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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And Now for the Exciting News: A Free Book!

April 24th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

And by free we mean, um, sort of free. Here’s the deal: We like dinner. We also like books. And while Jenny’s upcoming book, on its every (“masterful,” says her husband) page, honors the meals we’ve made together for the past fifteen years, there is not a single word in it devoted to books — our love for them, or they way they inform our daily lives. What better way to fix that than to produce another book, devoted solely to the things we read and write about so frequently on this site. In some ways, we’ve spent the past two weeks months years pulling this project together*, and it was only a matter of time. We finally decided to turn it into a proper book of its own because we realized not long ago that (a) we’d already written more than 20,000 words’ worth of reviews since DALS was born, and (b) a big list of great, enduring books (for kids ages 0 to 10) might be something parents — as well as aunts, uncles, friends of pregnant people, husbands looking for point-scoring Mother’s Day presents, and good readers everywhere — could really use.

And now, for the fine print: If you pre-order Dinner: A Love Story, we’ll send you our new book of kid books FOR FREE. It only exists for now as a pdf, which means it’s easily forwarded and shared and copied, but we know you guys are decent, upstanding people and we trust you so deeply and know you would never send this around, all indiscriminately, since we spent so much time and effort putting it together FOR FREE.  If you want one, all you have to do is email thebook@dinneralovestory.com, tell us you ordered a copy of Dinner: A Love Story, and we’ll send you all 25 pages of our book, in beautiful color, FOR FREE. Jenny’s whizbangy technical consultant has figured out a way to prompt every fifth email with a one-step request for proof of purchase. And yes, we know this means there’s an 80% chance you can lie and get this book without pre-ordering, but, well…see above re: decent, upstanding people.

One last thing: This offer is only good through Thursday, April 26 at midnight. So let’s do this thing. – Andy

*A huge, huge thank you to the supremely talented Chelsea Cardinal – magazine genius, illustrator, book cover designer, clothing designer (for real), seriously solid person — who turned our pile of disjointed text into something that makes us so happy to look at. We are convinced Chelsea will be famous one day, and we are grateful to have worked with her. 

UPDATE: This offer has now expired. Thank you to everyone for the nice response and the even nicer notes that came along with the pre-orders. There’s a chance the offer might resurface on Facebook in the next few weeks, so if you missed it, be sure to follow DALS there.

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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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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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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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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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Fave Five

October 17th, 2010 · 23 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture

Five Books We Love Right Now
An evolving list

Last Updated: 8/5/12
Click here more details on Fave Five.

Chew on This, by Eric Schlosser Back in my magazine editing days, I used to work on a column called “What the Writers are Reading,” and we were lucky enough to feature Michael Pollan in one of them. One of the books he recommended for kids was Chew on This, which is Eric Schlosser’s children’s version of Fast Food Nation. It’s been shortened a bit and the tone is a little more kid-friendly, but the effect is the same as it is for adults: When 9-year-old Phoebe found it in my shelf and devoured it, she said she would never walk in to McDonald’s — or eat any fast food — ever again. If I was a better mom, I might have waited for her to turn 12 (which is the recommended age) before handing it to her — there is a story about a six-year-old who dies from E.Coli and graphic description of animal cruelty that upset her briefly. But only briefly. She’s read it three times since.

Deadweather and Sunrise, by Geoff Rodkey. For the kid who likes pirates and adventures. It reads like a movie, filled with non-stop action and adventure. It’s kind of complicated but it’s about a 13-year-old who lives on a land with lots of pirates then escapes to a beautiful fantasy land called Sunrise where his family disappears and then he finds out someone’s trying to kill him. If you liked Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, you’ll probably really like this. Ages 10-13 -Guest Review by 10-year-old Phoebe

Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell Hoban I would of course recommend any book in the Frances series to young readers (especially those who are just growing out of shorter picture books) but this one seems especially right for the DALS reader. Frances, the beloved, beleaguered badger refuses to eat her mother’s eggs, spaghetti and meatballs, or anything that’s not bread and jam. So that’s what her mom decides to serve her day after day, meal after meal. In addition to teaching a lesson to picky eaters, it contains a back-and-forth between Frances’s parents that warms my heart every time I read it: Father: “If there is one thing I am fond of for breakfast, it is a soft-boiled egg!” Mother “Yes, it is just the right thing to start the day off right!” Ages 3-5

The Van Gogh Cafe, by Cynthia Rylant. My 8-year-old Abby declared this her favorite book yesterday. (Well, if I’m going to be technical about it, she said it was actually tied for first with The Mouse of Amherst). I haven’t read the book but the way Abby tells it, Van Gogh Cafe is about all the magical things that happen in a restaurant in a small town called Flowers, Kansas. “But the thing is,” she told me, “nothing really happens. It’s just so beautiful. Each chapter is a new story about something really interesting like seagulls.” She would also like to point out that Cynthia Rylant (don’t make the  mistake of calling her Cynthia Rowley, as I have) is a Newbery Medal winner.  Ages 8 and up. (Same age range for Amherst.)

