Category Archives: Books

Reading Roundup: Book Recommendations for Fall 2011

As I wrote a few months ago, I’ve been rediscovering the joy of reading to my kids this year, and I’ve been meaning to share more of those experiences here, but I keep letting other stuff get in the way.

To make up for it, sort of, here’s a brief rundown of some of the better family-friendly books I’ve enjoyed lately. Nothing I write here will do justice to the authors’ work, but if you’re looking for reading recommendations, maybe I can point you and your kids in the right direction. Without further ado:

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Oh, how I love this book. If I remember right, it started life as a series of posts, which gathered enough fans that Valente was able to crowdfund publication of her novel — which went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

The book’s success is richly deserved. I picked it up on a whim during a trip to our local bookstore, and was immediately drawn into the funny, exciting, scary, and downright moving tale of September, an impetuous 12-year-old girl from Omaha who finds herself whisked away on an adventure that combines familiar elements (anyone who’s read Lewis Carroll or the Oz books won’t be able to resist a knowing grin) with Valente’s marvelously unique prose.

It’s my favorite family book of the year, by far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you have very young or very easily frightened kids, it might push the envelope a little in terms of peril and/or violence, but I only did some very, very light editing in the grimmest spots, and my kids were five and three when we read it. We all can’t wait for the sequel(s).

Wendy Mass, The Candymakers
Kids in a candy factory, all trying to win a contest…sounds familiar, right? Not to worry — although The Candymakers might have a troublesomely Wonka-esque premise, the book really just uses it as a springboard for an artfully constructed mystery with strong themes of friendship and trust.

The Candymakers uses four protagonists to tell its story, all kids with markedly separate personalities (girls, just wait until you get to know Daisy) and some sort of secret to be revealed. They come together during the two days leading up to the annual Confectionery Association Conference, all chosen as contestants in a big contest to create a new candy. If you’re already guessing that they’ll each learn a lesson about teamwork, you’re right, but Mass manages to add a few wrinkles to the formula.

This is a solid book for boys and girls from across the K-5 spectrum — my daughter loved it, and she just started kindergarten, and my wife is currently reading it to her third and fourth graders.

William Joyce, The Man in the Moon (The Guardians of Childhood)
The brief prologue to an intended series about the magical beings that watch over the kids of Earth (including Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and — you guessed it — the Man in the Moon), this book is short enough to read in a few sittings, but it sets up a whopper of a saga, and it’s packed with gorgeous illustrations.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just tell you that Joyce lays out loads of ready-made mythology here, drawing on the hokey characters every kid knows by heart to construct the boundaries of a world that has the potential to be as rich and inviting as Piers Anthony’s Xanth (although I suppose a more apt comparison would be his Incarnations of Immortality series, but whatever).

Put simply, there’s a long and epic war being waged for the children of the universe, and the lines are drawn between the Guardians of Childhood and Pitch, the King of Nightmares. Of course, it’s a story that has its scary moments, but more than anything, it’s exciting — you already knew Joyce was a fabulous illustrator with a finely tuned sense of whimsy, but it turns out he also has an amazing gift for pacing a kids’ book like an action thriller, not to mention describing fast-paced battles. In other words, my four-year-old son loves it.

In fact, we’ve already moved on to Book One of the series, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, which reveals the origin of the young Russian bandit who eventually becomes…well, we can talk about that later. Start with The Man in the Moon, and thank me later.

That’s it for now, but I’ve already got a Kindle queue bursting with books begging to be read to my kids, so I’m sure I’ll be back for more. Happy reading!

A Conversation with the Nields

For as long as the human race has been able to hear music, we’ve wanted more. And once upon a time, we quenched that thirst by picking up an instrument — or gathering around someone else who had one — and making music happen.

Over time, we learned to develop technology that helped us satisfy our craving — and as more of us learned to use radios, record players, tape decks, CDs, mp3 players, and smartphones, and grew accustomed to a world in which music was never more than an arm’s reach (or the click of a button) away, the further we drifted from that innate urge to create. For a lot of us, music has become something we’re meant to passively consume.

I don’t think it’s supposed to be this way, and neither do a growing number of artists dedicated to reconnecting families with the joy of making music for its own sake, including Nerissa and Katryna Nields. The veteran folk duo recently released All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family, a book/CD package with something for homestyle musicians of all ages, and they were kind enough to take a few minutes out of their busy promotional schedule to talk to us.

I talk to a lot of artists who express the ideas you’ve written about here. This book seems to be part of a movement.

Nerissa: Yeah. Well, that’s a nice bit of serendipity for us. One of the things we say in the book, and it’s absolutely true, is that it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I heard the recorded versions of a lot of the folk songs I’d grown up with. My dad did have a turntable, and he did play a lot of music, but he was playing what he wanted to hear — ’70s country LPs he’d bought, and occasionally classical music. Mostly, the songs we knew, we knew because he played them on the guitar. That’s how we learned them. That’s how you make a song your own, by passing it down through the oral tradition, rather than making a recording out of it.

I have a lot of respect for recording, too — obviously, we’re recording artists. But in terms of raising kids, I think it’s so wonderful to make a song your own. And that’s kind of what we do in all realms — we’ll take a beloved folk song and change the words, and encourage the kids to make their own versions.

