Tag Archives: Books

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.

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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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Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, A Book Note

30 Apr

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbot

Recently, I became an accidental student of the Civil War. While standing in the checkout line at the library (yep, I LOVE the library), I noticed a book with an intriguing title–Liar Soldier Temptress Spy. I popped out of line to look at it.    karen-abbott-photoThe topic, the under-sung stories of four women who served the Confederacy and the Union as spies (one as a soldier!) told by a historian, Karen Abbott. The cover blurb by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City), naming Abbot “the John Le Carré of Civil War espionage,” sealed the deal. Larson made my beloved Chicago’s true history of serial murder during the 1893 World’s Fair come alive, like only the best murdery mystery writers can. If he thought Abbott was worth reading, then so did I.

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Belle Boyd (Credit: Library of Congress)

I was not disappointed. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy starts a bit slowly as Abbott introduces each of her four characters in turn, providing biographic background that explains how each woman came to care about her cause enough to take huge risks to support her side of the war. Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an ardent rebel hailing from Martinsburg, Virginia, supported her cause using all of her beguiling (and belligerent) traits. Smart and beautiful, she had proven her determination by the age of eleven when, told that she was too young to attend a dinner party, she rode her horse into her parents’ dining room and declared, “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”  Before her mother could raise a hand or voice, a guest (a politician or Revolutionary war hero, no doubt) intervened to ask Mrs. Boyd to “tell me more about your little rebel. Six years later, on July 4, 1861, when Union soldiers demanded that her mother fly their flag and then physically threatened her, Belle did not hesitate to shoot. She survived her offense by following up with a charm defensive and spent the rest of the war spying for the Confederacy.

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Emma Edmondson as Frank Thompson (image credit: Wikipedia)

Emma Edmundson, seeking to escape her father’s disregard and her mother’s sadness over having born daughters, became Frank Thompson, and upon leaving her native Canada, volunteered for the Union Army. Serving from 1850 through most of the war, she remained undetected, cross-dressing, living as a man among men, and amassing a reputation for cunning, bravery, and compassion. In one brilliant moment of spying on the Confederate Army she “masqueraded” as a woman to cross enemy lines. When terribly injured in a battle, she cared for herself, unwilling to be discovered (and dismissed with dishonor or, worse, tried, for her patriotic deception). After the war, Edmonson/Thompson was recognized for her exemplary service and her case paved the way for remuneration and pension for women who had served.

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Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy, with her daughter, Little Rose (Smithsonian Magazine, The Granger Collection, NYC)

Southern widow Rose Greenhow used her social position in Washington D.C. to penetrate the upper echelons of Union leadership and pass valuable information to the rebel leaders. Like Boyd, it was her deepest desire to be recognized as valuable to the cause, especially by their beloved Stonewall Jackson. Like Boyd, she was eventually found out, jailed, banned from the north, and exiled. Greenhow, however, was sent to Europe to President Jefferson Davis to try to persuade the French and British leaders to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.

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Elizabeth Van Lew (credit: Smithsonian Magazine, (The Granger Collection, NYC))

It may have been Elizabeth Van Lew, however, who won the war for the Union. A wealthy abolitionist in Richmond, Van Lew’s servants were all paid former slaves. Once she acquired a slave, she freed them and kept them on if they wished. This, plus her vast social circle, allowed her to be the center of a spy ring that penetrated as deeply as Davis’s private office, so that she was able to send accurate information, on a daily basis, to General Sherman. Van Lew, despised by Richmond, deserves her place in history as much for what she gave up to support Lincoln and the Union  as for her heroic actions.

Abbot makes these stories come alive, alternating between the women in a seamless way and connecting their stories via in-depth historical accounts of battles and the machinations of war. Her extensive archival research allows her to attribute to the women thoughts and words that they wrote in their letters and journals. She describes the near-misses, the penury brought on by the war (I could smell it!), the shear ingenuity of the codes and techniques they used to pass messages, and their innermost thoughts about the people and issues of the day. More than a women’s history, this is a readable, compelling history of the Civil War that illuminates the issues and concerns that nearly fractured our Union. And more than a history of the Civil War, this book educates us about early spying techniques, the gruesome results of battle, and the deprivations (physical and emotional)  caused by the war and its aftermath.

