What’s in a basket of favorite children’s books on animals?

Each year I look forward to the “Tinsel and Tails Holiday Petacular” to raise funds for the Humane Society for Hamilton County, Indiana. The event includes a silent auction, dinner, and presentations that feature the year’s most amazing pet adoption and survival stories. Some of the stories are tear-jerkers, for sure ─ you walk away truly humbled by what can be done to rescue and help so many wonderful animals find good homes with caring families. The silent auction includes everything from autographed sports memorabilia, art work, gift certificates for upscale dining, spa packages, golf packages, pet gifts, jewelry, travel and more. One year there was an amazing guitar signed by a famous musician.

This year I’m donating a basket from “Z House Stories” for the silent auction with the theme, “Reading Fun: Favorite Animal Stories.”  The next decision is which favorite books to include.

The search for favorite books surprisingly takes me to four different stores, not including the craft store where I purchase a basket and colored paper filling. I’m hoping to find some of the great stories I read when my son was little, especially some Bill Peet stories. There are lots of books in the first store I go to, a suburban Barnes and Noble that has a large children’s section with kid-size tables and chairs, toys, computer games, stuffed animals, paper products and pencils, stickers, magazines, and of course, many books. By the way, I would have checked out Borders but most of the Borders in our locale closed months ago.

In looking around Barnes and Noble, I’m surprised that many of the books I consider classics are not on the shelves. The sales-person does not recognize the name, Bill Peet, when I ask if they have his books. This is surprising since Peet grew up in Indianapolis and you’d think would be featured in an Indiana-based store as a well-renowned children’s author. The sales-person tells me they can order anything I want. But I know I can more easily order a book online myself.

Ok, so no Bill Peet here. I decide to look for “Harry the Dirty Dog” by Gene Zion. I listened to Betty White recently read this classic on Storyline Online (see my last blog) so for sure they’ll have this book on the shelves. Nope, they do not. But they do have lots of other books – books for Halloween, for Christmas, for winter, for summer. Seems like people must be buying books for the seasons or primarily for special occasions. Is this true?

I tell myself to keep an open mind – look for great animal books by more recent authors. So I open several books on the shelves. The art work in most of them is pretty terrific and they have great binding (hard bound mostly which means more expensive). But I’m not seeing many entrancing stories. There’s a nice anthology of Berenstain Bears books I like. But the hard-bound book exceeds my budget for this project.  There are the Berenstain Bears in paperbacks, so these are an option. Then I see several Eric Carle books in a nice display – the art work is gorgeous but I’m looking for more elaborate storylines.

So the search continues at two more nearby stores, Wal-Mart and Kroger. Both stores have lots of children’s picture books. But again, I’m not seeing the animal stories that seem quite right for the silent auction basket.

The fourth option is a store accessible at home courtesy of Wi-Fi, Amazon.com. All I have to do is type in the name of an author or book title recalled from years ago and there they are! There are new copies and used copies. They’re not all that expensive. They’re paperbacks. And they’re classics, at least to me.

So online shopping wins the day. The receipt notifies me that the books will arrive at my home in just two days.  Here’s what I selected to put into the basket for the silent auction:

  • “Eli” ─ Bill Peet
  • “Big Bad Bruce” ─ Bill Peet
  • “Harry the Dirty Dog” ─ Gene Zion
  • “The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg” ─ Bill Peet
  • “How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head” ─ Bill Peet
  • My own book, “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.”

Two days later after the ordered books have come in the mail, I’m stuffing handfuls of green and tan paper filling into the basket. But it doesn’t’ seem right not to include some candy. So in go some brightly colored jelly beans. Evidently, too many Easter baskets have affected my conception of what goes into a basket. Also, it doesn’t seem right not to include a coloring book ─ so in goes a nice coloring book obtained from Wal-Mart: “Winnie the Pooh: Big Fun Book to Color” (Disney). Finally, in goes a laminated cut-out of a favorite illustration of an animal shelter dog and cat from my new book.

The basket is ready to go.  What would go in your basket for favorite children’s animal stories?

