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

Semi-Homemade Valentines

February 13th, 2012 · 9 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Those of you who follow me on Twitter knew we were up to this yesterday — semi-homemade Valentine’s Day cards. Last year, the gifted and talented Brooke Reynolds of inchmark, provided a PDF for templates of half-drawn portraits — the kids color in details, such as eyes, freckles, glasses, hair — and I’ve been looking forward to handing them off to the girls ever since. (You may remember Brooke — she was the design genius behind the supremely popular DALS post “Rules of Dinner.”) If you’re scrambling to put together the classroom cards tonight, I promise you this will take you less time than it would to get in the car, drive to CVS, then address and stuff the storebought cards. And the kids will have fun doing it. We even made one for the dog.

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The Importance of Routine

February 1st, 2012 · 24 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

I was having drinks with a few local friends last year when one of them, the mother of a newborn (her first), leaned across the martinis and whispered to me “How come everyone says it goes so fast? I just find it to be the EXACT opposite.” Her face was awash in guilt as soon as she sent these words out there, and quickly hedged. “Oh my God! Is that a horrible thing to think? It’s not like I feel that way all the time.” I was shocked by the statement too — not because she was confessing to what every parent thinks at one point or another, especially during the particular points when the baby is not sleeping — but because she was asking me for advice. How was I suddenly the veteran with a third and fourth grader who had advice to dispense on parenting? What the…? Damn, that went fast!

I told her what I believe to be 100% true: Everything changes when the baby, and therefore the baby’s parents are sleeping. Until then, you can’t be expected to remember where you put your car keys, let alone think straight about the great cosmic meaning of children and happiness. Then I told her my theory about sleeping which I also believe to be 100% true, but might have a harder time backing up with, you know, JAMA studies: Every parent has to deal with one of three sleep handicaps:

  • Handicap 1: The baby/toddler will torture you for hours at bedtime before finally shutting his or her eyes.
  • Handicap 2: The baby/toddler wakes up in the middle of the night for long stretches, during which time you feel like the loneliest person on earth.
  • Handicap 3: The baby/toddler rises before the sun and you are forced to function before you’ve had a cup of coffee.

Each handicap carries its own particular set of tortures, but in my experience, it seems rare that a parent has to deal with two or three at once. (I can already hear the emails of dissent pinging in my inbox.) As we’ve mentioned several million times on this blog, our sleep handicap was always the morning. No matter what we did, for the longest time, we could not figure out a way to get Abby to sleep past 5:30. (How I dreamed of the sevens!) But then we’d go to a friend’s house for dinner and we’d all be eating dessert at 10:00 while their 3-year-old would dart in and of the bedroom every 15 minutes, burying his sleepy bedhead in mom’s lap, until finally his parents, through gritted teeth, would just give up and invite him to join us for a piece of pie.

Our first pediatrician told me that kids crave routines. I like to think this is a fact that one might even find in JAMA. I also like to think that we were so Draconian about our evening routine early on that this is what made it impossible for our daughters to suffer from handicap number 1. Even though we weren’t necessarily eating dinner with them when they were that little, we were always sitting with them. There was always some form of after-dinner event (as full-time working parents, this was the half hour when we attempted to cram in all the “quality time” we felt we missed during the day), then bath, bedtime story, and finally, lights out. On the weekends, we’d let them “watch a movie” (a 10-minute Pixar short; today it’s more like The Danish Poet*, above) because what’s the point of having a routine if you can’t break it every now and then?

As for how to solve handicaps 2 and 3? What do you think I’m some sort of veteran? How should I know?

*Which contains the immortal line: “Kaspar became living proof that some poets are better off happy than sad.”

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Early Mornings with Abby (and William Steig)

January 12th, 2012 · 31 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy

For the first four, maybe five, years of Abby’s life, she would wake up at 5:45 in the morning, leap out of bed, throw her door open and sprint down the hall — bump, bump, bump, bump, bump — and into our bedroom. Depending on who was on Morning Duty that day, Jenny or I would hoist ourselves out of bed, take Abby by the hand, and stagger back to her room to (a) organize her Playmobil farm, (b) play Dora “Chutes and Ladders” while fighting off waves of despair, or (c) read a pile of books on the floor. In the winter months, when you had an hour and a half to fill before the sun came up, this was tough duty. I know how this will sound to all the early risers out there, but this was some existential stuff. Anyway, most of the time, I took Option C, books. The problem is, you can read a lot of kid books in an hour, and if you choose wrong — if you get pushed into the wrong groove — you can be in for a world of hurt. In particular, I remember struggling through Amelia Bedelia and a series of Backyardigans books — really, any TV show spinoff was a serious soul-killer. Cutesy books, with cutesy alliterative characters — Randy the Rooster, Francie the Fairything, Harry the… Holy Momma, those were some dark days. But they were also some good days. Because really, when you locked in on the good ones, and Abby would sit there in your lap for an hour, turning pages and listening to you read: you’d have to have a stone for a heart to complain about that. And as for what qualified as good, in the pitch dark, before coffee? The books that made us laugh (thank you, Paper Bag Princess), that were about things (The Red Balloon, which I will write about someday on this blog), books that gave kids credit for having a brain and being able to understand questions of longing and love and worry and beauty, books that explored what, even for adults, qualifies as mysterious or unknowable. And, to my mind, the writer that most consistently hit those marks? William Steig. I know, duh. We’re not breaking news here, but William Steig was one of those guys who could talk to adults and to kids at the same time, with one voice, which is a rare quality indeed. I literally wore Sylvester and the Magic Pebble out, read it so many times, it just fell apart. And, later, when the kids were in first and second grade, Steig was a favorite when we would go in and read to the class — the perfect length, a few good laughs along the way, a moment or two where a kid might think, Yup, the world is a lot bigger than I know. Anyway, here are a few of our favorites*, but I’m sure you have yours, too. I miss these books. I kind of miss the early mornings, too. – Andy

