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Read Aloud for Earth Day!

22 Apr

I can hear my Nepenthe chimes singing in the breeze, making harmony with the birds. Lilac wafts through the kitchen screen door (even though it’s really too cold to have it open).  The sun through my dining room window is filtered by the delicate pink petals of our crab apple trees.  It’s Earth Day and our Chicago backyard seems to know it.  Usually, we’d be off for a hike or to pick up trash or in the garden planting flowers. But with my right ankle broken and in a cast, Culture Family will settle for planning the vegetable garden and enjoying the buds and bunnies in the backyard.

Culture Sprout will be 12 soon, but this post from 8 years ago — and updated with one terrific book — still highlights some of the best kids’ Earth Day books we know of. Enjoy! And get outside for mother’s day, Mother Earth, of course.

*And one more Earth Day note. I’ve linked to Indiebound in case you want to buy online. But, why don’t you walk to your independent bookstore instead? You get outside and your Earth Day books won’t require fossil fuel to get to you!*

My update starts with a special call out to my friend Jen Cullerton Johnson‘s book Seeds of Change. Published in 2010, Seeds of Change has become a classic of the environmentalist literature and continues to accumulate accolades. Because I can’t really do it justice, here is the blurb from her site:  “A non-fiction children’s book Seeds of Change demonstrates the connection between people and nature. A frank and inspiring invitation into the life and work of Wangari Maathai, Noble Peace Prize Winner and founder of the Greenbelt Movement.” Jen donates a percent of every sale of her book to an environmentalist cause, so please click here to purchase Seeds of Change.

When Culture Sprout was four years old, I volunteered to bring an Earth Day activity to her classroom.  As with most pre-school things I did, this prompted a trip to the library and the bookstore in search of something to read to the children.  After thumbing through about a dozen books, I settled on one that I thought would appeal to boys and girls, and would ignite discussion and action. I had no idea that I was discovering an author and a character who would change the way my daughter thinks about the world. Nor did I know that we would spend the next three springs eagerly awaiting the release of the next book in what has grown to be a series.

>

The eponymous character in Michael Recycle is a “green-caped crusader,” a young boy who flies around the world teaching people how to better protect the earth from trash, pollution, and over-production. Patterson’s language makes for a rollicking read-aloud and Michael’s optimism and can-do attitude appeal to pre-school and elementary school children.

In Michael Recycle, Michael teaches a town the three cardinal rules of recycling: reduce, reuse, and recycle. While he at first fights environmental evils solo, in subsequent books he meets other earth-saving heroes and/or convinces little villains to join him. In Michael Recycle Meets Litterbug Doug he tackles the eponymous litterer, forever winning his heart and loyalty. Michael Recycle Saves Christmas introduces Solar Lola and teaches us about solar power, making gifts out of “trash,” and the dangers of materialism. And new this spring, Michael Recycle and the Tree Top Cops shows us how we can all become earth activists, this time in the service of saving the Redwood Forest.

What I love about Patterson’s books is that their lessons and strong environmental views are not hammered into the reader. Rather they are couched within charming rhymes and accompanied by Alexandra Colombo’s lush illustrations.  The first book ends with ten ideas of how the reader can help (or help their parents) protect the earth, inviting each child to become an environmental superhero. We can all be superheroes, Patterson seems to say if we focus on the evils we can help conquer.

Some more Earth Day favorites:

Fancy Nancy: Every Day is Earth Day (Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, 2010): Not much needs to be said about Fancy Nancy. She’s a favorite in pre-schools everywhere. O’Connor has followed up the original glittery Frenchified books with a line of I Can Read volumes, of which Fancy Nancy: Every Day is Earth Day is my personal favorite.  I love Fancy Nancy for her vocabulary—O’Connor isn’t afraid to introduce little kids to big words (and French words). I also love her for giving me, in this book, two of my favorite mantras: “Less than a mile, bike in style,” and “Please take note. Always bring a tote.”

Culture Sprout weighs in with this favorite for more autonomous readers:

Ivy & Bean: What’s the Big Idea? (Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 2011). The seventh book in this utterly charming series about best friends who “never meant to like each other,” Ivy & Bean: What’s the Big Idea taught Culture Bean about global warming.  Ivy and Bean’s science assignment is to find a way to combat global warming. After a series of hysterical mishaps, they decide that little girls can’t solve global warming on their own—they need to get grown-ups to care about the earth. At the end of the book, Barrows has included a brief primer to explain global warming and several ideas about how we, including little girls, can help.