As I was reading the book, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln which I marked (with Culture Sprout) by seeing One Destiny at Ford’s Theatre. We also visited the Spy Museum where we spent a lot of time looking at the exhibit on Civil War spies. More on those later….

Related Articles:

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.

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!

 

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.

World Read Aloud Day Wrap Up

16 Mar

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I’ve just added up the minutes. The students at the International School of Boston and their teachers (lower and middle school) read for a grand total of [drumroll please] 6,699 minutes!!! Some of these minutes were in the day or two before WRAD, I believe, but were accomplished as part of a lower and middle-school effort to raise awareness about global literacy and WRAD.

My hat is off to the stupendous Peggy Kirkpatrick, Alissa Rosellini, and the teachers and students for taking this idea and running with it!  Or as Charlotte says, “Hurray for World Read Aloud Day!”

At my house, four mothers from school gathered and read for about 20 minutes.  We had excerpts from Henry V (read with incredible dramatic effect), Roald Dahl’s “Dentist and the Crocodile,” Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and a Rilke poem read in English and German. We had so much fun we nearly forgot to pick our children up from school!

Thank you so much to the moms for coming, the school for making this a reality, and LitWorld for inviting me to be an ambassador!

World Read Aloud Day! A story about the power of reading

7 Mar

Olly Neal and Mrs. Grady

*This story is based on  real people. Their words and thoughts have been invented by me, as have some of the narrative details.*

Mrs. Grady had been teaching English for a long time. She watched her students struggle, knowing that no matter how well they did, they would not have the same opportunities as the white children in town. Still, she worked hard to help them love reading and to be curious, hopeful that one day the world would change.

Olly lived in a small house with thirteen brothers and sisters, no electricity, and no hope. Watching his father toil on a farm, with a second-grade education, Olly couldn’t imagine a different future. What difference could reading make?

He was a particularly difficult student. He didn’t care about school. He interrupted Mrs. Grady, called her by her first name, and let her know that he didn’t share her optimism. Sometimes, Mrs. Grady bit her lip and held back her tears, sobbing as soon as he left her classroom.  She couldn’t give up, yet she didn’t know how to go on. Not with him. Not with Olly.

One day, Olly skipped math class. He wandered into the library to hide from the truant officer.  Mrs. Grady was on library duty. Seeing him, she almost sent him back to class. She hesitated, unwilling to incur his rudeness on that day.

Instead, she watched as Olly stalked the aisles. Eventually his eyes fell on the spine of a book.

“Frank Yerby,” Olly thought, “What a strange name.”  The title, The Treasure of Pleasant Valley was enticing. And the slightly sheer dress worn by the lady on the cover was titillating. Maybe he’d read this book.

But, Olly had a reputation. And reputations could be ruined by something as simple as checking a book out of the library. So, Olly slipped the book into the back of his pants and pulled his sweater over it.  He sauntered out of the library, undetected.

Or so he thought. Mrs. Grady had seen him take the book. She was about to reprimand him when she saw him look to see if anyone was watching. He didn’t look at her; he looked at the other students in the library. That’s when it hit her, “He can’t be seen reading. It’d spoil his bad-boy reputation.” Smiling, she watched him leave.

A few weeks later Olly slipped the Yerby book back onto the shelf where he’d found it.  “Hey, I don’t remember that one,” he thought as he noticed another Yerby book there. Glancing around, he slipped this new book in his waistband and sauntered out of the library.

“Uh-oh.” Mrs. Grady realized that she only had the two Yerby books in the library.  She worried that Olly wouldn’t read other authors. Mrs. Grady began driving around to used bookstores; seventy miles later she found what she needed. And the next week Olly found another book.

And so it went.  Olly would return a book and find another. Sneaking in and out of the library, he read every book Mrs. Grady put on the shelf, never knowing the risks she took to do so.

Olly had discovered not only a love of reading, but a black author, something nearly unheard of in the segregated South of the 1950s. He began to see the possibilities of a life different than his parents’. Like Mrs. Grady, he began to dream of a time when blacks might have all the same opportunities as whites.

Eventually Olly read other books. He read magazines and newspapers. He stopped worrying so much about his bad-boy reputation. Then, Olly went to college and law school.  Olly broke the barriers that had restricted Mrs. Grady, becoming the first black district attorney in Arkansas. He went on to be a judge and an appellate court judge.