*You won’t find Shrek here, but that’s only because the movie ruined it for me.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969)

CliffsNotes version: Mama’s boy donkey named Sylvester Duncan (how great is that name?) collects pebbles. One day, he finds a magic one: when you hold it and make a wish, the wish comes true. Not being dumb, he immediately sees the potential for good in this, wants to take it home to show his parents. Sees a lion on way home and, freaked and scared of being eaten alive, wishes he was a rock. Turns into rock. Unable to touch magic pebble and wish to be a donkey again, he sits there, inert: a rock. His distraught parents go looking for him. They look for him for a year. Parents eventually go for a walk and have a picnic on him. They find the pebble, place it on the rock, and Sylvester is reborn.

Favorite little moment: “The sun was shining as if rain had never existed.”

Favorite passage: “Mr. Duncan walked aimlessly about while Mrs. Duncan set out the picnic food on the rock — alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafras salad, timothy compote. Suddenly Mr. Duncan saw the red pebble. ‘What a fantastic pebble!’ he exclaimed. ‘Sylvester would have loved it for his collection.’ He put the pebble on the rock. They sat down to eat. Sylvester was now as wide awake as a donkey that was a rock could possibly be.”

How I might describe it: A book, in some ways, about loss. But with a happy ending.

Gorky Rises (1980) (more…)

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Holiday Round-up: 24 Things We Love (+ a gift for you!)

December 12th, 2011 · 167 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Dinner

So we may not be the only ones posting a Holiday Gift Guide this week, but we’d like to argue that DALS is probably going to be the only place you can stop by for a Family Dinner Holiday Gift Guide. Which is another way of saying that every gift, recipe, ritual, moment you see here is either family-related, dinner-related, family-dinner related, or, in keeping with the spirit of the blog, s#$t we like so much we just needed to tell you about it. (See #1 above, Pantone Ornaments from Seletti — for all your design geek friends!) Be sure to read carefully — there’s something in it for you, too. — Happy Holidays from The DALS Team!

2Mauviel Copper Roasting Pan ($280, 11 3/4″ x 8 5/8″) A Big Ticket Item for Big Ticket Home Cooks. Copper pots — any size or shape or model — are the gold standard for cookware. This was a present for Jenny last year; amazing what passes for romance in this house. But roasted chicken thighs have never looked so good. – Andy

3A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Let’s put aside the fact that he’s doing life in prison right now: Phil Spector could make music sound good. We pretty much put this album on repeat  for the entire month of December. Even when we’re eating Latkes (see #6). You can hate Christmas records and love (more…)

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8 Questions For: David Sedaris

December 1st, 2011 · 22 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

For a bunch of years when I worked in magazines, I was lucky enough to have the chance to work with David Sedaris. For an editor, this was like being a baseball-loving kid and having had the chance to be the bat boy for Lou Gehrig. (Or maybe that’s not the best example here, but you get the idea. It was, as Abby would say, a priv-uh-lege.) Anyway, those years were some of the best and most fun I ever had, professionally — and personally, too, as David proved as kind and generous a person as he was talented as a writer. A few months ago, we had him over for some dinner (we made a version of our yogurt-marinated chicken) and he arrived with gifts for the kids: bottle-shaped candles, magnets that looked like leaves, chocolates, Japanese note cards, and two books: Strange Stories for Strange Kids and It Was a Dark and Stormy Night. They’re two parts of a remarkable three-part series, called Little Lit, which was edited by the great Art Spiegelman (of Maus fame) and his equally talented wife, Francoise Mouly. As much as the kids (more…)

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Could Use Some Feedback

November 18th, 2011 · 33 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Hey DALS readers! How are you liking Fave Five? Do you know it exists? Are you using it? Are you aware that we’re regularly updating the list of recommendations, so it is worth your while to check in at least once or twice a week? Let me know — we’re curious if the new feature has been helpful.

Update: Thank you all for your nice feedback here. I think the consensus is that you like the feature but tend to forget it’s there. Furthermore, you would like to be notified when it’s updated. From now on, when I update the list, I will let you know via facebook and twitter. So if you want the updates, be sure to like, follow, etc etc.