What are you reading or doing for Earth Day?  Please add a comment and help me build my “Every Day is Earth Day” reading list and activity idea list. Ideas for all ages are encouraged!

  1. When the Earth Moved: What Happened to the Environmental Movement by N. Lehman for The New Yorker
  2. 5 Smart Ways To Celebrate Earth Day (news.health.com)
  3. My interview with Ellie Patterson
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I’m Not Fluffy: A Memoir

13 Apr

This story was dictated to me by my beloved Esther Williams Goldman. We all miss her every day.

“I’m Not Fluffy”

by Esther Williams Goldman

         There I was in my cage at the pound.  It wasn’t a bad place—I was warm, well fed and my litter box was pretty clean.  But, I dreamt of a new home. A place to run around, a spot in the sun for naps, a lap for cuddling, and most of all, a nice person whose head I could sleep on at night.

It was Saturday and the people started coming in. The first lady walked up to my cage.  I ran to the window and tried to be really cute, sitting up straight and wrapping my tail around me.  She said, “You’re awfully sweet.  I’ll call you “Fluffy.”  “Harrumph!  I’m not Fluffy,” I hissed and stalked back into the corner.

Another woman came by, this one with a little boy.  I thought that a family sounded good, so I pranced up to the window and pawed at it to get their attention.  “Mommy,” said the little boy, “Look at this tiny tabby. Wouldn’t it be funny if we called her Tiger?”  “I’m not Tiger,” I protested as I slinked away.

Just how would I pick a new owner who would know my name? My name is very important.  I’ve had it for my whole life and I didn’t want to someone to change it.  It suits me.

Two young men walked up to the cage and tapped on the window to get my attention.  I sauntered over and rubbed up against the window, being as sweet as I know how.  “Hey, Bill. How about her?  She’s quite the flirt.  We could name her after Angelina Jolie.”   No, fellows, I don’t think so. I’m not that kind of a girl.

It was getting late.  If I didn’t choose a family today, I’d probably be at the pound for another week. I was getting worried.

Two young women came up to my window.  I rolled over lazily, thinking that they wouldn’t figure me out either.  One of them tapped on the window.  “How cute is this one?”  I made one last effort to tell them my name.  I ran to the window, stopped, dropped down, rolled over, and began doing my best backstroke.  “Check it out!  She’s doing the backstroke.  And she looks like she has a movie star attitude.  You have to call her Esther Williams!!”

“Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod, I thought, Yes!  Esther Williams.  That’s my name!  I’m named after the 1940s Olympic swimmer and MGM movie star. That’s it!  They recognize me.”  I jumped up, and began to head butt the window. “I really, really want to go home with you.”

Next thing I know, I’m in a cardboard box on the back seat of your car.  I tried to talk to you all the way home to tell you how happy I was that you chose me, that you knew my name, that you recognized me.  I was the luckiest kitty in the world.  Well, I AM the luckiest kitty in the world.

Your friend gave me a diamond-studded collar, befitting the movie star that I’m named for.

I’ve learned a lot since then.  I’ve found my favorite sunspots. I’ve dealt with moving twice and getting a little brother cat.  I’ve discovered that I love chicken and tuna fish.  And, I’ve realized that you like to call me lots of different names even though you know I’m Esther.  Some of my favorites:

Tabby Won-Kenobi, when I’m sitting still, staring into space, looking wise and thoughtful.

Queen Esther, for Purim, the Jewish holiday apparently celebrated in my honor.

The Esther Bunny, on Easter, of course.

Esther Nightingale, when I nurse you during a headache or tummy ache.  My secret?  Lie on the painful body part and purr.  It seems to cure all kinds of ailments.

Just plain Bunny.  Not sure if this is short for Esther Bunny or because my little pink nose makes you think of a bunny.

Honey Cat.  Rhymes with Bunny.  What else could it mean?

Thumper.  When I just can’t get my thumping tail under control.

And maybe a dozen other names, based on the purr of the moment.

But even though you tease me a lot, you never, ever call me Fluffy.  That’s why you’re my best friend.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl

3 May

Culture Bean seems to be in a bit of a slump these days, but posts like this remind me why I like to read/watch/experience and then think and write about it. In the interest of not letting Culture Bean go to seed (bad pun!), I want to share this insightful, beautiful post about one of my favorite authors and best-remembered childhood treasures. See my comment at the end of the post for my brief perspective on James and the Giant Peach.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl.

