Sunday, December 20, 2009


Here's the thing about Christmastime and children's books. Yes, there are some kids who hop up and down when they see a hefty wrapped rectangle, as recognizable as a gift-wrapped tennis racket, and there are kids who have particular titles on their wish lists. But for the most part, frankly and unfairly, it's hard for Santa to score the kind of screaming, jump-up-and-down reaction using a book as opposed to, say, an Xbox 360 or a Zhu Zhu pet. And for gift-givers not from the North Pole, it's tricky to find a book for a particular reading ability, or for every child in a family. The answer to this conundrum is two-fold. First, play up to the massive amounts of down time surrounding the holidays by making books the special gifts that constitute a countdown: serve a wrapped book every morning for breakfast or under the pillow every night at bedtime as a literary advent, or use a book a day to brighten the post-present doldrums between Christmas and New Year's, or, for prolonged cheer, lead all the way up to Three Kings Day (January 6, 12 days after Christmas ). Second, for those on a budget (and who isn't?), poetry is a way to choose one book that a whole family can enjoy, and it's a choice that naturally encourages the best practice of read-aloud. So sing out, "on the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: a partridge and some poetry!" Okay, I'm a bit rusty as a poet, and I know it. But here are some authors that are a little more lyrically limber, to get you started.


BUTTON UP! WRINKLED RHYMES by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Petra Mathers (Harcourt)

We don't fit iguanas
we're not for the gnu,
we won't suit the llamas
(they never wear blue.)
Hippopotamus can't get us over his head.
We're JOSHUA'S jammies. We're going to bed.

Surprise: a book told from the POV of children's apparel is one of the best poetry collections of the year! The cover does not convey the charm of the inside: funny, unpretentious watercolors of child-like animals laid out in a variety of positions on pages, and children will find lots to identify with and recognize in the words and pictures. With impeccable meter and a closet full of joie de vie, we hear from Bob's bicycle helmet (very responsible!) , Jack's sporty soccer jersey ("I show the number, Jack does the kicks./I'm Jack's jersey--/way to go 6!") , Jennifer's shoes that enjoy getting to know her ("We are learning the ways/ of Jennifer's world:/the way that Jennifer's/toes are curled..."), Bertie's mellow shoelaces, Tanya's mournful old t-shirt...who knew the laundry pile could have such personality? (5 and up)

Also of interest:
RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS: A YEAR IN COLORS by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski (Houghton Mifflin)

Red beats inside me:
Red hops to treetops,
fluffs its feathers
against the cold.
it begins to sing:
each note drops
like a cherry

Different colors mean different things at different times of the year. Red in winter is different than the red of summer (Red whispers/along my finger/with little/beetle feet"). In spring, Yellow and Purple hold hands./They beam at each other/with bright velvet faces./First flowers,/first friends," while in fall, yellow "grows wheels" (of a school bus), and purple is "the smell of all things mixed together," "old leaves/crushed berries." What a fine book for children beyond the simple naming of colors, and further, a chance to appreciate that words don't have to rhyme to be a poem, they have to contain feeling. We are carried through the year by crown-wearing narrators who feel the colors and helps readers to feel them, too (think a more erudite version of Dr. Seuss' MY MANY COLORED DAYS). Mixed media on wood is folksy and reminiscent of Stefano Vitale, but with a thinner, more tentative line. Sensitive, thoughtful language and artwork brings the color of the year into focus, and the power of poetry as well. (6 and up)

selected by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton, illustrated by James McMullan (Little, Brown)

Seeds cast by the wind to
land where they may,
they stay
and hold
against most hot, most cold.
They persevere, roots shallow
yet fierce and free.
They epitomize to me
all that I sometimes
yearn to be.
-- from "Wildflowers," by Julie Andrews