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Reading List: John Jeremiah Sullivan

October 31st, 2011 · 13 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

When Jenny launched Dinner: a Love Story eighteen months ago, I sent out a group email to all nine of my friends to let them know what was up, and to spread the word. She called me at work a couple of hours later, excited. “John Sullivan just registered on the site,” she said. Our first victim! John Sullivan, aka John Jeremiah Sullivan, is a writer, a funny person, a kind soul, and a former colleague of mine from the men’s magazine known as Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Have you heard of him? You will. Just last week, he published a collection of essays, Pulphead, that has been getting some halfway decent reviews. NPR called it “a collection that shows why Sullivan might be the best magazine writer around.” On Sunday, The New York Times Book Review called it “the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since [David Foster] Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Dwight Garner, reviewing it in the Times last week, said it “put me in mind of one of Flannery O’Connor’s indelible utterances.” Time had this to say: “He’s not exactly a national secret — he’s already won two National Magazine Awards, among other things, and he’s not yet 40. But he’s the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” Larry McMurtry, in Harper’s, called it “the most involving collection of essays to appear in many a year.” To which I will add: Please. The fact that you can buy this book on Amazon right now for less than I spent on swiss chard at the market this morning is one of the great bargains, and investments, to be found on this earth. It’s hard to put into words just how sublime stories like this, this and this are. (Seriously, take an hour and read some. Start with “Upon This Rock.” Afterwards, feel free to complain directly to me if you feel I have steered you wrong.) John, in addition to being a DALS charter member, was kind enough to offer up a few of his favorite kid books for us. Of his picks, I can only claim to have read The Giant Jam Sandwich, but I’m here to say: if John Jeremiah Sullivan says these books are good and true, I’m going to believe him. I now cede the floor. — Andy

Here are four beloved books of my childhood, possibly out of print, but worth the while of parents to hunt down, especially if their youngsters are between, say, three and six. Written by an author who has actually prepared multiple DALS recipes (greatly enjoyed by family in cases where he didn’t burn, mush them up, or accidentally serve them raw). P.S. DALS also turned me on to Don Pepino pizza sauce in a can. It’s all I use anymore.
The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway

A small town (Itching Down) is infested by wasps, to the point that folks can’t deal. The townspeople have a meeting, where it’s decided that they will build an enormous, field-sized jam sandwich, to trap all the wasps. Watching them do this, page after page… I can still feel the child excitement. They turn a swimming pool into a mixing bowl. They turn the town’s biggest building into a giant brick oven. The pictures are bright but also detailed and subtle. If your kid loves books, it’s a minor crime not to read him/her this one.

Shaggy Fur Face by Virgil Franklin Partch

A dog has a good master–and mistress, a little girl–but they’re poor, and they can’t keep him. They sell him, for the cost of ”ditch-digging britches,” to (more…)

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Introducing Fave Five

October 17th, 2011 · 16 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

When you are a parent and faced with the reality that your children are doing things like running for student government, logging into their own gmail accounts,and you know…growing up, there suddenly seems to be an emotional land mine buried in every nook of the house. Phoebe’s purple velvet first birthday dress — the one Andy bought for her at Saks in 2003 — hung in the closet for five years longer than she could squeeze a toe into it because I couldn’t bear to stash it in some basement box that probably won’t be opened until Phoebe herself is a mom. The thought of tossing Abby’s “portfolio” of artwork from preschool — even though I haven’t opened it once in three years to admire the work — fills me with dread. And the books! Don’t get me started on the books. If they weren’t threatening to take over the living space in our house, Moo Moo Brown Cow would still be on our TV room coffee table and I would still be telling anyone who would listen: This is the book we were reading when Phoebe said her first word!

No, I can’t ignore the books. The only thing I can do to make myself feel better about getting rid of them is give them to my brother, whose son is only 4, and who still has thirteen glorious Lemony Snicket books to look forward to reading. (Where is the justice in life?) “It’s like your birthday!” my brother says to my nephew every time we do the hand-off. Nathan will grab How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight, and I will go into lock-down mode. If Auntie Jenny allows herself to remember reading that one to Abby, Auntie Jenny just might lose it.

So “Fave Five,” a new series on DALS, is, in part, my selfish attempt to hold on to my daughters’ childhoods — sorry, I mean my daughters’ childhood books that have meant something to our family long after they are no longer in the reading rotation. The series will also give us a chance to write about whatever books happen to making the house happy but don’t seem to fit into one of Andy’s or Phoebe’s epic round-ups. (Expect a lot more of those, too.) The books we choose could be old favorites, they could be new favorites — hell, we might even throw in a game or toy or video or two. Put it this way: If I get that twisty, dark pit in my stomach when I think about handing it off to my nephew, you’ll probably be reading about it here.

And don’t worry, you won’t have to read my sob stories every time you check in. Just click the little button on the right column (right near the Categories list) and it will immediately take you to the latest picks. They will be changing regularly, so check back often.

“Fave Five” logo designed by Robin Helman. Thanks Robin!

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Let There Be Rock

September 28th, 2011 · 32 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Domestic Affairs, Favorites, Posts by Andy

I spent fifteen years after high school pretending Led Zeppelin sucked. I was apparently too cool for Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Something happened to me when I went off to college – well, a lot of things happened to me when I went off to college, but the most egregious was that I stopped rocking my a*s off. Not that I was ever in a band or anything. The closest I came to actual shredding was air-guitaring to “Whole Lotta Rosie” with my Arthur Ashe tennis racket in the paneled family room of our house in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. But college messed me up. Suddenly, music, like the books I pretended to read (waddup, Günter Grass?!) under trees on the quad, had become social currency, a signifier of intellectual heft. Suddenly, I was into the Cure and the Cocteau Twins, 10,000 Maniacs, and a moody Scottish troubador who called himself Lloyd Cole. I took long hangover naps to the gentle strains of Talk Talk. I DJ’d a radio show and inflicted Jesus Jones on the poor souls of Western Massachusetts, whose only crime was turning on their radios on Saturday morning, hoping to hear music. By the time I graduated, I was afloat in a warm bath of ambience and interesting lyrics.