Happy Birthday A.A. Milne! You Were So Speshul

18 Jan

Is there a bear more beloved than Winnie the Pooh or a boy more disarming than Christopher Robin? Timeless children’s literature, A.A. Milne’s poems and stories about Pooh, Christopher Robin, and their friends endure today because they speak to the child in all of us. The cadence of the rhymes are melodious enough to calm a fussy child and the cheekiness keeps the most skeptical parent engaged. They have inspired popular films and popular music. And they continue to inspire children to read.

Like many fairy tales, Milne’s stories have been adapted for the screen, mostly by Disney. Disney’s versions are likeable, but they change the tone of the characters in order to popularize or commodify Pooh and friends. In turning Pooh, Eeyore, Christopher Robin, Tigger, and the rest into Disney film characters, the studio eliminated a lot of the nuance, the cheekiness, and the cultural complexity. If you haven’t read the original poetry, I’ve linked below to an online, illustrated version of Now We Are Six. Pooh isn’t in this book, except that

“he thought it was a different book; and he hopes you won’t mind, but he walked through it one day, looking for his friend Piglet, and sat down on some of the pages by mistake.”

In honor Milne’s birthday (1882-1956), I’d like to share a favorite poem from Now We Are Six. My mom read “Sneezles” and “King John’s Christmas” to me so often that we could both recite them by heart. The books, my mother’s childhood treasures, are now on Culture Sprout’s shelf and are among my most beloved belongings. She’s a particular fan of “Binker,” a poem about Christopher Robin’s imaginary friend. Binker is a lot like Purple Bubba, who lurks invisibly about our house.

For a famous story about Culture Sprout’s first experience with this poem, scroll down to the caption on the second image.

Sneezles

Sneezles

     Christopher Robin

Had wheezles

And sneezles,

They bundled him

Into

His bed.

They gave him what goes

With a cold in the nose,

And some more for a cold

In the head.

They wondered

If wheezles

Could turn

Into measles,

If sneezles

Would turn

Into mumps;

They examined his chest

For a rash,

and the rest

Of his body for swellings and lumps.

They sent for some doctors

In sneezles

And wheezles

To tell them what ought

To be done.

All sorts of conditions

sneezles 2

When Culture Sprout was about 3, she stopped me in the middle of the poem and asked, “Mommy, who are those men?” I said, “Those are the famous physicians, the doctors, that were called in to help Christopher Robin. Without skipping a beat, she said, “But, mommy, boys can’t be doctors.” You see, up until that time the only male doctors she had were her cardiac-thoracic surgeon (who she didn’t really know) and her dentist.! Learn more about Charlotte’s doctors by clicking on the image.

Of famous physicians

Came hurrying round

At a run.

They all made a note

Of the state of his throat,

They asked if he suffered from thirst;

They asked if the sneezles

Came after the wheezles,

Or if the first sneezle

Came first.

They said, “If you teazle

A sneezle

Or wheezle,

A measle

May easily grow.

But humour or pleazle

The wheezle

Or sneezle,

The measle

Will certainly go.”

They expounded the reazles

For sneezles

And wheezles,

The manner of measles

When new.

They said, “If he freezles

In draughts and in breezles,

Then PHTHEEZLES

May even ensue.”

Christopher Robin

Got up in the morning,

The sneezles had vanished away.

And the look in his eye

Seemed to say to the sky,

“Now, how to amuse them today?”

(From Now We Are Six)

A Recycling Superhero: Interview with Ellie Patterson

28 Jul

 

What does Culture Bean do when she’s not typing on WordPress? Lots of things. But, one of my favorite things is having the chance to talk to authors whose books inspire me.  Please follow this link to read my interview with Ellie Patterson, the author of the BRILLIANT Michael Recycle.

Just Another Sword-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl (Book Review)

30 May

Just before Passover, I quizzed the bookseller at Brookline Booksmith about what books would make good Afikoman-hunting prizes for our seder. Among our guests was Sam, a 10-year-old boy whom I had not yet met. My one criterian, I told the bookseller, was that I wanted books about Jewish characters. For Sam I thought perhaps a book about Jewish sports figures. (Okay, yes, I was stereotyping because I usually only buy books for girls.)