Though celebrity books are usually (and deservedly) suspect, Julie Andrews earned her props and then some by demonstrating her aplomb in the 1960's with not one but two truly outstanding and enduring novels for children (9 and up), THE LAST OF THE REALLY GREAT WHANGDOODLES and MANDY (it's hard to forget the marvelous little girl who mosaics her own secret house with seashells!) and several more successful titles since. It was with great interest and hope, then, that this collection was examined, since the work of an anthologist is yet another specific talent, as is working in collaboration (in this case, with her daughter who is a writer, children's literature specialist, and author of the recent and recommended guide RAISING BOOKWORMS: GETTING KIDS READING FOR PLEASURE AND EMPOWERMENT). This latest endeavor is ambitious, an introduction to the joys of poetry with broad section headings such as "Leisure,""The Wonderful World" and "All Things Bright and Beautiful," and very personal in spots, as is both the peril and appeal of such family poetry projects that assume general appeal (see Caroline Kennedy's collection for an example). It is the ability of these particular women make their tastes a boon to the reader rather than a vanity project; a fine example of this are the two poems on facing pages, one by the daughter ("Our Lady of Perpetual Demand") and one by the mother ("Observation") which read like two eyes looking at each other. The litmus test was that the names of authors are at the bottom of the poems, and while reading I often could not tell the works by the contributing anthologists apart from the quality of the other poets. And what other poets! What this collection does that is extraordinary and necessary and that I have not seen done in any other general collection is the recognition of American Songbook lyricists as great American poets. The words to Frank Loesser's most beautiful "More I Cannot Wish You" appear here, along with Johnny Mercer's "Accentuate the Positive," (amen!), plenty by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II (like the well-known "My Favorite Things," "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'!" and "A Cockeyed Optimist," some authorial favoritism gleaming here to good effect as it was in Rosemary Wells' GETTING TO KNOW YOU!), Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday" and eden ahbez's most evocative "Nature Boy." In the mix are gems from well-known children's poets such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, Charlotte Zolotow, Nikki Grimes, Eve Merriam and Mary Ann Hoberman, and a plethora of simply gorgeous classic selections of adult interest that can be enjoyed by children as well, and necessary to any poetry-lover's repertoire: Rachel Lyman Field's "Something Told the Wild Geese" ("Summer sun was on their wings,/Winter in their cry"), Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Blake, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Whoa! This book has muscle, a powerful introduction that creates a wide and inclusive circle, making a statement not only about what is real poetry, but who is a real poet. Very attractive watercolors decorate the pages and the book comes with a CD of some of the poems being read in the Andrews' great voices. These bonus features are lots of fun and good for getting in the poetry mood but not exactly necessary; in poetry, the words paint a thousand pictures and speak for themselves. Case in point, the anthology that I consider near perfect, Scott Elledge's WIDER THAN THE SKY, followed by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell's TALKING TO THE SUN, which is illustrated with artwork from the Met, so I guess there are exceptions. The Andrews' collection is such a solid compendium it will join these on the shelf, and be comfortable in their company. This anthology succeeds at doing what it set out to do, delivering the joys of poetry from one family to another. Further, this poetry collection screams "must!" for inclusion in mother-daughter book clubs lists, and is sure to inspire scrapbook projects of personal anthologies. (8 and up)

Shop with Esme!
As we approach the eleventh hour, here are a few fun gift ideas for the hard-core children's book lovers in your life, young and old.

Book-Themed Pajamas, including Corduroy, Pinkalicious, Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus themes
(sorry, they don't come in adult sizes, though there are some cute jammie-bottoms for big girls here and here)

Oiseaux has such gorgeous personalized vintage bookplates (also check out the choices at The Little Chickadee and The Paper Princess)

Original artwork by children's book illustrator Johanna Wright!

Limited edition and original children's book artwork from the celebrated R. Michelson Galleries (Tomie dePaola's work pictured above; below, the E.B. Lewis print from the book ACROSS THE ALLEY donated to the PlanetEsme Bookroom this summer from friends of the Association of Jewish Libraries, thank you!)

Curtains or tablecloth made of Eric Carle illustrated fabric (lots more Eric Carle gifts here)

Adopt a fairy for the holidays...invite them in with a door from Red Shoes

A nifty notebook for keeping track of what to read next (retro book cover versions at

Super cute storybook barrettes, coasters or picture frames from Glitterworkshop

A read-aloud calendar from Family Reading Partnership, full of hints from HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING (huge discounts for not-for-profit organizations; what a great back-to-school New Year gift from administration or PTO's to teachers!)
Or maybe best of all, allow someone to play Santa Claus (or Hanukkah Harry, or Kwanzaa Kenyatta, or Atheist Alan) by giving a fabulous Donors Choose card, allowing them to help fund a classroom literacy initiative of their choosing! Wow, look at all those great public school projects that need your help!

Please tell 'em PlanetEsme sent you, and please share more links and good ideas for gifts in the comments section. Ho-ho-ho! Isn't shopping for booklovers fun?

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