A brief history of my descent, from there: In the late nineties, Jenny and I got married, and in the inevitable process of accommodation and compromise, my musical tastes changed again — Lucinda Williams, Matthew Sweet, Norah (gulp) Jones, Sheryl (double gulp) Crow, Ryan Adams, and many others I’ve no doubt repressed – and the soundtrack of my life down-shifted into what I call Music Couples Can Cook To. Then came kids, and I’ll spare you the grisly account of how my iPod was violated over the five year period that my kids were becoming sentient beings, but let’s just say that I know a few songs by Laurie Berkner. If we ventured outside of kid music during these years, it was into territory that felt family-friendly and safe yet still adult, that – if deployed in a car traveling at 60 mph – could lull a cranky child to sleep. In other words, we’d moved into the Music That Won’t Ruin Dinner Parties phase of life. This was thoughtful, smart stuff, sung by dudes in skinny jeans; this was literature set to music. And I participated, suffering through Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Andrew Bird, Jenny Lewis, Jeff Tweedy (solo), Neko Case, Elvis Perkins, and…holy crap, I nearly fell asleep just typing that list.

Then, in 2006, I was saved.

One day at work, a friend handed me a copy of the newly-remastered Live at the Fillmore East by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I put it on at my desk, and in the course of the COMPLETELY BRAIN-MELTING SIXTEEN MINUTE AND NINE SECOND VERSION of “Cowgirl in the Sand” that ensued, something powerful rose up from the depths. It was like having spent ten years watching decent high schoolers play pepper, and then going to batting practice at Yankee Stadium. Oh, right. So THIS is how it’s done. The shock of recognition, the glimpse of your old, pre-kid, pre-married, less Starbucks-y self: that stuff is for real. I don’t want to overstate things, but something awoke within me that day, some long-lost part of the old me who enjoyed a gratuitous guitar solo and didn’t feel like wearing a scarf or being bummed out. Interesting lyrics are interesting, but I’m borderline middle-aged, with a full-time job and two daughters and a gray crossover vehicle, and I could use something more than interesting. Down the rabbit hole I went, digging up old CDs, trolling youtube for jams, burning tons of Stones and James Brown and Led Zeppelin , ditching the singer-songwriters and diving deep into anything that sounded good loud, from the three-guitar onslaught of The Drive-By Truckers to Jack White to “Check Your Head”-era Beasties to My Morning Jacket to The Jam to, yes, Duane F’ing Allman. And here’s the thing: For the most part, the kids came right along with me. I started playing this stuff in the car, on the way to soccer games and playdates – and with rare exceptions (see: Burma, Mission Of), I heard very few complaints. Instead, I heard, when the song ended: “Again.” Instead, I saw, in the rear view mirror, during those first thirty seconds of “Custard Pie”: Abby, her window down and her hair blowing back, doing her guitar face. She couldn’t have looked happier. Because kids, instinctively, know what feels good. Don’t believe me? Put on some Mason Jennings, and then put on “Hotel Yorba,” and turn it up. See what sticks. – Andy

Rock & Roll Illustration by Phoebe.

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Extremely Graphic Content

September 22nd, 2011 · 22 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

It’s hard to know who was more excited when the Amazon box landed with a thunk on our doorstep last week, Phoebe or her parents. We knew from the heft what was inside: All 640 pages of Brian Selznick’s new book, Wonderstruck. We’ve spent many dinners and car rides and bedtimes discussing Brian Selznick. His last book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for me, was one of those books where you just think, Wow, that’s amazing. I guess I’ll never write a children’s book! I mean that in the nicest possible way: it’s hard to imagine even attempting to create something that transporting and beautiful, let alone succeeding at it. If you gave me a different brain and some artistic talent and a million peaceful years to make it happen, no. But that’s just me. For Phoebe, our resident dreamer and book critic, Brian Selznick is something different: he’s a writer who has taken her beloved graphic novel form and turned into something bigger and better. Phoebe just seems to love the added layer that imagery adds to a story, the way she can keep going back and getting more out of it. This is not to say that she doesn’t like chapter books, but if you asked Phoebe to pick her ten favorite books, a hundred bucks says all ten would be graphic novels. I kind of hope that never changes. Wonderstruck is not a graphic novel, just to be clear. I don’t know what to call it. It’s a chapter book with hundreds of luminous, moody, full-bleed illustrations, which unspool in these amazing ten, twenty, thirty page stretches, like the greatest flip book ever created. As Phoebe says, when asked why she loves it so: “He makes you feel it.”