The bookseller recommended Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (Abrams, 2010), a graphic novel by Barry Deutsch.  Now, I LOVE a good graphic novel, but I was a bit concerned that it was about a girl. Mirka isn’t just any girl, though. She is a troll-fighting, odds-defeating middle sister.   She’s drawn to monsters and all sorts of trouble; peppers her speech with Yiddish; and loves a good argument. But, she’s a girl.  My wonderful bookseller, himself an observant Jewish young man, convinced me that it was okay.

I needn’t have worried. Sam opened the package, sat down at the table and began to read. According to his mother, he finished the book that night and then read it several more times.

I needed to know what the big deal was about Mirka.

Simply put, Mirka rocks.  She is stifled by the womanly arts that her Orthodox upbringing requires of her. As the book opens, she is knitting slowly and responding to her stepmother’s criticism with astute circular reasoning.  When Fruma notes that Mirka has dropped a stitch, Mirka says that if Hashem preordains everything, then He must have preordained that she drop the stitch.They go round and round in logical argument, thus delaying Mirka’s knitting. Hereville combines culture and adventure; Yiddish and magic, fantasy and adolescent angst. On her way to fighting the trolls, Mirka conquers a couple of bullies, real life monsters who terrorize her little brother Zindel.

Mirka is strong, adventurous, and fearless.  After striking a bully with a rock, she flees into the woods where she happens upon a house she has never seen before. If that weren’t enough, there is a woman floating in the air near a big tree. Mirka returns with her siblings to show them. Growing on the fence are the largest grapes she’s ever seen. Even though her big sister Gittel says it’s stealing, Mirka takes one. And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime, for Mirka has upset the magic talking pig who lives with the woman (a witch). Mirka has no idea what a pig is, having kept kosher all her life. She thinks he is some kind of magic monster, related to trolls. And she really wants to fight a trolls and win a magic sword. The pig creates all kinds of trouble for her.   I’m not going to reveal any more except to say that there is a troll, a sword, a ghost, a witch, and a good stepmother.

I can see why Sam reread this book multiple times. The comic-strip style images evoke emotion, convey information about Hereville’s Orthodox community, and keep you turning pages. Fruma has the longest nose in Hereville and, according to the narrator, Mirka quickly got used to it. It takes the reader about 5 pages. Maybe it is because Fruma also has the kindest eyes. The girls in Mirka’s school create a social code within the confines of their strict Orthodox dress code: Simply by how high or low they wear their skirts, whether they tuck in their blouses, or how they wear their hair, the girls identify as The Rebel Girl, The Frum (Pious) Girl, or The Popular Girl. While this information is an “aside” from the story, it enhances our understanding of the limits Mirka has to live within.   Yiddish phrases are sprinkled throughout, with asterisked explanations.Herevilleseems contemporary, yet it is a land without cell phones, telephones, or other digital distractions.

Mirka is being raised to find a husband. Until a match is made, her life is to be lived among girls and women and boys to whom she is related. But, Mirka wants to fight dragons. She dreams of being a hero. She dreams, like Dorothy, of a more colorful life. And like Dorothy, after her adventures, home looks good.

Mirka may be the coolest troll-fighting girl ever. That she is an Orthodox Jew is icing on the cake, adding cultural and religious texture that deepens the sense of an adolescent girl just trying to find her own way.

It’s a must read.

Read Aloud for Earth Day!

22 Apr

When Culture Sprout was four years old, I volunteered to bring an Earth Day activity to her classroom.  As with most child-related things I do, this prompted a trip to the library and the bookstore in search of something to read to the children.  After thumbing through about a dozen books, I settled on one that I thought would appeal to boys and girls, and would ignite discussion and action. I had no idea that I was discovering an author and a character who would change the way my daughter thinks about the world. Nor did I know that we would spend the next three springs eagerly awaiting the release of the next book in what has grown to be a series.

>

Cover art for Patterson's new Michael Recycle and the Tree Top Cops

The eponymous character in Michael Recycle is a “green-caped crusader,” a young boy who flies around the world teaching people how to better protect the earth from trash, pollution, and over-production. Patterson’s language makes for a rollicking read-aloud and Michael’s optimism and can-do attitude appeal to pre-school and elementary school children.

In Michael Recycle, Michael teaches a town the three cardinal rules of recycling: reduce, reuse, and recycle. While he at first fights environmental evils solo, in subsequent books he meets other earth-saving heroes and/or convinces little villains to join him. In Michael Recycle meets Litterbug Doug he tackles the eponymous litterer, forever winning his heart and loyalty. Michael Recycle Saves Christmas introduces Solar Lola and teaches us about solar power, making gifts out of “trash,” and the dangers of materialism. And new this spring, Michael Recycle and the Tree Top Cops shows us how we can all become earth activists, this time in the service of saving the Redwood Forest.

