Entries Tagged as 'Children’s Books, Gifts, Culture'

When the Cat’s Away, The Mice Will…Watch Movies The Cat Would Never Watch

August 11th, 2014 · 21 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Rituals

Both of my kids did a week of sleep-away camp this summer, different camps, during different weeks, which was wonderful for many reasons: They made new friends, they ate new foods, they learned new skills (including sitting on one end of a raft while a counselor jumped on the other, launching her fifteen feet out into the lake). But the best part, at least for me, was the time spent with the sister left behind. I didn’t plan it this way, but giving each of them a week of only child-dom meant, obviously, that we only had to cater to the interests and tastes of a single kid all week long. When Abby wanted spaghetti with pesto, we didn’t have to make a separate baguette with pesto and mozzarella for pasta-hating Phoebe. When Phoebe requested Hatch Burgers, we didn’t have to ask Abby — who has been down on red meat lately — for permission. The novelty was just as exciting when trolling around Netflix and our library’s DVD section. The girls have similar tastes in movies — Ferris BuellerThe Devil Wears Prada, School of Rock, Catch Me If You Can, and Iron Mans 1, 2, and 3 have been hits lately — but there are whole genres that I knew my 12-year-old would like more than my 10-year-old (read: Hitchcock) as well as movies that maybe weren’t quite appropriate for an almost sixth grader. So I got super into lining up Movie Week, setting up the outdoor projector (both indoors and out) and screening a new one every night of Abby’s absence. Here’s what was on the marquee.

Breaking Away (1979)
I remember seeing this during the summer when I was a kid, and cheering out loud when Moocher got on the racing bike, his legs too short to reach the pedals. Phoebe did too, which warmed my heart, and luckily the rest of the movie held up just as beautifully. (Literally beautifully — every scene seems shrouded in a golden glow.) It’s about four working-class Bloomington, Indiana kids (known as “cutters”) floundering around after high school, trying to figure out what to do next, while navigating typical social tensions with the town’s wealthier university students. The Dennis Christopher character, a romantic, cycling-obsessed Italia-phile has got to be one of the greater characters in movies, and the scenes swimming at the quarry are summer exemplified. Bonus: Wow, Dennis Quaid. Wowowow. (Where is the emoticon for fanning my face as though I’m about to faint?) Note: There’s one moment in the beginning when the boys are cruising through campus and Daniel Stern inappropriately comments on some good looking co-eds, so keep your hand on the remote if your kids are little — but the rest of it is totally clean.) (more…)

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Kid Classics for Summer

June 30th, 2014 · 27 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Just in time for summer reading, I’m delighted to present this guest-post by Catherine Hong, veteran magazine editor and writer, mother of two, and the Mrs. behind Mrs. Little, one of my most favorite book blogs for kids that you should be reading if you’re not already. Take it away Catherine! –JR

I know that plenty of great children’s books were published after my 1970s childhood. I’ve heard a lot about these so-called new classics, like The Giver, Holes, The Hunger Games and Harry something-or-other. Once in a while I even allow my kids to read them. But there is truly nothing more gratifying than seeing your kids fall for one of your favorite books from your youth. Can anything match the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see your 10-year-old curled up with Harriet the Spy? (Bonus points if it’s your yellowed copy of Harriet with the original price of $1.50) It’s like a mother sheep recognizing her newborn by its smell — the feeling that says “this MUST be my child.” Sure, these old novels make references to telegrams and water closets, and fail almost every test of political correctness, but they’re so transporting they’ll keep your Clash of the Clans-obsessed offspring reading all summer.

When I re-read this recently it was as thrilling as I remembered it from fourth grade — but whoa! — much, much sadder. As you probably remember, the story is about a Native American girl, Karana, who finds herself alone on an island off the coast of California for many years after her people are forced to flee the island following a massacre. She has to figure out all the survival skills (hunting, spearmaking) that, as a female in the tribe, she was never taught. She battles hunger, weather, wild dogs, extreme loneliness and despair. O’Dell draws the landscape of the island so vividly you feel like you know every bluff and cove yourself.
What your kids will love: How Karana built a fence around her home using giant whale ribs tied with kelp to keep out the wild dogs.
What you only notice now: How crazy it is that Ramo (Karana’s little brother) is killed before they’ve been alone on the island a week. No kids’ book would let that happen today.

THE GREAT BRAIN (1967) By John D. Fitzgerald
My brother and I were crazy about this series, which is set in a Mormon town in Utah during the early 1900s. The main character is Tom, a precocious, money-loving 10-year-old who uses his “great brain” to swindle and con every kid in the neighborhood. Even when he does something heroic, like rescue two boys lost in a cave or help a crippled child to use his peg leg, he manages to come out with a silver dollar or two. (Some of the books in this series are now out of print — criminal!)
What your kids will love: How Tom masterminds his revenge on a schoolteacher by planting whiskey bottles in his bedroom and coat pocket.
What you only notice now: The boys were constantly whooping each other’s asses and the parents never once got involved. As the narrator, J.D. puts it, “It was just a question of us all learning how to fight good enough … After all, there is nothing as tolerant and understanding as a kid you can whip.”
Level: 4th & 5th graders

THE TWENTY-ONE BALLOONS (1947) By William Pène DuBois
Why has this incredible book not been made into a movie? It’s a fantasy-adventure about an explorer in the 1880s who stumbles onto the island of Krakatoa, where an ultra-civilized society of twenty families have invented their own calendar and government (a “restaurant government”) and live in unimaginable wealth, thanks to the island’s diamond mines. The book is wry, sophisticated (more…)

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How to Shop Responsibly

April 4th, 2014 · 13 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment

As we are all well too aware of, having kids these days seems to be synonymous with having stuff. Especially when we are new, impressionable parents, easily bamboozled by marketing messages telling us we need everything — from wipe warmers to the developmental toy du jour — or our kids will be destined for failure. But let’s forget about our kids for a minute. How is our culture of overconsumption playing out on the global field? How can we make sure we are purchasing from the right companies and staying on the right side of things? (Besides forgoing the iPotty all together, of course. iPotties!) Here to help us along is guest-poster Christine Bader, author of the much-touted  The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil and an expert in corporate responsibility. Welcome!

I work in corporate responsibility, which means working with companies on sustainable practices that are good for people and the environment. But I often have trouble practicing what I preach, and I know others who do this work do too. We push companies to offer sustainable products, but balk if there’s a price premium when doing our own shopping. We advocate for consumers to learn and demand more, but succumb to what’s easiest to get with one-click. Take my recent experience purchasing a rug for my 18-month-old twins. Child labor is a problem in the carpet industry, so I started on the Goodweave website for brands certified child-labor-free. Once I pinpointed those brands, I looked for online retailers that sold them, then within that search, looked for options made from with natural fibers like cotton and wool. It wasn’t  easy — and I do this for a living.

So how do we cut through all the information and shop responsibly? Is local better than organic? Is “fair trade” truly fair? Does a company getting a “sustainable” or “ethical trading initiative” seal mean it’s all good?  There are no easy answers — apart from consuming less, which we all could probably do — but that shouldn’t stop us from asking the questions. Once in awhile I take stock of all the stuff I’m surrounded by at that moment, ask myself what I know about each item, where it puts me on the responsible-to-over-consumption spectrum, and give myself a grade. Here’s my latest report card: (more…)

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Holiday Gift Guide 2013

December 9th, 2013 · 83 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Welcome to our annual guide for everything we want, covet, crave, and, yes need this holiday. (I don’t know about you, but in my world, coffee qualifies as an essential.)  As always, the round-up was compiled with cooks, kids, and parents in mind (again, coffee), as well as for those of you who have already bought Dinner: A Love Story for everyone on your list. For those of you who have not: here’s the guide for you. Happy Holidays!