Storyline Online … when you’re too tired or busy to read to your child

This week I’ve been exploring the Internet under a self-appointed mission to see what’s out there to help parents who are too tired after working all day to read to their young children; or who have kids of different ages who can’t figure out how to read to all of them given the realities of time.

After searching using key words ─ literacy, reading, reading to children ─ an online option wonderfully emerged out of e-world that would really work for these situations and many others. Storyline Online is a program of the Screen Actors Guild, part of the Guild’s commitment to children’s literacy. Storyline Online offers an online streaming video program featuring celebrities reading children’s books out loud. The actors read the story and the artwork comes alive through video production. I watched five stories tonight.  My favorites so far are Elijah Wood reading “Me and My Cat,” and Betty White reading “Harry the Dirty Dog.”

Storyline Online got its start 12 years ago through a grant from Verizon. The purpose is to strengthen comprehension, verbal and written skills of English language learners worldwide.  The program started with five videos featuring actors reading children’s books ─ now the site offers 19. There are also supplemental activities for each book that have been developed by an educator. Two important advantages of this site: you can access it 24/7 and it’s free.

I read through the many testimonials to see who’s using the site and why. There are many teachers using it in their classrooms to supplement their teaching activities. Some librarians in other countries indicate they don’t have enough books in their libraries so this helps to supplement their resources. There are students studying English in other countries who use the site to help them learn English. And yes, there are those working parents and grandparents who use the site on those nights when they’re too tired to read to their children and grandchildren. I especially liked the 45 year old living in Paris who just likes stories read aloud to her.

This is a cool site. Check it out if you need help reading to children – or if you just want someone to read you a great children’s story. I plan to go back and listen myself to more stories, for sure: http://www.storylineonline.net/




Happy 150th birthday to Stratemeyer, great storyteller

Thanks to the Writer’s Almanac which magically delivers a new poem to my cell phone daily via 4G around 1 a.m., I get to either start each day or end each night reading a poem. Along with the poem comes a list of famous writers with a birthday that day. Today’s list (October 4), celebrates Edward Stratemeyer’s 150th birthday. When I was a child, I read many of his books but today I didn’t recognize his name. What I could not know as a child was how important Stratemeyer was to bringing storytelling to children’s literature. Writers Almanac describes him as “one of the first American writers to capitalize on the new market in children’s literature which was created by universal primary education. At the time, most children’s books taught moral lessons.” Stratemeyer, however, had a different vision: tell gripping stories and use recurring characters in a series to capture children’s interest. So he created various series of stories with the same characters in them (e.g., the Motor Boys, the Outdoor Girls, the Bobbsey Twins). His books took off so fast that he couldn’t do all the writing himself. So he wrote the outline for each story and hired a crew of freelance writers to write the books under a pen name owned by his company. Two of his most popular series for kids were detective series ─ the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew was an icon to me as child ─I read every book. Thankfully, storytelling ran in the Stratemeyer family, because when Stratemeyer died, his two daughters continued the book business. So hat’s off today to the family whose name I long ago forgot but whose recurring characters and gripping stories have stayed with me ─and no doubt millions others ─for a lifetime. The mystery of Nancy Drew (who created her…) is solved.

If you want to get a daily poem from the Writer’s Almanac: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/

Acquiring a taste for stories and reading begins early ─ in picture books

Our family tree has two branches ─ the talkers and the non-talkers. I learned early about chatty, noisy people ─ and quiet, reserved people.  One of my early interests in attending family events was to acquire new stories. For the quiet side of the family, that meant asking lots of questions and hoping someone would speak up. On the noisy side, it meant waiting for a pause to ask questions or hoping a good story would emerge from the cacophony of voices. Regardless of which branch of the tree you were sitting under, neither branch necessarily carried the water on good stories. What were my criteria?

First, a good story should create worlds different than my own. Early in life, I learned that it was a good thing to explore other worlds ─ and safer and more practical to explore through stories.