What I love about Patterson’s books is that their lessons and strong environmental views are not hammered into the reader. Rather they are couched within charming rhymes and accompanied by Alexandra Colombo’s lush illustrations.  The first book ends with ten ideas of how the reader can help (or help their parents) protect the earth, inviting each child to become an environmental superhero. We can all be superheroes, Patterson seems to say, if we focus on the evils we can help conquer.

Culture Sprout is nearly 7 years old and she reads voraciously on her own, but she’s still ready to curl up with her favorite picture book heroes or listen to her favorite authors. Michael Recycle ranks top among those. She recently had the opportunity to ask Ellie Patterson what’s next for Michael Recycle and was tickled to learn that he will tackle pirate fishing. Culture Sprout is really concerned with the health of our oceans and she’s delighted that Patterson shares her passion!

Some more Earth Day favorites:

Fancy Nancy: Every Day is Earth Day (Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, 2010): Not much needs to be said about Fancy Nancy. She’s a favorite in pre-schools everywhere. O’Connor has followed up the original glittery Frenchified books with a line of I Can Read volumes, of which Every Day is Earth Day is my personal favorite.  I love Fancy Nancy for her vocabulary—O’Connor isn’t afraid to introduce little kids to big words (and French words). I also love her for giving me, in this book, two of my favorite mantras: “Less than a mile, bike in style,” and “Please take note. Always bring a tote.”

Culture Sprout weighs in with this favorite for more autonomous readers:

Ivy & Bean: What’s the Big Idea? (Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 2011). The seventh book in this utterly charming series about best friends who “never meant to like each other,” What’s the Big Idea? taught Culture Bean about global warming.  Ivy and Bean’s science assignment is to find a way to combat global warming. After a series of hysterical mishaps, they decide that little girls can’t solve global warming on their own—they need to get grown ups to care about the earth. At the end of the book, Barrows has included a brief primer to explain global warming and several ideas about how we, including little girls, can help.

In our house, every day is Earth Day. We had planned to plant flowers and go on a butterfly walk today, but the rain has doused our plans.  Instead, Culture Bean is writing about the earth (look for her words later today on our family bog, Charlotte’s Journey Home). Yesterday, she made art about water at the Peabody Essex Museum. Tonight we’ll curl up with our current Earthy read: Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish. It’s not a happy book, but it is beautifully and lovingly written and it is teaching us a lot .And starting tomorrow, Culture Sprout’s school will celebrate Earth Week for five days. I’m looking forward to the ideas and provocations she’ll bring home.

What are you reading or doing for Earth Day?  Please add a comment and help me build my Every Day is Earth Day reading list and activity idea list. Ideas for all ages are encouraged!

 

Waiting for the Biblioburro (a book review)

12 Apr

Waiting for the Bibilioburro

by Monica Brown

illustrations by John Parra

Tricycle Press, 2011

Ana is a little girl who loves stories. She clings to the one book she owns, a gift from her teacher for working hard at school. The teacher has since left the village. With no teacher, Ana reads and rereads her book. She makes up stories of her own for her little brother. And, she wishes for new stories to read.

One morning, Ana wakes up to the sound of donkeys clip-clopping. She sees a man with a sign reading “Biblioburro.” Realizing that the man and his donkeys are loaded with “Libros! Books!”, she joins the village children in running to meet him. The man explains that his donkeys, Alfa and Beto, carry a mobile library.  He reads to the children and loans them each a book before he leaves. Ana is overcome as she discovers:

“So many cuentos! While Alfa and Beto chomp the sweet grass under the tree, Ana picks up book after book and finds pink dolphins and blue butterflies, castles and fairies, talking lions and magic carpets.”

Ana waits anxiously for the librarian’s return. She reads her book and writes one about him.  Finally, he returns, bringing with him more books and more possibilities.

Author Monica Brown and artist John Parra have turned the true story of Colombian librarian Luis Soriano Bohórquez into a tale about the power of reading. Seeing Soriano, who remains nameless in this tale, through the eyes of a child touched by his efforts, helps the reader imagine the anticipation and joy his visits bring to the children in a remote rural village. Brown captures eloquently the optimism of a young reader and the delight that the discovery of books brings to children. With a few Spanish terms peppered into Ana’s speech and thoughts, Brown easily places this story in Latin America, giving it a place while allowing it to retain its universality.