We thought we’d use this book’s arrival as an excuse to round up our latest favorite graphic novels for 8- to 12-year-olds. And, like always, I’m going to turn the mic over to the reader herself. – Andy


Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick: “If you liked The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you’ll like this book. I can’t really explain it, because this author makes his books really complicated, but it’s about a deaf boy and a deaf girl. It makes you think about how hard it must be to be deaf. It’s half pictures and half words; the girl’s story is pictures and the boy’s story is words. He puts so much feeling into his stories. And there’s a surprise at the end, which is always good.”

Phoebe rating: 9*

Parent note: Why not a 10? Because Phoebe said it wasn’t quite as good as Hugo Cabret.

Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman: “This is one of my favorites. I read it like three times on vacation. It’s about a school in space and it’s cool: they have anti-gravity drills and time-bending watches and things like that. Everything that’s impossible on earth is possible there, pretty much. It’s funny and adventure-y. My favorite character is Miyumi San because she has a watch that lets her travel in time and because she acts tough. She’s like a tomboy.”

Phoebe rating: Half 9, half 10*

* Parent note: I assume this means 9.5.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword* by Barry Deutsch: “Okay, this is a tale of knitting and pig-chasing. Weird, right? It’s the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl named Mirka who has nine brothers and sisters and she’s always wanted to fight dragons and trolls. I know all this sounds really strange, but if you read it, it’ll make sense. This is a good book for people who like adventure. It makes you want to go grab your own sword and start fighting some trolls!” (more…)

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Hidden Dollhouse, Part 2

August 17th, 2011 · 21 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Rituals

So I’m sure by now you are all wondering where and how the girls have spent all their hard-earned summer book club points. There have been trips to the soccer shop (Phoebe bought a Rooney jersey, Abby a miniature black and yellow ball which she has been kicking against the backyard wall nonstop, much to the delight of my neighbors, I’m sure); and trips to amazon (they decided to pool their earnings and go in on walkie-talkies together); and then there was the trip to ebay to buy Abby furniture for her dollhouse. By dollhouse, I mean what you are looking at above — the bottom two shelves of her bedroom’s built-in bookcase. Abby has created little worlds for herself all over the house, most notably in the kitchen, but I think this is my favorite one of all because it’s a work in progress and has been for over two years. Together we’ve wallpapered the kitchen with Old Navy wrapping paper, renovated two bathrooms with leftover scraps of ceramic and marble tiles from our real house, laid down wall-to-wall carpeting (fabric swatches from the store), and created enormous jewel–and-giftwrap-on-felt wall-hangings worthy of MoMA. A lot of the furniture in the two story apartment complex was in my dollhouse when I was a kid, but over the years we’ve supplemented with ebay purchases. It can take Andy and me years to make decorative decisions in our real house, so it’s immensely satisfying to wallpaper Abby’s bathroom with a sheet of origami paper in five seconds. In other words, I don’t know who enjoys this project more — Abby or me.

I always politely suggest that it might be time to start shopping for a real kitchen table, but Abby is committed to her makeshift masterpiece, four tea party plates piled on top of each other. The kitchen is from the dollhouse I owned when I was little. The dolls are Plan. (Christmas present, 2009.) (more…)

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Kid Book Picks from Pseudonymous Bosch

July 27th, 2011 · 9 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized


“Ask me a question.”

Every Saturday afternoon, I go for a long run, and Phoebe bikes alongside me, and this is what she says to me the minute we hit the trail. “Ask me a question.” Which is really her way of saying: Ask me a question about a book I am currently reading, and I will summarize the plot for you while you run, which will distract you from the agony of exercising. Some of these summaries are quick, easily dispatched. Family lives on prairie, endures terrible storms, long winters, and much suffering, but survives. Girl deals with embarrassing dental issues, gets braces, endures much teasing, but survives. Handsome man has superpowers, saves world. The past few weekends, though, things have gotten a little more involved. “Tell me about this Pseudonymous Bosch guy,” I say to Phoebe, as we set out. “What are those books about, exactly?” Phoebe pedals for a bit, thinking. “Hmmmm,” she says. “That’s hard.” “Try,” I say. “Well,” she says, “they’re basically about the five senses: smell, sight, feel, hearing, and taste. There’s a lot of chocolate in the third book. And there’s this group of evil guys called the Midnight Sun, who are trying to figure out The Secret, which I think is about immortality. The main characters are named Cass and Max-Ernest and… it’s hard to explain.” She’s often still explaining when we stop, forty-five minutes later.

I first encountered the Pseudonymous Bosch books two and a half years ago, on one of those gray winter days when the town library is closed and you’re sitting in your house, dying of claustrophobia and getting on each other’s nerves and it’s too cold to do anything outside, so you end up — jail break! — camping out in the kids’ section at Barnes and Noble, trying to avoid spending money on Care Bear sticker books. The kids wandered off, and I did, too. I found a book and picked it up based entirely on the title (The Name of This Book is Secret) and the beauty of its cover. God, was this a nice looking, well thought-out, creative book. I flipped to the back flap, to see who was behind it: based on the author bio alone, I wanted to have it. Then I opened it up, and here’s what I saw on the third page:


Okay, now I REALLY wanted this book. Or, better, I couldn’t wait until our kids were old enough to read a book this weird and fun. Two and half years later, we find ourselves in the summer of Pseudonymous Bosch. Phoebe is obsessed. (Jenny and I wish she’d be a little less obsessed, to be honest, as it feels like we never see her anymore.) She’s knocked off all four since school ended, and is awaiting the fifth, You Have to Stop This. (Memo to P. Bosch fom Phoebe: Hurry the heck up already!) Unfortunately, that next installment is going to be a little bit later than it otherwise might have been, as Pseudonymous himself was kind enough to take precious writing time to contribute the next installment of our Summer Reading Series, a roundup of his favorite mysteries for kids. To be a nine year old again…

As my readers well know, I am a secretive author, desperately afraid not just of the public spotlight but even the smallest penlight. (It’s the batteries—I have trouble replacing them in my remote location.) Nonetheless, I occasionally find myself making appearances at glamorous venues such as elementary school cafeterias and the backs of chain bookstores, most of which seem to close permanently a few days later. Why a phobic character such as myself should choose to expose himself like that is a question best left to my psychiatrist. (I mean, my publicist). I have, however, learned to come armed with certain provisions to protect myself against the prying public. They are, in no particular order: large scratch-proof sunglasses, emergency chocolate rations, a discrete handheld sound-effects machine (sirens, gunfire, broken glass, farts, etc.), and book recommendations.

Why book recommendations? Because What books do you recommend? is almost always the one hundredth question I get (the first ninety-nine being What is your real name?). Because my books are meant to be mysteries, I usually recommend mystery books. And because my audience is meant to be younger, I usually recommend adult mysteries. I figure somebody else has already recommended The Hardy Boys or Harriet the Spy, so instead I mention Edgar Allan Poe or Dashiell Hammet or Dorothy Sayers (the latter author being a particular favorite of mine when I was a kid). But I fear that you—the reader of this blog—are most likely an adult. Thus, out of sheer perversity, and also because it was requested, I am going to recommend a few children’s titles that have lately held my interest. One thing that is wonderful about young readers is that they still retain the power to be mystified. As an adult, I find that children’s books help restore my sense of mystery. Hopefully, these books will do that for you, too. And if you have an actual child by your side, all the better.

The Circus in the Mist by Bruno Munari (only available used)

This almost wordless book was one of my favorites when I was very young and I still love to look at it. Written and illustrated—perhaps the best word is created—by the Italian designer and book-magician Bruno Munari, The Circus in the Mist takes the reader on a journey into a “mist,” which is represented by translucent vellum pages. Spare yet playful, each page teases you into turning to the next. In the middle of the book, you are rewarded with a circus, and all its fun and familiar acts, but at the end you are returned to the mist, as if to say that the mysteriousness of the mist itself—not the circus it hides—is the true wonder. (more…)

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Summer Reading List: Daniel Handler

July 18th, 2011 · 15 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

You should have seen the look on Phoebe’s face when I told her that Daniel Handler was going to contribute a Summer Reading List for DALS. It’s how I imagine my own face would have looked if, back in 1981, my dad had walked through the door and said, “Hi everyone, yeah, long day at work. I’m just gonna go upstairs and put my bathrobe on. Oh, and Andy: the Rolling Stones are going to play at your birthday party this year.” Daniel Handler — and how many people, other than close relatives, can you say this about — has had a genuine, rock star-like impact on our oldest daughter’s life. The thirteen mind-blowing books he wrote, under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, are the books Phoebe might well remember most when she’s old and forty. First of all, she read them all in about two weeks, curled up on the corner of our family room couch, and we basically didn’t see or hear from her until she was done. We’re talking serious, deep transportation. Second of all, these books give you faith in the human imagination. They’re so beautifully, joyously done. In some ways, they’re the books that opened her up to the value of darkness in a story, and of the way good and evil, and life and death, can coexist. “Imagine lemonade,” Phoebe said, when I asked her to describe what the books are like. “Only with barely any sugar.” Which is exactly how I would have put it, happy as I was to discover these books, too, after so many years of unrelenting cheeriness and pointless plot-iness and overweening cutesiness and, as Phoebe suggests, way too much sugar. (I’m not naming names.) You can never accuse Daniel Handler of ever using too much sugar. That goes for his adult books as well, and, we presume, for Why We Broke Up, the young adult book he is publishing this fall with the illustrator, Maira Kalman, with whom he has partnered before, to gorgeous results. (This is a go-to gift book for us.) We are huge Daniel Handler fans here at DALS, and we’re honored to have him tell us about his favorite picture books. (Plus one not-so-picture book that he couldn’t resist throwing in. See: Darkness, above.) Without further ado, Daniel Handler on what your kids should be reading this summer…

Dillweed’s Revenge by Florence Parry Heide

This one was written a long time ago, and Edward Gorey was supposed to illustrate it, but he pulled a jerk move and died. It’s really remarkable, the story of a young man with terrible parents who evntually finds ways to deal with them — through monstrous acts of witchraft and menace. It was finally illustrated by the amazing Carson Ellis, who’s probably best known for the album covers she does for her husband’s band, The Decemberists. The art has this kind of abstract, Rothko-y, wet quality to it. It’s old-fashioned Victorian meets the dark unplummable depths of the human soul. For kids!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (note: this is coming out in September, but you can pre-order now) (more…)

