrs. Wright appreciated the variety. 

To this day, I cannot think of poetry without thinking about this influence that I believe was pivotal in solidifying my love of words, and ultimately my respect for illustrated literature. Poetry is a great vehicle for telling stories to children – the rhythm, the flow, the readability. As an educator, I know the value of rhyme in developing readers. But using poetry in picture books is more about making every word, every syllable matter. Unlike prose picture books, those written to fit a rhyme scheme need to work harder to…work. One bad meter can spoil the whole bunch of words.

Now, I must confess I had a tough time selecting just two books for this post. So stay tuned in April (poetry month) for the runner ups! 

The Seven Silly Eaters written by Mary Ann Hoberman and illustrated by Marla Frazee made the cut. Hoberman has long been one of my most beloved poets in the realm of children’s literature. In this book, she brilliantly tells the story of a tired mother who has seven children with seven exclusive choices for meals. The story is told in an AABB rhyme scheme, but has enough variation in pace and tone to bring interest as a read aloud.There is some repetition within Hoberman’s text, with varied words to describe Mrs. Peters and the different food each child eats:

Tired to the very bone,

Mrs. Peters groaned a groan

She’d take the eggs down from the shelf 

And whisper weakly to herself,

‘What persnickety young eaters 

Are all my seven little Peters.’ (Hoberman, 1997)

 At the height of the story, each rhyming couplet relays an action that leads to a reaction, moving the story along at a quick pace that mirrors the words and pictures. (FYI – my 25 yr old just told me that this was most likely the favorite of all the picture books we used to read <3) There is also a recipe found online at Hoberman’s site!

https://www.maryannhoberman.com/pages/books/sevenSillyEaters.html

My next choice for this post is Jane Yolen’s The Three Bears Rhyme Book, illustrated by Jane Dyer. Yes, it is a spin off of Goldilocks but the poems use Baby Bear and Goldie as characters in situations that are encountered by humans: rain, parades, birthdays. What I love about these poems is the varied styles of rhyme and meter, and the perfectly matched illustrations. I adore just about everything Jane Dyer has illustrated but this book feels cozy. The colored pencil and watercolor pictures are both old fashioned and timeless. Whenever I read the book I feel like I’m back in my Grandmother’s house. It’s comforting. The words and the illustrations are bffs in this book.

For a taste:

           

Birthday Party

Honeycakes and ice cream

Blackberry pie, 

Everybody singing

What a jolly bear am I.

A wish for every candle,

A present from each friend,

A great big hug from Goldie,

Why do birthdays have to end? (Yolen, 1987)

One I was lucky enough to have signed by both author and illustrator!

Truly this is just the tip of the iceberg for fabulous poetic picture books. I hope it inspires you to read some!

Hoberman, M. A. (1997). The seven silly eaters. Scholastic Inc.

Yolen, J. (1987). The three bears rhyme book. Harcourt Brace & Company.

The Insightful Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes is the perfect pandemic storyteller. Well, I consider him an everyday perfect storyteller, but as we are just shy of a year of lockdowns, quarantines and general staying home, I have renewed appreciation for his sensitivity toward human nature and the ongoing struggles our emotions present.

In Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, most likely his most well known picture book, poor Lilly has a lovely new purse she can’t wait to share with her classmates. But Mr. Slinger – who she adores any other day – puts the kibosh on her efforts to show off her glorious purple belonging until share time or recess. But alas, Lilly cannot wait and after a terrible confiscation of the purse she uses her out loud voice in a nasty note to her teacher.

So Lilly couldn’t do what she really, really wanted to do – show her purse (insert pandemic struggle here : see friends? go to a restaurant? find toilet paper?) – and was angry and frustrated and sad (raise your hand if you’ve felt that way in say, the last 11 months) and took it out on a person she truly adored (perhaps too much family time, working and schooling from home? used your out loud voice with those you love?). It’s like Kevin Henkes knew what was coming down the pike. 

But what does Mr. Slinger tell Lilly after that awful day? A pretty perfect quote for a pandemic: “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.”(Henkes, 1996) Wow. Just wow.

In A Weekend with Wendell, Sophie realizes her house guest is not fair, friendly or fun. Sophie tries to be polite, tries to go along with Wendell until…she doesn’t. After a weekend of aggravation, Sophie lets her frustration out which results in a soaked Wendell, but also clears the air and actually makes the situation – and their relationship – much better. 

I would wager we have all had moments during COVID life that we have been aggravated with our lockdown buddies or have done the aggravating. A good squirt gun fight or NERF battle may be just the thing to get our frustrations out, clear the air and move forward together.

Finally, a book near and dear to my heart, Wemberly Worried. I relate to this one for more days than I care to discuss, but during a pandemic?!?! So much sadness, so much loss. Worrying about elderly parents, my teacher friends and the world in general is overwhelming at times. Real worry, justifiable worry. As Wemberly’s grandmother says, “Too much worry.” (Henkes, 2000) 

So, what does Wemberly do? She goes on, even though she’s scared and worried. She finds a friend. She connects with another mouse friend and finds a way to make the best of her day. She makes the good of the day bigger than the worry until she feels safe. And though connecting with others won’t bring back those we lost to this virus, I do hope it can help us heal.

I don’t mean to simplify all the pain experienced during this pandemic. For me, picture books are serious works of literature and Kevin Henkes surely proved he gets people. He is a treasure in the world of illustrated books.

Henkes, K. (2000). Wemberly worried. Greenwillow Books.

Henkes, K. (1996). Lilly’s purple plastic purse. Greenwillow Books.

Henkes, K. (1986). A weekend with Wendell. Greenwillow Books.