Parra’s illustrations convey a childlike sincerity and fancy. Using acrylics on board, he gives the reader a sense of the Colombian culture from which this story derives. Ana rides a butterfly as she “dreams she is flying over her country on a butterfly’s back.” We see the mountains, oceans, rivers, and jungles she envisions crossing and live with her the stories she dreams of collecting. Parra brings Ana’s imagination to life in a way that allows us to deeply understand how reading can change a child’s very dreams.

Brown and Parra were inspired by the true story of Luis Soriano Bohórquez. When he was a young child, Soriano’s parents sent him from his village of La Gloria, Colombia to live with his grandparents in Valledupar in order to protect him from paramilitary violence.  During the next ten years, he studied and completed his high school education.  Upon returning to La Gloria, Soriano began teaching reading to school-aged children.  He experienced through his students the transformative power of literacy: The violence around these children (which has since ebbed) was even more intense than what he had experienced as a child, yet through reading they were able to imagine a better world, and a better place for themselves in that world.

, traveling library in Colombia

, traveling library in Colombia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, he worried about the growing dearth of teachers in rural Colombia and the subsequent falling literacy rate.  When teachers moved away to escape the violence, they took the books with them, leaving the children empty-handed and teacherless. Determined to help those children, Soriano bought two burros, strapped books to their backs, and began to travel the countryside each weekend as a mobile lending library. He began in 2000 with 70 books. More than a decade later, he has amassed nearly 5,000 books and continues his important work. A lovely documentary by Carlos Rendón Zipaguata details not only the results of Soriano’s efforts, but the strain it sometimes puts on his family.

Brown has imagined a librarian who closely resembles Soriano. In her author’s note, she teaches us that Soriao is not unique: “[T]here are many librarians, and libraries, that travel long distances, just like the Biblioburro. In Kenya, camel caravans deliver books to nomads…Stockholm’s “floating library” delivers books to islanders…In Zimbabwe, there is a donkey-drawn mobile.” She honors the Biblioburro through Ana’s eyes. And, as importantly, she informs us that there are adults all over the world who go to extreme measures to get books into the hands of children. Her story is a must-read for all children, and the adults who love them. It will inspire conversation, and perhaps a little action to help get more books into the hands of more children.

A confession: In 2008, I clipped a story about the Biblioburro from the New York Times thinking it would make a lovely children’s book.  Several months later, I was honored to review Carlos Rendón Zipaguata’s documentary film about the Biblioburro for the Chicago Latino Film Festival.  Again, I thought, “What an excellent topic for a children’s book.” Monica Brown has written the book I wish I’d written!

A Read Aloud Round Up: Passover Books for Children

4 Apr

Jews celebrate Passover by reading aloud from the Haggadah, a book whose name literally translates as “the telling” or “the narration.”  This is the story we tell, a story that has been passed down from generation to generation, of our people’s liberation from bondage in Egypt and the beginning of our long journey to freedom.

It is not an easy story. It is bloody and full of death. G-d punishes the Egyptians brutally and allows the Jews to escape. There are swarms of bugs, dead beasts, a bloody river, and slain children. It is a story that many find troubling–a vengeful god who favors one people over another and who leaves horrible destruction in the wake of liberation. Others find the triumph of the underdog inspiring. We share it around the dinner table, with old and young alike, skipping none of the gory details in order to get to the glorious ending. Part of the tradition is to stop and question, to discuss, to weave our own experiences and observations into the telling.

Jonathan Safron Foer has said that the trick in telling the Passover story is to find a balance between justice and mercy. This resonates for me because I believe that the Passover story shows us the best and worst of what humans can be, no matter what religion. Moreover, the Haggadah gives us a moment each year when we pause to consider social justice, equality, mercy, and what humans have done (and continue to do) to each other in the name of religion.  We tell our story and remember that we are the stories we tell, and that we can choose how we tell the story, how we live it, and how adopt it as our own legacy.

When Culture Sprout was old enough to listen, I struggled with how to approach the potentially scary moments with her. Fortunately, I had the help of a wonderful children’s bookseller at a local Judaica shop and of the PJ Library, a program that provides free books to Jewish children.