Dansk Kobenstyle Casserole ($120) In the 70s, my mom had it in mustard yellow. Thirty-five years later, I bought it in green. Forty years later, I think you should own the classic in striking, festive red. Warning: Do not purchase this if you have something against kitchen workhorses that you will use every night (as we speak, some veggies are simmering in mine in for chicken pot pie) and that looks beautiful living permanently on your stovetop. –JR

Playmobil Dolls & Sets ($5-$30) We are pretty good about giving away toys to Good Will and friends with younger kids, but I’ll tell you one thing we never hand down — anything labeled “Playmobil.” Nope. All of those German-made cup-handed dolls and perfectly-snapped-together playsets go right into a box in our (otherwise unorganized) basement labeled “SPECIAL.” If your kids are into make-believe (or your husband derives an irrational happiness from putting together a Grand Mansion Dollhouse on Christmas morning), you cannot go wrong with these. The level of loose-part detail should be maddening (tiny leaves to snap into trees, decorative flowers to snap onto birthday cakes, teeny tiny bunny rabbits with the sweetest little faces) but instead inspires you to say things like “Wow, a lot of thought went into this little chimney sweep.” The possibilities are as varied as your childrens’ interests, and so are the prices. If you are in the market for the Big Ticket Item, there are plenty: Pirate Ships, CastlesFarms, and Zoos. (Btw, I’m weeping thinking of Abby’s beloved zoo sitting in a shoebox right now.) But honestly, it’s almost more fun to explore the wide world of mini environs and figures, some of which come with travel cases. A few favorites: A very DALSian Grand Kitchen ($25, pictured above); Doghouse ($11); Horse with Groomer and Stable ($11); Cop & Robber ($11, plus carrying case); Vet Clinic ($11, includes carrying case); Royal Dressing Room ($15); Outlaw Hideout ($18); Comfortable Living Room ($18). Man, I could go on forever. -JR

Blue Picardie Glasses ($26, set of six) I really have no business putting another set of drinking glasses in another gift guide, and yet…How fun is this blue twist on the bistro picardie glass? I first saw them at The Ordinary in Charleston, and have since been hinting in many not-so-subtle ways how cool they’d look with milk (or wine) and how psyched I’d be to unwrap a set of six someday soon. –JR

Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic ($16 a bottle) Also in the category of “first experienced at The Ordinary:” This tonic, a concentrated quinine, mixed into a memorable Gin & Tonic during a memorable summer night. But trust me, the stuff is good all year long. -JR

Galaxy CR7s ($50). I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that our family seems set on making Phil Knight richer, but I am sure how I feel about this Hubble Telescope-y, Buck Rogers-y iteration of the Nike indoor soccer shoe: good. I can’t imagine where the people who designed these go from here (“I know, let’s put photographs of Canis Majoris on a pair of cleats!”) but I’m sure we’ll be buying. — Andy

KitchenSurfing Gift Card (Any amount, but I’d recommend a minimum of $100) Do you guys know about KitchenSurfing? I’m a little obsessed with it ever since our friends Liz and Charlie hosted a dinner party for twelve catered by an Indian chef they found on the site. If the word “cater” sounds a little stodgy and prosciutto-wrapped-melon-ish to you, trust me, this site is the opposite of that. It matches your dinner party needs (Cocktail party? Kid’s Birthday Party? Dinner for vegans or sushi lovers?) with a network of local chefs  (right now that means NY, LA, Boston, Chicago, the Hamptons, and…Berlin!) who bid on your job and send you menus with their thoughts. Everything is negotiable and customizable which makes for a far more reasonably cost evening than you might expect. (Especially factoring in the babysitter you won’t have to hire.) All I know is that if I were a new parent too exhausted to entertain, I’d be psyched to be cooked for and waited on in my own home for an evening. (Photo credit: Brooklyn Industrialist) -JR

PokPok Cookbook (by Andy Ricker and JJ Goode, $22) You might be familiar with the PokPok restaurant empire because you’ve been lucky enough to frequent one of Andy Ricker’s Brooklyn or Portland, Oregon Thai hotspots. Or you might just remember that I made his Pad Thai last year and it was off the chain. Either way, the experience is now available in cookbook form. Warning: This is not a book for people who shy away from mail-ordering or pavement-pounding in search of ingredients you don’t generally find at the A&P. But for major enthusiasts, that friend who has everything, or for someone who wants to learn about Thai cuisine (technique, ingredients, recipes, regional breakdowns) inside and out? This is the one. –JR

Jane’s Granola ($14) Our breakfast rut has, by now, been well documented. There have been exceptions, but for the most part, our kids always seem to come back to the Trifecta of Starches: Bagel, toast, pancakes. It’s hard to watch. But in September, I was out in San Francisco for work and brought home a bag of this almondy-y, cinammon-y granola from Jane (above), which is one of our favorite breakfast spots on earth. I bought it as an anniversary present for Jenny, actually, but she never even got a taste. Phoebe gave it a shot — over Greek yogurt, with a drizzle of honey — and that was all she wrote. Not that we’re complaining. — Andy

The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories (by Howard Liss, Illustrations by Joe Mathieu; Used paperback copies starting at 1 cent) Goofy, old-school illustrations paired with stories that stay with you for decades. (Remember the one about Johnny Heisman scoring a touchdown by hiding the football in his jersey? Or the one where the umpires got lost on the way to a Dodgers-Braves game, so the players made the calls themselves? Or the one where the outfielder’s belt got stuck on the fence when he jumped to catch a fly ball? And he just hung there waiting to be rescued?) Andy spent every Saturday and Sunday morning reading this book in bed waiting for his brother to wake up so he could watch TV. I remember my own brother obsessing over it, too. (Age 6 +)  –JR


Rittenhouse Rye Because dark spirits season is upon us, once again. (Only $24 a bottle – if you can find it, that is.) — Andy

Anomia ($13) I first read about this game on Catherine’s blog, and since I will essentially do anything Catherine tells me to do, I bought it before summer vacation, thinking we might need a post-s’more activity every now and then. This was just the ticket. It’s best played with kids who are at least 7 or 8, and is one of those games where even adults find themselves standing and screaming out answers with their hearts racing, reminding themselves every few minutes to Calm Down It’s Just a Game. Bonus: It takes up no room in a suitcase. -JR

Nike GPS Watch ($169) There’s nothing quite like seeing how slow you are running to make you run a little faster. I am generally not a Gadget Guy at all — I still read physical books and need Jenny to program numbers into my phone — but this thing has changed my running life. (If only it could change the fact that I am old.) — Andy

A Very un-Christmasy Moleskine Notebook ($10). My pal Kendra gave this to me last year (along with one that said “Epic Sh#t,” of course) and I love it so much, I’ve been unable to write in it. It just sits on my desk, untouched, and I wait for people who come into my office to notice it, and when they do, they all say the same thing: “Oh my god, where did you get that?” Here. — Andy

Paul Smith Socks for dudes. Fashion-wise, J Crew is generally as crazy as I get, but I own two pairs of these, and they make me happy every time I put them on. And no one has to know. — Andy

Digital Speed Sensing Baseball ($20) I like to think that my two girls are not the girly lip-gloss-and-eyelash-batting types. (Exhibit A: While watching The Sound of Music last week, during the part where Rolf sang to Liesl that she needed someone “older and wiser telling her what to do,” Phoebe turned to me and said, “She can do better.”) But still, when it comes to buying gifts for boys — specifically my nephews — my girls never have any good ideas for me. This year I seem to have hit a home run, though, with these speed-sensing baseballs, recommended by my friend Jennie, mother of a middle school baseball star. As soon as my nephews opened them, they were outside (it’s winter here in New York, remember) testing out their cannons.


Matt’s Wood Roasted Coffee. Every time we visit our friends Mike and Sara in Portland, Maine, I spend much of the five-hour drive home asking Jenny variations on the following two questions: (1) what are we doing with our lives, and (2) why aren’t we doing it in Portland, Maine? The water, the healthy-looking people, the tight-knit feel of the community, the lobster rolls, the bread at Fore Street Grill (worth a trip in its own right), the food in general, and finally, the coffee. Man, the coffee! Last time we were there, we stopped in at a place called the Speckled Ax, and picked up a couple of pounds of the good stuff to go. Whatever alchemy happens when you wood roast coffee beans, it’s genius. We don’t drink it every morning because then it wouldn’t be special. A bag of this in the ol’ stocking, and I’m happy. – Andy

The Wire Complete series DVD. I wish I could promise that this is the last thing I’m going to say about this show on this blog, but I will not rest until every last one of you has seen this show. (Jenny finally watched all five seasons this fall, after years of my hectoring, and her review, which I am writing down as she says it, is as follows: “It’s ruined all television for me. I’m retiring from TV now, because I can’t imagine anything better.”) — Andy

Holidays Rule If you’re sick of the Phil Spector, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra Christmas jams, this album — featuring a bunch of cool, more contemporary bands, from Fun. to Holly Golightly, from the Heartless Bastards to Calexico — is a pretty excellent change of pace. If nothing else, give this tune a listen and see for yourself. Well worth $1.29. Also goes well with Rittenhouse Rye and a fire in the fireplace. – Andy

Other inspiring gift guides: The Wednesday Chef, Bon Appetit, The New York Times Dining Section, Cup of Jo for Babies and Toddlers.