Years later, Olly saw Mrs. Grady at a high school reunion. Only then, did he learn what she had quietly done to change his path from petty thief to successful judge, father, and man.

*Many thanks to Nicholas Kristoff and his New York Times op-ed piece, “How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal” (January 21, 2012) for the inspiration for this story.

Related Links:

Nicholas Kristoff’s inspiringop-ed, “How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal.”

Olly Neal Gets His Read On, From the Snap Judgment website, a re-posting of Neal telling his daughter this story as part of NPR’s StoryCorps. SnapJudgment’s  Glynn Washington’s introduction is great.

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

Berenstein Bears, Finding Joy in Kindness and Civility

29 Feb

A few months ago, Culture Sprout found the Barenstein Bear books in her school library. She is a bona fide ursaphile, if such a word exists–loving all things to do with bears, especially of the stuffed and cartoon variety. Week after week she brough home a new Berenstain Bears book for us to read together or to read on her own. She was delighted to discover that she had about five of her own Berenstain Bear books and we began reading those, too.

The Berenstain Bears

Image via Wikipedia

At first read, I was a bit underwhelmed. Culture Sprout has long-since passed from the picture book only phase (not to say we don’t read picture books) and these seemed a bit basic for her.  Then I paid attention to the words.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • The Berenstain Family teaches their children to be kind, polite, considerate, and thoughtful.
  • Brother and Sister often get into some trouble (books have titles such as Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Money/Friends/School), discover that they don’t like the way they have behaved (or their parents don’t), correct or apologize for the behavior, and learn a lesson. Papa raises his voice sometimes, but his love is always evident. Mama worries and frets and occasionally yells, but she’s always available to help solve a problem.
  • The Berenstain Family teaches that apologies work if you mean it.
  • They are big advocates of treating others the way you want to be treated is always the way to go.
  • People are all different and when a family of Panda Bear moves in and plants a bamboo (!) garden, it’s fun to find out how their food, traditions, practices are different and even more fun to discover how much we have in common.
  • Brother and Sister Bear experience many of the emotions and situations that challenge any child (fear of the doctor; jealousy of a friend or sibling; desire for a new pet, etc.) and their story provides a nice springboard for a discussion.
  • Charlotte wants to talk about the mistakes Brother and Sister made, and sometimes how she can see the same things in her own behavior.
  • While the books teach moral lessons, they are  (or universally religious) and definitely not pedantic.

What I didn’t know until yesterday is that the Berenstains have been writing these books for 50 years, literally teaching two generations about the importance of family and kindness and acceptance of difference through 300 books. I’m flabbergasted and awestruck.

Cover of "The Berenstain Bears' New Baby&...

Cover of The Berenstain Bears' New Baby

Last night, in a fitting tribute, we read  The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby. First published in 1974, this book expands the family from Mama, Papa and Small Bear with the addition of Sister Bear. Small Bear (who becomes Brother Bear) outgrows his handcrafted baby bed just in time to hand it down to his new little sister.  I love the easy acceptance of  a new baby, even though Small Bear had not realized Mama was pregnant (he did notice that it was getting harder to sit on her lap!).

While many of the Berenstain Bear books are timeless, this one does reveal its moment of publication. Just one year after the first commercial publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves (which was originally published as a 12-page newsprint handout in 1971, and formalized as a book by Simon & Schuster in 1973), in the early moments of the women’s health movement, Sister Bear arrives while Papa and Brother are in the woods making a new big boy bed.  When Papa and Brother leave, Mama is very pregnant, patting her belly, and smiling knowingly as she closes the door. When they return a few hours later, Mama is tucking the new baby into the baby bed. Mama hasn’t changed and doesn’t look like she’s gone through anything. Sister is dressed, smiling, and sporting a pink bow. And no one asks where the baby came from.Fait accompli, a family of four. I was tickled and relieved that Charlotte didn’t ask me where the baby came from! But, the point was that Brother accepted her and looked forward to being the big kid. Subsequent books deal with sibling rivalry and sibling friendship.

I’m sure that Jan and Stan (and their son Dan) Berenstain spent more effort to create these wonderful books than Mama Bear seems to have (alone!) to bring Sister into the treehouse.  To the Berenstain family, our thanks for enriching children’s literature. Goodnight, Mama Bear.

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