Here is a sample of our favorites:

Only Nine Chairs: A Tall Tale for Passover (by Deborah U. Miller, ills. by Karen Ostrove, Kar-Ben Publishing, 1982 ): What to do when you have 18 guests coming for Passover and only nine chairs? This story in rhyme is a funny trek through the imagination of a child awaiting the arrival of holiday guests: “We have plenty of silverware, Glasses and dishes. Enough food for seconds, the house smells delicious.  For all of those guests, we have seating for nine, will some have to stand while others recline?”  Miller’s rhymes are silly enough for a three-year old and inventive enough to entertain a seven-year old. Ostrove’s illustrations brim with humor and glee.   We truly never tire of this book.

Let My People Go! (by Tilda Balsley, ills. by Ilene Richard, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2008) is another perennial favorite. Moses is commanded by G-d to go to the Pharoah and demand the Jews’ freedom. He does and with each of Pharoahs refusals, the Egyptians are visited by another plague.  The text is color-coded so that children at a seder can present it as a play, complete with a narrator, a chorus, Moses, Pharaoh, and Egyptians.   Repetition compels here. Each time Moses says “Our G-d says “Let my people go!”, the narrator follows with “And Pharaoh shouted, “No, No, No.” Children love to fill in Pharoah’s response.  Richard’s illustrations show how awful it is to be attached by flies or have a river run with blood, but they are done with enough humor to prevent nightmares.  This book is a perfect introduction to the story of Passover, and the harsh blow of the plagues. It ends with the Jews leaving Egypt, providing a great starting point for family conversations.

The Mouse in the Matzah Factory (by Francine Medoff, ills. by Nicole in den Bosch, Kar-Ben Publishing,2003) beautifully explains the rabbinical laws that govern the making of kosher-for-Passover matzah. Through the eyes of a mouse, we learn that wheat destined for matzah is watched from the reaping through the milling through delivery to the bakery. The making of matzah requires strict adherence to rules about how long flour can be in contact with water and how long the bread may be baked. These are all the questions to which I didn’t have an answer. The little mouse who follows the wheat to find out fills us in. Reminiscent of Stuart Little, he is a charming guide.

Need more ideas?

Try:

Too Many Cooks: A Passover Parable by Edie Stoltz Zolkower and Shauna Mooney Kawasaki (Kar-Ben, 2000), a sweet tale about what happens when too many people meddle in Bubbie’s charoset.

P is for Passover by Tanya Lee Stone, ills. by Margeaux Lucas (Price Stern Sloan, 2003), a great primer for the basic elements of the holiday and its rituals.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

2 Mar

What better birthday to celebrate in as we count down to World Read Aloud Day! Is there a person who learned to read after 1950 who didn’t grow up on Dr. Seuss books? Or a child who grew up since 1967 who doesn’t define the holiday season by watchingThe Grinch Who Stole Christmas?

Ted Geisel, American writer and cartoonist, at...

But did you also know that he:

  • Wrote for Vanity Fair?
  • Commanded the Animation Department of the U.S. Air Force’s first Motion Picture unit?
  • Inspired with his work two Academy Award-winning films (one animated, one documentary)?
  • Had his first manuscript (And to Think that I Saw it on Mulbery Street) rejected more than 25 times?
  • Worked as a political cartoonist?
  • First used his pseudonym to keep writing when he’d been forced to resign all activities in college?
  • And, most interesting, was commissioned by Houghton Mifflin to pioneer the “early reader” format, writing books that included words from a list of the 250 most important words to learn? This gave birth to The Cat and the Hat, as well as Green Eggs and Ham and One Fish, Two Fish. Each of those books still sells about 500,000 copies a year!

Some of that I knew. Some I learned today as I read several articles and blog posts honoring Theodor Geisel on what would have been his 108th birthday.

What I’d like to add is this: My graduating class at Brown chose for its honorary degree winners cultural icons who had marked our lives. Among these was Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.  Our beautiful class speaker, Valerie Tutson, brought the house down with her storytelling, bringing Stevie Wonder to tears when she sang to us a reminder to call our family and tell them “I just called to say I love you.” I watched from the balcony as Mr. Geisel handed Mr. Wonder his handkerchief, only to receive it back to wipe his own tears when Valerie ended by telling her family that she’d grown up and found that she “really does like green eggs and ham.” That moment stands out for me, evoking the power of his words to not only teach us, to move us, unite our diverse experiences, and recognize the power of the written and spoken word. The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.~Dr. Seuss

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