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The Classics, Kid-Style

October 21st, 2013 · 18 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

As parents — and English majors — we take a great deal of pleasure in introducing our kids to the Good Books. In a way, I feel like we’ve got all of our favorites just cued up, waiting to roll ‘em out when the kids are ready: The Catcher in the Rye (we handed this one to Phoebe last summer), Tess of the D’urbervilles, Pride and Prejudice, The Tempest, Watchmen, Crime and Punishment, To the Lighthouse, US Weekly. We’re constantly asking ourselves, as we hurry-up-and wait: Are they ready yet? Is it too soon? And the answer, usually, is: No, they’re not ready yet, and yeah, it’s too early. But there’s something cool going on in the book world lately, and it is happening — no surprise — in the world of graphic novels. In the past year, our shelves have been filling with graphic adaptations of classic — or at least really really good — books that might not be quite the same as the real deal, but are pretty damned close. And a perfect, friendly introduction to the things that will sustain and inspire them, when they’re just a little older. Here, Phoebe (11-year-old, Nerd Alert blogger) describes a few of her recent favorites. — Andy
Moby Dick (Herman Melville) adapted by Lance Stahlberg, illustrated by Lalit Kumar
Who Would Love It: People who can handle stuff that’s a little hard to understand. They basically take the words from the real book, which can be old-fashioned, and they put them in speech bubbles and add drawings around them. If you took away the pictures, it would basically be the grown-up book. But the art is so awesome. It’s definitely adventure-y.
The blurb I’d put on the back of the book: “The fascinating story of the search for a famous white whale — the perfect book for any kid who likes it when climaxes come at the very end of the book. Which, who doesn’t?”
Ages: 11+
The Odyssey (Homer), by Tim Mucci
Who Would Love It: People who like Greek mythology and people who like to read simplified versions of big, complicated stories. Here, you’ll meet Athena, Hermes, Zeus, Poseidon, all that jazz. It’s also really cool-looking, too — I love the artwork. It helps to understand it.
The blurb I’d put on the back of the book: “A mystical adventure in graphic novel form. That sounds cheesy — but, you know. It’s true!”
Ages: 11+
A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle), adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson
Who Would Love It: The first time I tried to read the actual, real book, I could barely get past the first chapter. It was so boring and confusing. I was in third grade, so I had trouble understanding any of it. But then, last year, I got the graphic novel version and it was just way more interesting. It all made sense. It seemed like the plot was more interesting, more exciting. This is for people who are science-y and also into fantasy. Those of you who like physics will like this, too.
The blurb I would put on the back of the book: “An interesting book, in the best way. The art makes this an even more bold version of the original – it’s, like, BOOM.”
Ages: 5+ (more…)

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Summer Reading Series: Michael Paterniti

August 19th, 2013 · 11 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Uncategorized

Our next guest in the DALS Summer Reading Series is Michael Paterniti, a man who needs no introduction (and not only because we just introduced him last month). Besides being the father of three voracious readers, he is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Revenge, Betrayal, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, and joins us today to tell us about his two (give or take nine) most memorable childrens’ books. Thanks, Mike!

My favorite children’s books belong to two distinct categories: the ones I adored as a kid, and then the ones I’ve loved as a father reading to my kids. To the first pile belong treasures like Homer Price (who can ever forget Uncle Ulysses’s doughnut machine!), The Tomten (about a mysterious elfin man who rummages a remote farm by winter night, talking to the animals), The Great Brain (oh, how I wanted to be him, pickpocketing the world with his schemes!), and The Hardy Boys catalogue (the recurrence of their friend Chet, in his jalopy, on the prowl for lemonade and chocolate cake while the brothers face harrowing danger, still cracks me up).

To the second, the father pile, belong almost anything by Chris Van Allsberg (The Stranger, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, The Polar Express) and The Hobbit (still one of the world’s great travelogues) and, say, Penguin Dreams (the surreal, wonderfully psychedelic journey of a penguin through his own dreams). For our purposes today, however, I’m limiting myself to a couple of desert-island books, one in each category. I realize only now in writing that both are appropriately animated by food (and one, perhaps the strangest and funniest children’s book I’ve ever read, is actually about animated food!). So here goes…

Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson (Kid Book)

Before this book, which I read at age nine or ten, I’m not sure I fully understood how books work, how a good one can deposit a secret world so whole and alive in your head. A Newberry Medal winner from the 1940s, the story centers around one rabbit family, living on “the Hill” in Connecticut, and begins with the refrain, “New folks coming.” See, the Hill has fallen on hard times because the big house there—and its fantastic garden—have fallen into disrepair after a string of “mean, shiftless, and inconsiderate” owners. Now as the animals grow skinny and sip their “thin soup” everything relies on the new folks being planting folks. Meanwhile Little Georgie is going up “Danbury way,” where times are even harder, to retrieve his old Uncle Analdas, who’s just lost his wife and whose dinners consist of a skimpy turnip. Thinking about Little Georgie out in all that wilderness sets Mother to fretting in the kitchen, worrying about “the possibility of Dogs, Cats, and Ferrets; of shotguns, rifles, and explosives; of traps and snares; of poison and poison gases” while longwinded Father, of southern stock, tries to reassure her of the boy’s capabilities. And sure enough, son and uncle return, the new folks move in, and everything seems quite promising indeed until one night, as Little Georgie sallies forth on another errand, there’s the screeching of car brakes from the road, and Little Georgie disappears. 

Though known for his great illustrations, Robert Lawson is an evocative, lyrical writer. I won’t ruin his ending, which is simple, moving, and wonderful, but I will say that, first and foremost, Rabbit Hill is a book about generosity—at its most elemental about the overwhelming gratitude we feel when down and hungry and offered food—and that’s a very good thing to be reminded of in this world. Ages 7+

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (Father Book)

Um—I don’t quite know where to begin with this one except to say that when I read it to our son, Leo, some years ago, he wore the most quizzical expression for 169 pages, kept snorting with laughter, and said, “I don’t understand any of this!” which seemed to make him happy and all the more interested. And he never let me stop reading.

First published in Australia in 1918, the book centers itself on Bunyip Bluegum, a tidy, proper koala bear who leaves home to see the world because his uncle’s whiskers are too long, and take up all the space in their tree house, and soak in the soup at dinnertime, which is depressing. Before long, Bluegum’s fallen in with Bill Barnacle, a sailor, and his friend Sam Sawnoff, “a penguin bold,” whom he finds eating lunch. “They had a pudding in a basin,” reads the book, “and the smell that arose from it was so delightful that Bunyip Bluegum was quite unable to pass on.” This pudding is named Albert, and is a little foul-mouthed, and takes no guff. And it loves to be eaten, never runs out, and can transmogrify into the thing you most want to eat. (“It’s a Christmas steak and apple-dumpling Puddin’,” says the penguin. “It’s a Magic Puddin’.”)

Of course, rollicking high jinx ensue, the Puddin’ is stolen, strange characters appear, long, wacky, wonderful poems are delivered, the Puddin’ sulks and snarls and ripostes, and the pictures are fantastic. Lindsay said he wrote the book because children like eating and fighting, but I might add that what they—and their parents—like most of all is to laugh together. And there’s no weirder, funnier children’s book out there, one based entirely on the wonderful ways we feed ourselves, with words, stories, adventures, and cobbler. (Ages 8+)

FYI: Mike is on a West Coast tour right now, reading from The Telling Room tonight, 8/19, at Vroman’s (Pasadena); Tuesday, 8/20 at Book Passage (San Francisco); Wednesday, 8/21, at Omnivore Books (SF); Thursday, 8/22 at Reader’s Books (Sonoma); then Powell’s (Portland) on 8/26.