To create that world of exploration, start early.  My taste for stories and reading began early, in children’s stories and especially children’s picture books.  And if the stories were about animals ─ real animals and mythical creatures ─ all the better.  For many years my preferred world included a bevy of domestic and wild cats, dogs, dragons, centaurs, mermaids, winged horses, hydra with writhing heads on scary serpent bodies, and unicorns who would come to the scene with rainbows for good measure.

To create new worlds, it’s important how the stories get told.  I was lucky on this score. Dad had good stage presence. He brought drama to storytelling with a commanding voice, flare for sing-songing poetry, and a memory able to recite whole passages from literature. Mom drew pictures to bring stories to life and brought rhyming to the made-up stories. The books I remember best were picture books brimming with big characters, interesting actions, major drama, and fabulous illustrations.

Despite my keen interest in animal lore, there were no family pets at our house. So I was left to peruse picture books and later forage in yards near our house for hungry, sick and stray animals to tend to. The veterinarian who lived next door was a helpful advisor.

This story picks up many years later. I’m peering over the cage in a pet store in St. Paul, Minnesota, sizing up one tiny grey kitten. I just concluded my first day in the PhD. Program at the University of Minnesota. There’s one bony little kitten, the runt of the litter, huddled in the corner of the cage. Her five brothers and sisters have already been adopted.  My early training as “animal rescuer” inspire me to pay $25 to take her home. I make her a promise to always take care of her.  She eventually acquires the name, Miss Kitty, after the “barista” on the TV show, Gunsmoke.  She doesn’t in any way resemble the robust, confident Miss Kitty. But I have a vivid dream that Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty has come back to life in my kitten.  It seems plausible.

Months later, on April fool’s day, I stop again at the same pet store. There’s a fat, healthy, bold black kitten jumping around the cage.  He seem like the perfect companion for the oft-grouchy Miss Kitty.  It’s my fault she’s bad-tempered.  She’s bored and angry because I leave her alone so much. So he comes along to rescue her from her boring life. I name him Chester, after Chester on Gunsmoke. Not because he resembles that Chester. But the name is fanciful and fun.  So, Chester joins the Z house – the apartment complex where we live near the university. Where we’re not supposed to have pets.  I rationalize the rule by telling myself we will no doubt be moving soon.

Miss Kitty and Chester become family. And many stories based on our conjoined lives emerge as we move to Iowa, Colorado, then Oregon. In-between, my son is born. Thankfully I do not name him Matt after Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke although I consider it. Instead, I name him Noah after Noah Webster, dictionary writer and caretaker of words; and biblical Noah, caretaker of animals. To live together well, I reason we will have to live through ─ and talk our way through ─the floods of life.

So from the earliest moments in his life, there’s story telling ─ to amuse Noah and me, to try to bring order to our world and explore new worlds. I resurrect stories learned as a child, make up new ones, and read a wide variety of picture books to him.  Especially stories about mythical creatures, strange lands, and real animal stories.

Over the years, many animals come and go in the Z house. Loved, precious animals, animals that capture our imagination with their quirkiness and magnificence. Miss Kitty lives to almost 22.  Chester dies of cancer at 8 – a truly beloved friend.  We bury him in the backyard of the Oregon Z house, covering his grave with a giant rock sparkling with quartz crystals that we transported on the moving van months earlier from Colorado, never imagining it will become his headstone.

Other animals join the Z house. When you’ve lived in 10 states as I have, you lose a place called home. That’s where the Z house comes in─ it’s where the stories live, wherever you live.

The Z House now joins the e-world, as a website about stories and reading. I hope you visit often. Mostly, I hope you keep reading and telling stories, especially to the children in your lives. It will give them a home in new worlds.  And help prepare them to live well through the floods of life.

What gets on a favorite book list to read to my child – and why…

The good news ─ for books ─ is that the criteria for making my favorite list is way easier than the criteria for making the favorite ice cream list. There have always been only a few favorite ice cream flavors. It all comes down to taste.   The top of the list – chocolate, dark chocolate, fudge chocolate, chocolate brownie, fudge ripple, and chocolate supreme.  You get the picture.  Occasionally I go for mint chip or black cherry but only if coupled with one of the chocolates, and preferably in a 3 scoops chocolate to 1 scoop “other” ratio.