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The Reading List: George Saunders

July 7th, 2011 · 25 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

I remember exactly where I was when I read the short story, “Pastoralia,” by George Saunders: I was finishing lunch at my desk, back when I had hair and worked at Esquire magazine on 55th Street. As soon as I finished, I copied it and – this was 2000, remember – faxed it to a couple of the writers I worked with, no cover note attached. I thought it would inspire them. A few hours later, the emails started coming in: “I’m never going to write again.” “Jesus, man.” “Why would you do that to me?” Would I do this again? I would. Because great writing is inspiring and George Saunders is a great and inspired writer. He has the distinction of being the author of some of my all-time favorite grown-up fiction (my favorite is the story collection, Pastoralia, but really: you can’t go wrong), my all-time favorite kid fiction (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, for ages 6-12, which we have featured before), and some of my favorite non-fiction (collected, thank you god, here). He’s also a genius. (True story. He’s way too modest to tell you this, but he’s a winner of the crazy-prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant.) What I’m saying is, we love George Saunders, love his beautiful, generous view of the world, and love the fact that he is a friend of DALS. We asked him for a Summer Reading List for Kids, and here’s what he sent us. I don’t know about you, but I’m buying all of them. Take it away, George…

Well, to start with, an apology/disclaimer. Our kids are grown and I’ve been away from kids’ books for awhile, although I well remember the thrill, on a cold autumn night, of snuggling in with both our girls and feeling like: ah, day is done, all is well. Some of what follows may be old news, but hopefully one or two will be new to you.

Okay. Let’s start with Kashtanka, by Anton Chekhov and Gennady Spirin (Ages 9-12). I’ve written about this at length at Lane Smith’s excellent website, but suffice to say it’s a beautiful, simple, kind-hearted story with illustrations that are beautiful and realistic with just the right touch of oddness.

Speaking of Lane Smith, who is, to my mind, the greatest kids’ book illustrator of our time, I’d recommend all his books but maybe particularly an early one, The Happy Hocky Family (Ages 4-8). It’s funny and arch but at its core is a feeling of real familial love. With Lane, every book has its own feeling, and this one is sort of minimal and yet emotive – right up my alley.

Back when we were doing our book together, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Lane turned me on to The Shrinking of Treehorn, by Florence Parrry Heide (Ages 6-8). This is one of those books that stakes out its claim to greatness by showing something that, though harsh, is also deeply true: Grownups often don’t see kids and don’t listen to them. The illustrations are masterpieces of 1970s cool, by the great Edward Gorey.

I love The Hundred Dresses (by Eleanor Estes, illustrated Louis Slobodkin, ages 7-9) for a similar reason. On this ostensibly small palette of a kid’s book, Estes has told a deep unsettling truth, one that we seem to be forgetting; as Terry Eagleton put it: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” Here, poverty equals petty humiliation, which drives a child, Wanda Petronski, to lie, and be teased for the lie, and then to create something beautiful – but the great heart-dropping trick of this book is that the other characters in the book discover Wanda’s inner beauty late, too late, and she is already far away, and never gets to learn she has devastated them with her work of art, and changed her vision of the world. This is a book that, I think, has the potential to rearrange a child’s moral universe in an enduring way. (more…)

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Summer Book Club

July 5th, 2011 · 43 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Rituals

In some ways, I feel like my mother’s philosophy of raising children can be distilled into two of her favorite expressions. The first one is this:

Only boring people get bored.

This was not so much an expression as it was a response to the “I’m booorrred” cries from my brother, sister, or me when we’d be driving somewhere or if, God forbid, there was no formal activity scheduled for a stretch of hours when Rocky III was not playing on HBO. The idea was that we should be resourceful enough to entertain ourselves at all times. You can only imagine how annoying this phrase was to a 10- year-old who had an entire shelf of lock-and-key diaries, the contents of which proved she was anything but boring. But apparently, the line was not annoying enough to have stopped me from using it at least once a week in my own house with my own kids 25 years later. Not only do I love this expression — I have embraced it as my worldview.

The other expression from Mom is: (more…)

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Happy

June 15th, 2011 · 19 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Dinner: A Love Story, the Book

Besides the fact that it’s Friday and that we have a grilled leg of lamb on the menu tonight, what else is making me happy today?

1. Finding a ridiculously easy way to frost the ridiculously easy mud cake I make for every birthday. The one above was for my dad’s 75th — don’t worry, I eventually added the “birthday,” part. (Scroll to bottom for recipe.)

2. Holding a first draft of Dinner: A Love Story, the book in my hands. A very positively extremely roughly rough first draft, but a draft nonetheless.

3. Conjuring up image from last weekend of daughter flying down sideline with soccer ball.

4. Holes, by Louis Sachar. Note: it makes me happy to read such a well-written book. The book itself, which I’m reading to both girls (ages 9 and 7), is actually creepy and cool and not happy at all. At least not yet.

5. The large batch of granola that is baking as I type, and that will be ladled into cellophane bags for school teachers, piano teachers, soccer coaches, and Father’s Day honorees.

6. Getting real in the Whole Foods parking lot. So freaking genius. (Thanks, Grid!)

7. This promising development out of Palo Alto.

And now a few from Andy:

8. This story on Disney World, where we have never been, which is totally my fault, but something about it just kind of scares me.