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Abby’s Top 10

July 24th, 2013 · 18 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Not to be outdone by her sister, Abby — heading into fifth grade — has decided to weigh in with her picks for summer reading. Here are the best books she’s read in the past two years (that she hasn’t already written about here and here), graded on the very official Summer Sun Scale. Ten Summer Suns is, obviously, highest, hottest honor. Thanks, Abby!

Umbrella Summer, by Lisa Graff
This book takes place during summer break. The main character, Annie, is very scared of life because of her brother Jared’s death, and is afraid to do things she used to have no problem doing – like riding down the hill on her bike and getting hurt. Annie and her friend, Rebecca, have always thought the house next door was haunted, but when an old lady called Mrs. Finch moves in Annie goes to visit accidentally while spying on her. After speaking with the lady, Annie learns to let loose more in summertime.
Summer Sun Grade: 9 suns
For Ages: 9-12
If you like this, you’ll likeAs Simple As it Seems, by Sarah Weeks

As Simple as it Seems, by Sarah Weeks
I like this book because it made me think a lot. It’s about a girl named Verbena who is very small. When she’s around 11, she finds out that she is not living with her real parents. Her real mom was an alcoholic and she drank when she was pregnant. (That’s why Verbena was so small.) When she finally finds out about, she’s very mad at her parents because they didn’t tell her. Nearby, a family moves in and the boy, Pooch, becomes Verbena’s very good friend. Together, they encounter fun – and dangerous – adventures.
Summer Sun Grade: 10 suns
For Ages: 9-11
If you like this, you’ll like: Umbrella Summer (see above)

Pieby Sarah Weeks
This was one of my most favorite books I read all year because it’s funny and very creative. Alice’s Aunt Polly owns a pie shop called…PIE. Unfortunately, Polly passes away, and people wonder who she left all her pie recipes to. Alice soon finds out she leaves them in the care of her cat Lardo, named after vegetable oil. When she finds that out, she also learns that Lardo is the care of Alice. She and her friend Charlie Erdling have to figure out what it means to leave recipes to a cat and put all the pieces together so that PIE can live on.
Summer Sun Grade: 10 10 10
For Ages: 8-11
If you like this, you’ll likeEverything on a Waffle, by Polly Horvath (more…)

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Introducing Nerd Alert

July 10th, 2013 · 21 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

You guys might be wondering why it’s July 10 and there has been none of the usual summer book club coverage for your kids. Well this year, instead of asking Lemony Snicket or George Saunders or Shaun Tan for reading recommendations, we figured we’d step things up a bit and go right to the source: Our 11-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who I’m proud to say has launched her own blog, Nerd Alert. It’s dedicated to the great love of her life — books, comic, graphic novels, and “other essentials” as her tagline says. She’s promised to post reviews at least once a week for the rest of the summer. Head on over there for her very first — and tell your kids about it, too!

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We Knew Him When

January 6th, 2013 · 7 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

If you didn’t believe Andy (and MacArthur) when he said George Saunders was a genius, maybe you can believe today’s COVER OF THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE that has declared Tenth of December “the best book you will read this year.” In honor of the Saunders coronation, we wanted to point you towards last year’s DALS guest-post where Saunders weighed in on his favorite kid books of all time.  The post still, to this day, is one of the most popular in our three-year history, and still, to this day, makes us cry when we read it.

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Pass it On

December 11th, 2012 · 12 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

Like Santa Claus, my mom never shows up empty-handed. When she visits, the kids gather at the door, waiting to see how lucky they’ll be this time. Will it be the new Lemony Snicket book? That turtleneck Abby had circled — hint, hint — in the Land’s End catalog a few months ago? A pair of earrings for Phoebe’s recently pierced ears? If a grandmother’s job is to shower love and affection (and presents), my mom is in the running for Awesomest Grandmother of All Time. She also brings things for me, however. Not presents, exactly. Things she has saved. Things that have lived in the boxes that sit in her compulsively incredibly well-curated basement for thirty years — her version of what Jenny and I call “the treasure chest,” the stuff from your life that you can’t bear to picture in a landfill somewhere — which she is now parceling out, bit by bit. Little dolls from her childhood, my old soccer jacket with all the patches sewn on the back, the mimeographed newspaper from my elementary school containing a story I wrote, in second grade, about Arbor Day, the light blue cable-knit outfit I wore on my first birthday, photos of my eighth grade dinner dance (I wore my dad’s tie and WHITE PLEATED PANTS), my old Looney Tunes T-shirt with Tweety Bird on the back and “Rent-a-Kid-Cheap” on the front, an old Wilson A2000 baseball mitt, my freshman course guide and assorted college detritus, and once, I crap you not, an Easter bonnet I made in pre-school out of a paper plate, some plastic flowers, and a light blue ribbon. (Me: “Mom, come on, what am I going to do with this thing?” Mom, actually attempting to tie the bonnet on my head while simultaneously applying the guilt: “But you… made it.”)

As you see, there are upsides and downsides to her role as family archivist.

Not too long ago, though, she showed up at our door carrying an old cardboard box, and when I say “old,” I don’t mean, like, six months old. I don’t even mean thirty years old. I mean, the cardboard on this box had that kind of waxy sheen that truly old cardboard gets, as if it has been holding fried dough and candles for a few thousand years. Stuck to the top of it was a mailing label that had my mom’s maiden name on it, and the mailing address of the house she moved out of more than fifty years ago. And inside, she announced, was a special present for Phoebe. Inside, as Phoebe soon discovered, was my mother’s comic book collection from her childhood, preserved here, as if in amber. Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Kit Carson, Hiawatha, all in various states of parchmenty disrepair, motes of dust rising from the box, the pages literally falling apart as Phoebe turned them. Our oldest daughter is a well-documented comic book enthusiast, but man, I haven’t seen her sucked in so completely, so deeply in a long time. (“Sometimes when I’m reading them, I imagine that I’m grandma, sitting in her room when she was little,” is how she put it.) She spent a couple weeks reading and rereading them, and I joined in, too. The slightly fuzzy, saturated colors of that old ink are so satisfying and the writing — and yes, I realize I am talking about Donald Duck comic books here — is kind of amazing. Scrooge McDuck: Wait, that guy is a metaphor! There’s stuff going on here! These comics are saying something!

Given that they were written in the 40s and 50s, they occasionally veer into uncomfortable, not-very-sensitive cultural observations, but as with TinTin, you can turn that to your advantage. Think of it as an opportunity to talk about how dumb we used to be and how much we have learned and how times have changed, mostly, and for the better. Phoebe loved them so much, we secured another, more pristine shipment, each copy wrapped in plastic, and she currently keeps them all under her bed, stacked nearly in that old cardboard box. Sometimes I’ll be upstairs, on a quiet weekend afternoon, and I’ll peek in and see her there, laying on her floor, propped up on her elbows, reading them. Get to the end, put it back neatly, reach in and pick up the next one. The good news is, you don’t need to have a gift-dispensing mom who doubles as an obsessive family archivist to give this stuff a shot; old comics are practically what ebay was made for. They’re not hard to find — but even if they were, they’d be worth it. – Andy

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Holiday Gift Guide 2012

December 5th, 2012 · 90 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Welcome to Our Second Annual Family Holiday Gift Guide. And by that, we of course mean gifts for New Moms, New Dads, Seasoned Moms, Seasoned Dads, Little Ones, Big Ones, Babysitters, Carpool Helpers, School Teachers, Cello Teachers, Art Teachers, the Nice Guy Who Brews You a Badass Cup of Coffee Every Morning…and even YOU! Read carefully and you’ll see what we mean.