Katryna: Observing art can be a transformative experience, but making art is almost always a transformative experience. And I think people are starting to realize that again. I mean, a ukulele…you can pick one up and really know how to play a song in probably three months. That’s an exciting and liberating gift that it seems like people are beginning to rediscover.

I think my favorite story from the book is the one about the woman who inherited a mountain dulcimer and didn’t even think about learning how to play it until a random stranger suggested it — and then watched as music became a huge part of her child’s life.

Nerissa: Isn’t that amazing? I think it’s so inspiring.

It’s inspiring, but it also speaks to this weird disconnect we’ve developed in our relationship with music, where we can have an instrument literally in our hands and not think about playing it. Do you have any thoughts as to how we got to this point?

Katryna: Well, there was a time when the only way you could hear music is if you made it yourself. Even when we were kids, we had a turntable, but even then, it was a little bit of a cumbersome thing to put it on the turntable, get up and change it after 22 minutes or whatever it was, and in our cars, we had AM radio, and that was it. Now, it’s easy to carry a million songs around. You can see someone not wanting to learn how to play an instrument because all you need is an iPod.

Maybe, though, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. I know that when I go to singalongs now, people often like to have iPads in the room so they can have the lyrics and chords handy. The marriage of that technology with the simplicity of the guitar is such a cool thing to see.

Nerissa: I do think that our relationship with technology tends to move in a wave pattern. It takes a few leaps forward and we all go whoa, and then we catch up and make it our own, and then it leaps forward again. I think we’re in a catching-up phase right now. I think it would be interesting to chart the ebb and flow of folk music’s popularity against the technological tide — I wonder if one has anything to do with the other.

I often think about an old quote from Pete Seeger where he talked about being ambivalent about making albums, because he was worried that he was sort of tacitly encouraging people to be passive. We take recorded music for granted now, but at the time, it was a real decision for an artist to make, and I think it’s still thought-provoking.

Nerissa: For me, the two things definitely went hand in hand, because I remember being really daunted, as a teenager learning how to play guitar, by the things the Beatles were doing. I think it all depends on the attitude you take, and hopefully, what we’re giving people with this book is a “yes you can” attitude.

I wanted to talk about that message. Reading it reminded me of a time in the ’90s when I was talking to a producer about the way newly affordable recording technology had led to an explosion in self-released albums, and his response was that everyone thinks they have a right to make music, but they’re wrong.

Katryna: Well, that’s just commerce getting in the way.

Nerissa: I wouldn’t even say it’s commerce — I’d say it’s ego. I have a writer friend with whom I had a similar conversation in the early aughts, when self-publishing was starting to take off, and they had the same basic response. But good work rises and falls on its own merits.

Katryna: And also, the idea that every reader and every listener…I mean, is Lou Reed a good singer? I don’t know. But there are people who are moved beyond words by what he does, and how tragic would it have been if he’d decided he couldn’t sing and just not done it? It’s silly to think there’s a good and a bad when it comes to art. Some of the most moving recordings I’ve ever heard have been by complete amateurs.

I think when you invite this kind of stuff — writing, drawing, singing, crafting — into your life, what you’re doing is instilling a love of creativity in your kids. And no matter what their job ends up being, they will have that as part of their vocabulary. This way of not seeing the world as a boxed-in, linear thing, but something full of possibilities.

Nerissa: Right. The benefits of having music in your life are well-documented, but they bear repeating. It really pays dividends in terms of how it shapes the brain, and the heart, and the soul, in ways that are incalculable.

Katryna: I think one of our main theses with this book is the idea that by using music, you’re forging connections with your children that will hopefully remain throughout your family’s life. Some people do it by watching baseball with their kids. For us, it’s been music — that’s been the glue. It’s created pathways for us to communicate, and to remember that we’re from the same world. That we can be helpful to each other.


Book Reviews: “Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight” and “My Woodland Wish”

If your kids love Caspar Babypants‘ music as much as mine do, you’re doubtless already familiar with the work of his wife, artist Kate Endle. Not only has she been responsible for each Caspar Babypants album cover, she’s also a busy Etsy shopkeeper and thriving illustrator of children’s books like Trout Are Made of Trees and Bella and the Bunny.

Now, Kate and Caspar are expanding their partnership, and the first fruits of their labor are here: Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight, a beautiful, simply written bedtime story, and My Woodland Wish, the tale of a girl who wishes she could play with the animals in the woods around her house. Both books come with a URL where you can download an mp3 to go with the story.

Both books are fairly similar, in that they focus on the outdoors, feature stories built from easy-to-understand rhymes, and include plenty of lovely Endle artwork. The main difference between the two is that Rabbit in the Sunlight is a board book, and the shorter of the two — it’s the kind of thing you’ll pull out before bed for your favorite toddler — while My Woodland Wish offers more of a full-fledged narrative.

Their differences are less meaningful than their similarities, however — both books capture the peaceful, gentle spirit of Caspar Babypants’ music, and feature some of Endle’s loveliest work. I took the books out on a Sunday morning when my kids were running wild, and they calmed right down, eagerly identifying animals on the pages and absorbing the soothing rhythm of the stories.

Both books have been beautifully assembled by Sasquatch Press, particularly Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight, which was printed with a really pleasant-looking matte finish on the boards. They’re affordably priced — you can own them both for less than $25 through Amazon — and they come with some wonderful free music. Don’t miss the chance to help support a pair of talented independent artists (and give your family a couple of great gifts in the process).