9. The latest, crazy good, crazy funny piece of fiction from George Saunders, in this week’s New Yorker.

10. The fact that Louis CK’s show is about to start again — which we liked okay the first time around, but which showed glimmers of greatness and we love him so much, we’re betting it’ll work out.

11. This song, because… just because. I mean, please.

12. More good kid books — 12 a year — coming down the pike from McSweeney’s. Soon to be reviewed on DALS!

(more…)

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Forget the Wine, This is What Your Host Wants

May 23rd, 2011 · 13 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Dinner, Kitchenlightenment, Rituals

Almost always, when we have friends for dinner, there comes a point when Andy turns to me or vice versa and says “Should we check on her?” And by that we mean, should we try to lure back whatever guest has walked in our front door only to be whisked upstairs to Abby’s lair for a “tour” of her room. It’s not that we don’t think our seven-year-old is doing anything but charming the pants off  her, but receiving a personal introduction to all 8,000 of her Littlest Pet Shop Pets is a task I believe only a mother could love — scratch that — I mean, a task only a father could endure, and definitely not in the job description of “dinner guest.” Unless you are my friend Lia that is, who, oddly, seems to like my children as much as I do. Last Friday, she came over for some minted pea dip (with potato chips…mmmm) and tagliatelle, but spent the first half hour locked into conversation with the girls as they all crafted Papertoy Monsters together from the book she bought them. To the point where I felt bad interrupting them to, you know, catch up with my friend. I should’ve known Lia would show up with a gift that killed. When Abby was at the height of her Hello Kitty obsession, she came with a fleet of Hello Kitty books, calendars, and magnetic dolls. Last year, she arrived with two kids’ umbrellas from Pylones. And as if this isn’t enough, she is almost always armed with Magnolia cupcakes, chocolate chocolate for Phoebe, and assorted for the rest of us. Believe me, this is all any guest ever needs to do to a) win my friendship forever  b) warm my heart  or c) be invited back. (more…)

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Roald Dahl, Deep Tracks

April 4th, 2011 · 31 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy

I am so sick of Roald Dahl. It’s not that he isn’t great, or that the depth of his imagination isn’t enough to shame 99% of other novelists that have walked the earth, or that he’s not a first-ballot, absolute lock of a Kid Author Hall of Famer. But enough is enough. For much of the past two years, Abby and I have been reading Roald Dahl books, and nothing else. We started with my old copies of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, and then we moved on to The Witches and The BFG, which were similarly twisted and inspired, and then we… just… kept… going. (You’re welcome for the extra-sweet royalty checks, Roald Dahl Estate.) We drilled down, never relenting, never coming up for air, journeying deeper and deeper into the warped, kind of misanthropic worldview that our youngest daughter seems to relate to on some primal level. (I’m choosing not to ask why this is.) To mix kid book author metaphors, we fell headlong down the ol’ rabbit hole.

Does it sound like I’m complaining? I don’t mean to. I’m sick of Roald Dahl, but I also love Roald Dahl. I love his sense of humor and the way his plots unfold in such loose, spontaneous, strange ways — exactly the way a plot would unfold if you were just making up a story on the spot — and I love that he wrote so much, as if writing were a switch that, once flipped on, could never ever be turned off, no matter how old he got or how much money, or acclaim, he earned. I love the names Veruca Salt and Fleshlumpeater, Trunchbull and Bloodbottler, Sponge and Spiker. My only quibble is that, when you read nothing but for two years, some of the seams start to show. You can see him, every so often, reaching into his bag of writerly tricks. Some patterns reveal themselves. Seven-year-old girls, though: they adore those patterns and tricks, adore those sputtering grown-ups and invented words and hairy, disgusting moles on wrinkly, disgusting faces and grumpy rhyming poems and the ominousness that always seems to hang over everything, but that never, in the end, completely descends. It’s been quite a run, this Roald Dahl run that Abby and I have been on. I’m glad we did it, but I don’t want to do it again, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Here: the Dahl Canon, as presented by Dahl’s number one fan, Abby. – Andy

Matilda

“Matilda’s a little girl who loves to read books, but her father and mother don’t want her to read books. They want her to watch TV allllllllll the time. But one day, she feels like, ‘I want to go to school.’ So her mom drops her off at this school, and then she meets a girl who tells her about the principal [scary voice] Mrs. Trunchbull! She’s a really really mean person, and she talks in a really mean way. I can’t describe it. Mrs. Trunchbull’s daughter is Mrs. Honey, but you only find that out at the end. Don’t write that, daddy! You’ll ruin it! This book is about how Matilda has a hard life, but is an amazingly smart girl. It’s for people who are interested in reading. I don’t even want to talk about the movie.”

Grade: 9 (out of 10)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

“This is gonna be hard. I love this book so much. It’s about a fox. A fox who promised his wife he would never steal a chicken or whatever, what was it called? Yeah, a chicken. No no no no no. It’s like a bird? Never mind. But then he secretly goes on a mission to steal chickens with a mole, Kylie, and they have to avoid these three mean farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. One day, the farmers figure out that the fox is trying to steal their food, so they decide to (more…)

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