English Premier League Christmas Ornaments ($10 for 3-pack). You could never accuse this family of rooting for the underdog. Last year, after Chelsea won the UEFA championship — establishing it as the best club team in Europe — our resident diehard Manchester United fans began to… waver. Phoebe started wearing her Wayne Rooney jersey a little less proudly, Abby started asking to watch Drogba highlights on YouTube, and six months later, I guess you could say we’re a full-on Chelsea household now. (Like the weather, this will change again soon.) We’re making the most of it while it lasts, though, and even bought a set of these for our pals Mike and Sara up in Portland, Maine, whose three kids are true blue Chelsea fans, through-and-through. Hang these with pride, my friends. — Andy

French Press (Le Creuset, $60). When I showed this to Jenny the other day, she said, “Do you want one?” And the answer was, “Yes and no.” Yes, I want one because it’s so cool looking and I love Le Creuset and am an inveterate coffee addict; and no, I don’t want one, because we have a French press already and I can’t really justify spending money for another one. But I am going to buy it for a friend or relative who loves coffee and I am going to secretly look forward to the day when our current, perfectly functional — functional: therein lies the problem — french press, I don’t know, maybe falls off the counter and shatters or is gravely wounded in the dishwasher. At which point: Yes. I want one. In cherry (pictured above). – Andy

Animal Stacking Game (Haba, $20). When the girls were little, playing board games with them was always one of those milestones I was excited to hit. Until we hit it…and I found myself spending long swaths of winter afternoons wandering through Gumdrop Mountains and Peppermint Forest, dying the slow painful death that is CandyLand. (Let’s not even discuss Pretty Pretty Princess.) But when this stacking game came into my life, things changed. Though still simple enough for 3-year-olds (you take turns stacking animals until it tumbles over), I found it to be actually calming, plus it didn’t take up an entire shelf in the toy “closet” (read: floor), it exercised my kids’ (and my) as-yet-developed patience muscles, and was the game that promised brighter skies of Monopoly, Mancala, and Apples to Apples ahead. (PS: And this was a major hit with my puzzle-minded 5-year-old nephew.) –Jenny

McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil ($24 for 375 ml — about 12 ounces) When I strike it rich with this blog that I write for free, no Porsches for me. Just garages filled with cases and cases of this olive oil, made in Petaluma, California and renowned for its bright, peppery finish. There is olive oil for browning your chicken breasts and tossing with your potatoes before roasting; there is olive oil that you use sparingly, to whisk into vinaigrettes or drizzle atop soups and pastas. And then there is McEvoy Ranch. Which is not only all that, but also the perfect  gift for your party host or daughter’s piano teacher or friend or person you like very much, who knows a little something about the finer things. I’ve only ever used the traditional blend, but I can’t imagine you could go wrong with their Olio Nuovo, made from just-harvested olives, or anything else they sell for that matter. –Jenny

Pure Komachi Chef’s Knife ($10). We own a fleet of Wusthof knives that have served us well since we registered for them fifteen years ago. We have some wood-handled Forschners that our Uncle Mike gave us which, in a matter of seconds, can render a head of cabbage helpless. Last year, for Christmas I bought Andy a New West Knifeworks Fusionwood 8-incher, and when he first removed the thing from its red leather sheath, he looked like a Samurai warrior. In other words, we are pretty well-endowed in the blade department. Which is why it’s all the more strange that when I’m about to embark on chop-heavy meal prep, I get thoroughly depressed if my six-and-a-half-inch Pure Komachi carbon stainless steel chef’s knife, which we picked up a year ago as an impulse buy for TEN BUCKS, is in the dishwasher — or, more likely, has been co-opted by Andy. The Komachi — light, sharp, and seemingly molded to the exact specifications of my right hand — came in fun colors like pink, (more…)

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The Importance of Being Empathetic

October 2nd, 2012 · 25 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Favorites, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

Part of the joy of working with writers who are smarter and more knowledgable than you is that you learn stuff. They do the research and make sense of the material and then you get to absorb it, process it, and then go to dinner parties and act like you know what you’re talking about. I’ve just finished editing a book about bullying by the amazing journalist and Slate gabfest fixture Emily Bazelon – and, obviously, being the parents of two girls, this is a topic Jenny and I spend time thinking about. Emily’s book – Sticks and Stones, out in February — is about the phenomenon in general, how it works and why it happens and what can be done to alleviate it. One of the words that comes up in the book over and over again is empathy, in that it is a crucial trait for kids to possess – or learn, as the case may be – if we are to make strides in making kids less mean, and more forgiving. Since October is officially “Bullying Prevention Month,” and since our kids, for some reason, have been reading in and around this subject area a lot lately, I thought we’d highilght three books that help instill some empathy and might lead to some fruitful dinner table discussions on the idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes — always a good thing to think about. Apart from the subject matter, they also happen to be really excellent books. I now hand the mic to Abby and Phoebe. — Andy

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What it’s about: ”A boy named August (they call him Auggie) who has a deformity on his face. I know that doesn’t sound nice, but his ears look like tiny fists and his eyes are too low and he has no eyebrows or eyelashes. I don’t know how to explain him. Auggie has been home-schooled until his parents decide that it’s time to send him to a real school, Beecher Prep, and Auggie is resistant at first. He’s afraid. But when his parents tell him that the principal’s name is Mr. Tushman, Auggie laughs and decides to go. The rest of the book is about his year at school and how he manages to survive bullies, ‘the plague’ — which is a mean game, kind of like cooties — and a jerk named Julian.”

The moment that hurts the heart: “When Auggie overhears his friend Jack saying bad things about him. Jack tells Julian that he had pretended to be friends with Auggie, and Auggie didn’t know that. Auggie overhears this and goes on the staircase and just starts crying. He trusted Jack and thought that he didn’t care about how he looked. When you read it, you can feel how sad he must be.”

The lesson it teaches: “Looks can be deceiving.”

Phoebe score: 10. “One of the best books I’ve ever read.”

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

What it’s about: “A girl named Melody who has cerebral palsy and is incredibly smart. I think she’s twelve. The thing is, she can’t speak because of the cerebral palsy, and so people misjudge her. A lot. She has one friend, beside her aide, named Rose. Rose believes in her and one day, Melody gets a special computer that allows her to finally communicate. When she types in a word, the computer says it out loud, so it’s like she can talk. This helps her prove that may be different, but she’s not stupid. This book is enough to make people cry.”

The moment that hurts the heart: “Melody’s school has a team of these super smart kids who go to compete against other schools in a trivia game that is on tv. Melody is on this team. One time, the team had to go to Washington to compete and Melody was a little bit late and they left her behind. One student thought that she wasn’t as important as the others. This made her realize again that, no matter what, people would always think of her as different.”

The lesson it teaches: After Phoebe read this book, she sent Sharon Draper an email. This is what it said:

Dear Ms.Draper, 

I read Out Of My Mind on Thanksgiving weekend. I think that if everybody had a copy of that book, it would change the world. It completely changed the way I looked at people that have cerebral palsy and autism. Do you know any body with cerebral palsy? Did you write the book to make people look at people with cerebral palsy and autism differently?

That night, Sharon wrote back, and this is what she said:

Dear Phoebe, 

Thanks so much for your kind letter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed Out of my Mind.  That book is very special to me. I tried very hard to capture the essence of what it means to be different. Melody is a song to me that will forever sing. Yes, I know lots of people with disabilities, and I hope the book helps people see them as real people.

Phoebe score: 9. “Soooo close to a 10, but not quite as good as Wonder. Still, a great book for people who want to look inside somebody’s mind.”

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff

What it’s about: ”It’s about a boy named Georgie who has something called dwarfism, and what happens in his life. It’s not a book that has a lot of action, but it still makes you want to read on and read on and read on. A lot of the chapters end on cliffhangers and it makes you really think about how different people are in this world. This book is about friendship, too — and how it’s hard for kids like Georgie to find friends because people make fun of him for his height and the way he looks.”

The moment that hurts the heart: ”When you hear about all the times people stare at Georgie and make fun of him just because of how he looks. One time, he’s knocking on a door and a car drives past and the man in the car stares — like, eyes wide open — and I can imagine how hard it would be to deal with that every single day.”

The lesson it teaches: ”Everyone, no matter how they look or how they act, is always the same as you on the inside.”

Abby score: 10. “Ten. Ten!”