The Midnight Fox, by Betsy Byars. Gretchen was the one who recommended this as part of her kid lit program and I am embarrassed to say that before then I had never heard of Betsy Byars (even her more well-known Newbery-winning Summer of the Swans).  We intend to change that over the next few months, because this was the kind of chapter book that is so tight and so simply written, you finish it and say “I could write a book like that.” (Of course, by now we know there is a converse relationship between how effortless a book reads and how hard the book was to write.) This beautiful chapter book is told from the point-of-view of Tom, a 10- or 11-year-old whose parents send him against his will to spend the summer at his aunt’s and uncle’s farm while they travel to Europe. Tom, whose idea of fun is building model airplanes and spying on hornet’s nests at his best friend Petie’s house, is not happy about the set-up until, on a lonely exploratory walk through the woods, spies a black fox. He spends his summer observing and eventually protecting the fox and in the  process learns a little something about himself and life, including this little gem: That sometimes your parents are right. Ages 8-10.

“Fave Five” logo by Robin Helman.

Publishers interested in submitting to Fave Five. Please contact Jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com.

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Have a Baby, Win Some Books!

September 16th, 2010 · 36 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy

I’m not so good with remembering the everyday details of my life. I can’t tell you the name of my eighth grade math teacher, or my freshman year dorm room number, or my cholesterol reading from my last checkup, or even who I had lunch with last Thursday (without checking my calendar first). Just last week, I’m not proud to admit, I forgot my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary. Compared to Jenny, whose institutional memory for every moment and triumph and hiccup of her life is downright scary photographic, I’m like the amnesiac guy from Memento: I should probably start tattooing every inch of my body with the little stuff — i.e., the important stuff — before it fades away forever. You know what I do remember, though, with almost perfect clarity? Finishing The Trumpet of the Swan when I was a kid. (I was eight. Or maybe nine. I forget!) I remember turning that last page, and not wanting it to end, thinking this was the best book I’d ever read, and having this vague sense that something was going on here that I didn’t quite understand — at least, not enough to articulate it — except maybe to say that the words on the page, and the way way they made me feel, were a whole lot more powerful than what I was getting from Strange But True Sports Stories. The last paragraph still crushes me:

On the pond where the swans were, Louis put his trumpet away. The cygnets crept under their mother’s wings. Darkness settled on woods and field and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.

The cygnets crept under their mother’s wings! Such a beautiful earth! The light that returns with the day! Dear, dear god. I would never forget this one. The Trumpet of the Swan was the book I would always think about when I thought about books from my youth, the book I would use to forge an identity apart from the big brother I revered (he was a devoted Stuart Little guy), the book I always imagined reading aloud to kids of my own. Which, thirty years later, I did.

Not only that, but I now push this book on my friends, too. Whenever someone has a baby, I go immediately to amazon and order up a copy — in hardcover, to ensure its longevity – secretly hoping that their kids will love it one day, too. But I also order other books — books for infants and toddlers and four-year-olds and eight- year-olds. Over the past few years, this has become our standard baby present, seven or eight books we’ve come to think of as a starter kit for the library we’d want, a gift that will keep on giving for years to come; a collection of books that will inspire some meaningful dinner table conversation. The list is always a little different, as I tailor it to the friend in question, but I generally pull from a list of books that I loved as a child, or came to love as a parent. I thought I’d write this list down here in case you need some good baby gift ideas…and so I won’t forget them. — Andy

Bruno Munari’s ABC by Bruno Munari (above)
Ages: 1+
What You’ll Remember About It: The extremely beautiful, graphic watercolors on a stark white background from this legendary artist and designer, and the fly that appears on every page.

I am A Bunny by Ole Rison, illlustrations by Richard Scarry
Ages: 1+
What You’ll Remember About It: The gorgeous, very un-Busytown illustrations from the great Richard Scarry, and the simple, tender story chronicling a year in the life of a bunny named Nicholas, who sleeps in a hollow tree and dreams of spring. (more…)

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