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School Year’s Resolution 3: No iPhone at the Restaurant Table

September 27th, 2012 · 41 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Dear Jenny,

Any insight on how to enjoy a restaurant meal with a three year old that doesn’t involve handing over the iPhone? The coloring book is kind of wearing off–and a few weeks ago my family went out for my bday dinner which kinda felt like a flush of $75 down the toilet because we spent most of the dinner telling her to stop standing up on the (red velvet) banquette and eavesdropping on nearby diners. I feel like if we were to hand over our phone, she would be so happily engaged, but then the seal would be broken, and she would ask for the phone all the time — not just at restaurants but anytime anywhere —  and whine for it, and then it would just become that process of saying no all the time. So in a way, I’d rather stay in or have the lame dinner with her than initiate a daily (hourly?) nagging moment, Can I play with your phone?  What do you do? What do your readers do? Is it, as I imagine, a better investment of $150 to dine out and hire a sitter than drop $75 and bring the daughter?


Dear Rory,

I feel for you. I mean, what’s the point of going out to dinner if it means either a) being ignored by your children or b) yelling at them. Unlike many claims we’ve made about parenting before we actually became parents (my favorite: “We will never be a slave to the nap”) we’ve somehow managed to stick with a No-Electronics-at-the-Restaurant policy. In large part this was because early on we discovered that the attention span for one of those little Dover sticker books seemed to correlate almost exactly to the amount of time it takes for a plate of popcorn shrimp to be prepared.  The books come in all themes — firehouse, zoo, airport, bakery — and for my daughters are almost like portable doll houses. I used to buy them by the bucket load and just kept one or two in my bag to pull out as needed. I have other friends who swear number puzzles (where kids match the number on the stickers to numbers on the grid to piece together a puzzle) do the job just as well. But either way, in my experience, the most important thing to remember when rolling out an activity in these kinds of situations is to make it a surprise. I always found that the novelty and the newness of the item is what buys us extra time. That and the imaginary goodwill I am convinced it fosters — Mom, you were so nice to get me a present that I think I’ll behave for the rest of the meal. (If anyone out there has a solution that doesn’t involve bribery, please enlighten.)

Now, I have yet to try these out on the pre-K segment of the population, but my guess is that many young diners would be thrilled to show up at the local Tex-Mex to find one of Marion Deuchars‘ placemats set before them. You know her, right? Well you probably know her even if you don’t know her. She’s the world-famous illustrator whose sketches and handwriting help give Jamie Oliver cookbooks so much of their warmth and homespun appeal. A few years ago, she delighted design nerds the world over when she entered the genre of the oversize, design-minded Doodle Books for kids. Well, anyway, we are all in luck because Deuchars’ latest book in this genre is geared towards the dining population and it’s called Let’s Make Great Placemat Art.  To get an idea of how different and cool it is (no wordsearch and mazes here), check out a few samples below. Stick the pad in your bag before you go out to dinner (you can rip one off at a time) and I’m betting all the diners at the table end up happy.

I might also add that the book costs decidedly less than a babysitter.




PS:  Marion Deuchars was nice enough to offer a free downloadable placemat exclusively to DALS readers. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

PPS. I have some fun giveaways coming up on facebook, so be sure to follow me there if you want in on the action.

This is part of the School Year’s Resolution Series. Please click here for Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and here for Resolution 2 (Master the Weekly Shop). And feel free to request some advice about your own resolutions — jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com. If you have questions for Andy, just let me know and I will forward on to him. 

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Bringing it All Back Home

August 9th, 2012 · 13 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy

Every time we visit my parents, my mom begs me to go through the boxes of my old junk that are cluttering up her (immaculate) basement. She’s entering that phase of life, I guess, when things are cast off and simplified, when you have to get a little brutal about all your stuff — what’s essential and what’s not. ”What am I going to do with this?” is the question she keeps asking and for which I have no good answer. Last time we visited, in July, I finally gave in. I took an hour and sifted through the old books, making piles of what could be tossed, what could be donated to the library, and what would come back home with me, to molder in my own (not immaculate) basement until the cycle repeated itself somewhere down the line. One thing, however, became clear as I went: my mom wasn’t quite as ready to let go as she’d led me to believe. Turns out, stuff is more than just stuff, and it’s not so easy to kiss it goodbye. A sample exchange:

Giants in the Earth?”


“Are you sure?”


“You don’t want that one?”


“Awwwww, really? You loved that book.”

“Yeah, but — ”

Actually removing the book from of the donate bag, and setting it aside: “Maybe I’ll keep it, just in case. You’ll want it one day.”

After the books, I moved on to the other pile she wanted me to deal with: records. At one point, my mulleted and guitar-playing older brother and I had a fairly massive amount of records but, gradually, as we purged over the years, that collection had been boiled down to the 100 or so albums that now sat on her plastic shelving unit, to the right of the sump pump and just behind the treadmill. I started digging through. Books are great and all, and they served me well, but this is the stuff that will kill you dead. Lot of memories come swirling up out of this mess, wow. Some Girls. Free to Be You and Me. Harvest. Live at Leeds. Greetings from Asbury Park. Loudon Wainwright III. The Smiths. The Muppet Movie. Songs in the Key of Life. Blonde on Blonde. The Police. Pleased to Meet Me. Briging it All Back Home. Simon and (Ugh) Garfunkel. The Cars. The Del Fuegos (?). Loverboy (!). The White Album. The Clash. Judas F’n Priest (who, by the way, I saw live at the Capital Center in 1985). And Elton John. God, so much Elton John. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh: To this day, I will argue the greatness of early Elton John — Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Honkey Chateau, Captain Fantastic. It was all there, in extremely poor condition, scarred by the hasty needle drops of impatient eleven year old boys. I’m not the first one to say it, but these days — when music is a literal abstraction, hovering somewhere above our house within a cloud I can never figure out how to access without Jenny’s help – there’s something deeply pleasing about vinyl. Most of these albums, I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. It’s enough to make a man nostalgic, and to make a nostalgic man even more nostalgic than his usual nostalgic self. I set aside a stack of about twenty I wanted for myself, and left the rest for my brother to grapple with later.

There was a problem: The last time I owned a turntable, I hadn’t shaved yet. In fact, my buddy Todd (he of the minty pea dip, a DALS classic) had been on me for months to man up and buy one already, as he’d bought one for himself and had been touting its restorative powers. And it was true, one had to admit: it did sound good. It took you back. When we got home from my parents’ — our trunk loaded with our new-old stuff – I went on amazon and bought a beautiful little portable turntable, which arrived three days later, and which has spent the last month perched on the edge of our kitchen counter, rocking us through our dinner preparations. The kids have picked up right where I left off — doing wince-inducing damage with their horrific needlework — and we’ve torn through all the old favorites. And, yes, Abby has fallen for “Crocodile Rock,” just like I did when I was her age. Not my favorite, but just for the sound of that crackle when the needle hits the vinyl, it’s worth it. That’s a pain I can endure. – Andy

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Soccer Mom Conundrums, Solved

July 30th, 2012 · 4 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

You may have gathered by now that the only thing we like more than grilling up a big ol’ leg of lamb or writing about grilling that big ol’ leg of lamb is watching our daughters play soccer. I remember when they were young, other parents who had a few years on us, warned once soccer kicks in, you can kiss your weekends goodbye. The sad truth is that even though our friends are probably sick of us giving our one-word excuse for why we can’t go to the barbecue or the birthday party (“soccer”), and even though we had to cancel our Memorial Day vacation plans this year for a tournament (first place, plus a winning goal scored on a breakaway, ahem), I’m not sure what else I’d rather be doing on a Saturday than sitting in my fold-out chair, chatting with parents, and cheering for a fleet of pony-tailed girls who have come to be some of my daughters’ closest friends. (I ask you: Is there anything in the world better than a pony-tailed girl in an oversized soccer uniform?)

But sometimes I wonder if I’m a little nuts. Like when I wake up on the first Saturday of the summer without soccer in the schedule and feel bereft. Or when I go to bed at night thinking about how we can get our 50-pound center midfielder to shoot with more power. Or when I watch the US women’s Olympic team (soccer or otherwise) and think, if I ran a few more miles each week, maybe, just maybe, I could make the 2016 Games? It’s desperate times like these when I’m grateful to have Coach Andy to talk to.  Coach Andy – not to be confused with my Andy, aka First Place Loser Andy – is Andrea Montalbano, my 8-year-old’s soccer coach, and mother of two soccer stars herself.  She started playing when she was eight, went on to four years of Division 1 ball at Harvard, then, as a producer on the Today show, covered, among other things, the 1999 US Women’s National Championship. But best of all, she’s written a bunch of soccer books for girls that Phoebe loves maybe even more than her Man U T-shirt. You’ve already heard about Breakaway, and now, in time for the Olympics, comes Lily Out of Bounds, the first in her series called Soccer Sisters. (2013 Update: Volume 2, Vee Caught Offside, has been released!) In other words, Coach Andy knows a little something about soccer and soccer parents. I thought she might be able to answer a few of my burning questions.

First off, tell me about your book. What does it mean to be a Soccer Sister and how can my daughter become one because it sounds really cool?

AM: A soccer sister is a friend who plays with you, win or lose, who always has your back, who laughs at your worst jokes, who will pick you up and dust you off. The friend who will love you just the same – even if you really blow it.  It actually doesn’t have to be soccer, but really any friend who “gets” you. In the book, 13-year-old soccer star Lily and her teammates live and play by a “Code” for Soccer Sisters and the book is about her struggling to stay true to this code.

Speaking of Codes of Conduct, how does a parent talk to their kid’s coach about getting more playing time or trying out a new position without coming off as a total creep?

AM: Well first off, I absolutely think that parents should talk to coaches but if parents are telling the coach what the players want too often, then it’s a sign that the players don’t have right relationship with their coach. But when kids are too young to speak up for themselves, I think the worst possible time to talk about that kind of thing is right before or right after the game when everyone’s emotions are unusually high. Practice is the place to do it. If you come up to me before practice and ask, “Can Abby try playing center half?” usually I’ll say “sure!” then figure out a way to take it into game plan. But if you do it before a game it’s harder. You don’t want to insert a little unhappiness into the pre- or post-game.

You started playing when you were eight. What pushed you to play competitively and keep playing competitively? Did you have Tiger parents?

AM: They were the opposite of tiger parents. They were supportive but never really had much to do with soccer. My father lived on another continent and my mother worked full time. Until I could drive, I was always reliant on other parents or teammates to drive me to practice and games. I started playing when I was 8 and things got really busy when I was 15 or 16. I was taking AP classes, sometimes playing on three teams at one time, driving an hour each way to practice (more…)

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A Tale of Two Nightstands

July 9th, 2012 · 14 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

Seven or eight years ago, I resolved to be better about my non-work reading. I made a list of books I either (a) felt ashamed I’d never read, or (b) hadn’t read once, so long ago, they were practically lost to me now. Books like Don Quixote, The Idiot, Jude the Obscure, Dead Souls, Herzog, My Antonia, The Sound and the Fury. I bought them all and stacked them, neatly, on my nightstand. That was one ambitious pile of paper, and I couldn’t wait to get started. I could almost feel my brain expanding. It’s not worth making excuses here — though, okay, if you insist: work, kids, life, that second glass of wine, this effing blog — but I ended up reading only one of those books, The Sound and the Fury. The rest of the stack sat there untouched for what seemed like forever, accumulating dust, menacing me every night before bed, reminding me of my failure. I finally relegated it to a box in the basement. Pathetic, I know. I didn’t used to be this way. I used to be better. I used to find time for pleasure reading. I used to be more like my kids. I can’t tell you how much vicarious happiness I get now from watching them burn through books, how I envy their undistracted minds. Jenny emailed me the above picture last week of Abby, folded into her little red rocking chair, reading Coraline — which she’d been eyeing nervously for a couple of years, not sure if she was ready for it, having been warned of its deep freakiness by her older sister. Well, she finally took the plunge and knocked it out in one afternoon and then spent the next two days telling me, at great length, every detail of its plot and why it was so good. (Her full review is below.) Phoebe, too: when school ends, a switch is thrown and she goes into overdrive. The week after school ended and before camp started — a rare stretch of five totally unscheduled days — she sat on her floor and read for five hours straight, stopping only because, as she told Jenny after staggering downstairs, she couldn’t “stop her eyes from moving from left to right.” Last weekend, when Phoebe and I were out on one of our long Saturday runs/bike rides, we hit the four mile mark, made the turn to head back, paused for a second, and drank some of her juice box. “Okay,” I said, “we’re half-way there. Homeward bound.” And she said, “Yup, there’s no place like home. Except for maybe the library.” I loved, and envied, that. — Andy

Wonderland by Tommy Kovac, illustrated by Sonny Liew

In a nutshell: “This one is based on Alice in Wonderland. It’s about a girl who is a housemaid for the White Rabbit. Her name is Mary Ann. Her master rabbit is falsely accused of being, like, what’s that word for becoming an ally? Like, joining forces? [Conspiring?] Yeah, the rabbit is accused of conspiring with Alice to overthrow the Queen of Hearts. I don’t want to give the rest away.”

For people who like: “Ummm, books that are, like, a little different from the original. It’s an old story, told in a new way, with a character you’ve never met. She’s cool.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “The artwork. Every page is so beautiful to look at. It’s by the same artists who did the Wizard of Oz graphic novels, so it has that sketchy, kind of spooky feel to it.”

The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

In a nutshell: ”In the beginning, a narrator is speaking about how he sees this bat, always hanging on his house. Then the bat leaves his family to be a poet and the story, interestingly, switches the narrator to the bat’s voice. Every night, the bat listens to a mockingbird sing poetry and he likes the idea of that. So he starts writing his own poetry that he can sing. He shows it to the mockingbird and the mockingbird approves of it, but gives him a couple suggestions. Soon he meets a chipmunk and the chipmunk is much nicer. Every time the bat writes a poem, he reads it to the chipmunk. This story is simple, not action-packed, but heartfelt.”

For people who like: ”Books that don’t have a big problem or a fancy plot, such as The Mouse of Amherst, The Islander, or Cat Wings.”

The thing Abby loves best about it: ”Two things: First of all, the pictures are exceptional. We all know that Maurice Sendak will be a legend forever. Second thing is that the book, you don’t just read words. You image every single simile and sentence, even every word you can see in your head.”

The Baby-Sitters Club (Nos. 1-3), graphic adaptations by Raina Telgemeier

In a nutshell: “This series is about a group of friends with really different personalities that form a babyistting club together. While they’re babysitting, crazy things always happen. Like, a girl catches a fever of 104 and no neighbors answer when the babysitter goes looking for help. Then another group of kids copies their idea for a club, but they turn out to be horrible babysitters who don’t show up for their jobs and things like that, and the real babysitter’s club has to stop them.”

For people who like:Smile, which another one of Raina Telgemeier’s books, and the original Babysitter’s Club chapter books. Basically, these books are way more interesting than they sound. They’re about kids with average, everyday lives, and that can be fun to read about.”

The thing Phoebe loves best about it: “How they always seem to conquer their problems, no matter how tricky. I also love that these are graphic versions of the original books, because graphic novels are my favorite things to read.”

The Great Cheese Conspiracy by Jean Van Leeuwen*

In a nutshell: “This book is about three mice, all different. These mice are frantic for cheese, like every other mouse in the world. They live in a movie theater, and they get bored of eating only popcorn. So soon, a new store called The Cheese Barrel opens up in town. It sells three things: cheese, cheese, and cheese. This is just a mouse’s most favorite destined dream. They go undercover to break into the store and steal the cheese. If you want to know more, read it.” (more…)

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Friday Reading

May 18th, 2012 · 9 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

The mail came just as I was leaving to pick up the girls at school. Catalog, catalog, bill, catalog, bill…Hey! A PACKAGE addressed to me! Inside was A Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy. I knew it was coming — Chris was Cookie magazine’s main childrens’ book reviewer and I worked closely with him and Myles McDonnell (of the great blog You Know for Kids) on that section month after month. But, as Myles wrote, if we knew how good he’d be at writing adventure novels for kids, we would have encouraged him to miss a few deadlines and start sooner! I strategically placed Hero’s Guide in between two car seats in the back of the Mazda and drove off to school. It took about three seconds for 10-year-old Phoebe to discover the book, and once she did, that was it. All attempts to find out how her social studies test went that day: GONE. Ballet class that afternoon, something she usually enjoys? Merely something to endure to get back to reading. Which she did all the way home in the car, nose about one inch from book because the sun had set and she had no light, and for the next 24 waking hours straight. All 448 pages of the book were dispatched by bedtime the following night. The book tells the story of the four fairy tale princes who are often lumped together with the generic moniker “Prince Charming” and who are, it turns out, resentful about this. In Phoebe’s words “You’d never expect the princes to be this interesting because they’re usually the most boring characters in the Princess books!” Myles goes into more detail about the plot on his site but the underlying premise is all you really need to know to be hooked: When Prince Gustav, Liam, Frederic, and Duncan (yes, they have real names!) find their kingdoms are endangered, they set about on a joint adventure to establish themselves as real heroes — battling trolls and witches and…their wives, the princesses themselves. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the birthday gift for all my daughters’ friends for the next two years.

What else is going on? A Friday round-up:

This could be the next VIP on my quick weeknight dinner circuit.

How Not to Read Aloud to Your Kids.

Do you guys know this site, Kids in Mind? You type in any movie and it gives you a very clinical play-by-play of anything that could possibly be inappropriate for your kid. It doesn’t editorialize at all. It just presents the facts. I’ve been relying on it heavily.

How much do I love a good leaving-the-rat-race story…especially when a dairy farm is involved? A lot.

Healthy Hot Dogs in time for Memorial Day grilling. Or…for dinner tonight actually.

I’m really late to the party on this, but I can’t believe Alec Baldwin has his own podcast on WNYC! (Just when I thought I couldn’t love him more.) I just listened to his interview with Kristen Wiig while I was running and it made the usually brutal three miles fly by.

A quote from Daily Show most senior correspondent Samantha Bee made my year: This book…”gives me hope that one day my family will also assemble around an actual table and eat an actual meal that was actually cooked by me; a meal not solely comprised of animal shaped cheese crackers dipped in peanut butter. Although those are good too.” Don’t you think you need to own the book she’s talking about?

Andy: Close your eyes. Everyone else: Some version of these will be gifted on Father’s Day or Birthday or for our Anniversary or maybe even all three.

Rules to Help Avoid Dressing Like Your Kids, by one of my favorite writers Sally Schultheiss. (I’m guilty of almost all the offenses.)

In honor of what would’ve been Julia Child’s 100th birthday: A biography of the master (with recipes) geared towards children. (I’d say it’s always a good sign when a kids’ cookbook is compared to Fanny at Chez Panisse.)

And look what nice little thing popped up on my Shelf Awareness newsletter this week. Click on the banner to check out their giveaway.

Lastly, if you’re following me on Twitter and have something nice to say about the book, please use #dalsbook so I can find it and thank you.

Have a great weekend!

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Reading List: Shaun Tan

May 3rd, 2012 · 11 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

I was driving Phoebe to school on Wednesday morning – she had to be at her desk by 7:30 for a field trip to Ellis Island or else – when I told her that Shaun Tan had sent us a guest post about his formative books for kids. What do you want me to tell people about Shaun’s books, I asked her. What should they know?

His pictures have a lot of feeling, she said.

Okay, I said. But what do they make you feel?

I think about them when I’m daydreaming, she said. Can you stop asking me questions now?

If you got a copy of 121 Books last week — the little book that Jenny and I gave away here last week — you might have seen Shaun’s book, Tales From Outer Suburbia, sitting there at #91. What you didn’t see was what the book actually looks like. I’ll start with the cover, which is as evocative and alluring an image as I can recall on the cover of a book. I remember seeing a review of this one in the New York Times Book Review a few years ago and looking at that cover, and thinking: I want to climb inside that book. And once you do, a similarly strange, exquisite, odd, absurd, whimsical, mysterious world awaits. Tales From Outer Suburbia is a collection of stories about, well, about a lot of things, including: a stoic water buffalo who lives in a vacant lot; a tiny stick figure-ish, possibly alien foreign exchange student who sleeps in a teacup and asks to be called, perfectly, Eric; two brothers who argue over whether the earth simply ends at the edge of the map, and then set out on a journey to find out who’s right; and a story with the stunningly great title, “Broken Toys,” that contains the following two stunningly great sentences: “Well, we’d certainly seen crazy people before — ‘shell-shocked by life’ as you once put it. But something pretty strange must have happened to this guy to make him wander about in a spacesuit on a dead-quiet public holiday.” How do you not want to read that?

Anyway, if you want to see what Phoebe was talking about re: the emotional punch — the feeling — of Shaun’s art, check out some of his work. He did a wordless book, The Arrival, whose soulful beauty kind of defies description. He did a picture book, The Lost Thing, which he then turned into a fifteen minute short film, which then won a little known prize called AN ACADEMY FREAKING AWARD. (You can see it here.) The pleasure of having someone this talented on Dinner: A Love Story never gets old — for us, at least — and I hope you enjoy Shaun’s recommendations. What I love, in particular, is that Shaun – being an Australian, and an artist — has so many books below that I’d never heard of, and have now ordered. That, and I also love his use of the word “carnage.” Enjoy. — Andy

I should begin this list with an early “mistake” made by my mother when it came to bedtime reading. She herself did not grow up in a literary household: in fact, as a kid, I was fascinated by the sheer absence of books, or even paper and pencils, in my grandparents’ house – books just weren’t part of their world. Perhaps for this reason, our Mum felt her own children should be exposed to as many books as possible, but at the same time was not guided by (a) experience, or (b) the kinds of lists you find on websites like this. If it looked vaguely interesting, Mum would read it to my brother and me at bedtime. One such title, read to us when I was 7 or 8, was an apparently charming fairytale by some guy named George Orwell: “Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes…”

We were all hooked (and, frankly, a bit unsettled) from the outset, so there was no turning back. My brother and I looked forward to each progressively disturbing chapter: conniving pigs, brainwashed sheep, a horse carted off to something called a “knackers” – poor Mum, having to field all of our questions. I asked her recently about this, and she remembers being increasingly anxious about how the story “might affect your young minds” – yet we voted to keep going (bedtime reading should always be democratic). Of course, the book ends with the pigs celebrating their triumphant depravity, and Mum was very worried about that. As for me, I just thought it was terrific. And it was no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school every day, with our occasionally cruel kids and less-than-perfect teachers – I thought Orwell was right on the money. I’d never thought about a story so much after it was read. From then on, I began to appreciate unresolved endings, and to grow tired of the less-convincing, moralizing stuff that kids were being fed in suburban Australia, where I grew up. I realized books weren’t just for entertainment, that they could say something. Animal Farm – along with Watership Down and Gulliver’s Travels –profoundly influenced my development as an author and illustrator. Most specifically, The Rabbits, an allegory about colonization written by John Marsden and illustrated by me. That was quite a controversial book when it was published — and was even banned in some Australian schools – yet very young children seem to enjoy and understand it quite deeply; they grasp, somehow, the hidden optimism that adults often miss. That continues to surprise and delight me, the ability of children to find silver linings in grim stories.

I don’t have children, and don’t specifically write/paint for them. Maybe that’s why kids like my work! I just think of them as smallish people who are smart and creative, and honest in their opinions. So when I think about what makes a great children’s book, I tend to think of books that achieve universality, the widest possible readership – books that appeal to us, from toddlers to geriatrics, in a primal way, and can be understood on many different levels. Picture books are particularly great for this, because they’re concise and easily re-read; they often invent their own narrative grammar, as if you are learning how to read all over again.

My interest in picture books only came about later, as an adult artist, as I was moving from painting into commercial illustration and looking for interesting work. The book that really got me interested in picture books — professionally, I mean, in that “Hmmm, I’d really love to do something like that one day” kind of way –was A Fish in the Sky, written by George Mendoza and illustrated by Milton Glaser. (Even if you don’t know Glaser’s work, you almost certainly do. He’s a legendary (more…)

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