For books, it is a more complicated formula. It isn’t only about the story, the flavor of the story.

First, the story has to be fun or interesting to be reading to my son, preferably both fun and interesting.  And there’s the great phrasing or great rhyming or the impressive creativity of storytelling at its best. And if the story carries a lesson or two and has some teachable moments, that’s a big plus. Then my son has to be willing to sit through the reading so even if I am loving the book it can’t be a favorite if my son isn’t liking the book.  One of the most important ─ the story has to be accompanied by great illustrations (and a lot of them) because art work is essential. Color is better than black and white.  Sorry for those of you who like black and white for artistic reasons.  It’s a big plus if the book is part of a series, because once we like the characters, the settings and art work, it’s reassuring to pick up a book that’s familiar but you get the benefits of a new story.  Books with compilations of stories – mini-stories – are great too because you can pick and choose among them ─ it’s great to have that factor of choice to make it more interesting when you sit down to select with your child what to read.  The length of story is important too ─ you want to get through the story in a single setting. It’s not so great to have to put the story down mid-stream because it’s too long and your child has already fallen asleep, or have it so short that it’s over too soon and your still wide-awake child is now asking for two or three more stories and you’re exhausted. Also, legible fonts are good─ and bigger are nice so I don’t have to find my reading glasses.  Then there’s book binding ─ you don’t want the book pages to be falling out while you’re reading.  And the redundancy factor.  For mysterious reasons some of these stories are going to get on your child’s “read it again and again” list.  So you better pick some favorites of yours that you hope get on the ”do over” list to sustain you when you have to read that story for the 200th  time.

When my son was little, we read through hundreds of books.  Many we bought at the grocery and bookstore – there wasn’t the online option then.  And many we checked out from the library.

The earliest favorites were “baby books” made out of cloth that could be washed. As a toddler my son seemed to experience the story best by chewing the words in his mouth, spitting them out on the page when done.

A next stage brought in the whimsical Dr. Seuss books – favorites were The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. I’ll come back to Dr. Seuss in another blog because his books made such a big impact on our lives.

And we liked pop-up books of all kinds: 3-D gardens, under-the-sea adventures and rabbits hiding behind giant birthday cakes.

The Berenstain bears made the list, with relatable stories about every-day activities (e.g., going to the dentist, eating junkfood, dealing with new neighbors, too much television, manners).  These books were especially great for teachable moments.

Soon dinosaur books joined the favorite list.  The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistory Reptiles got read more than 200 times.  We liked it especially because it’s written in the present tense so you get the feeling that diplodocus, stegosaurus, and tyrannosaurus are swimming in warm seas, hunting for food, and moving from place to place in the here and now ─ even as the book tries to convey the concept of history, through drawings depicting different archeological periods across an impressive span of 250 million years.

Truly a favorite was the Stories of Gods and Heroes: Famous Myths and Legends of the World.  This book got read so many times the hardback cover was separated from the 100 or so inside pages.  This book had the advantage of impressive artwork to illustrate 30 some myths from Greece and Rome, with many others from around the world including the favorite King Arthur and his Knights, Johnny Appleseed, and Buffalo Bill. The enduring favorites from Greece and Rome were the fire-bringer Prometheus, Pandora’s decision whether to open the box,  and the pros and cons of Midas turning everything to gold.

Another favorite was the Joe Kaufman series.  About the Big Sky, About the High Hills, About the Rich Earth …and the Deep Sea explained a lot (to us both) about the stars, planets, clouds, weather instruments, caves, earthquakes and volcanoes.  How We are Born, How We Grow, How Our Bodies Work … and How We Learn was a great practical book again explaining to us both where tears come from, what makes us yawn, what makes us blush, and why our skin perspires. And Wings, Paws, Hoofs and Flippers created great games and questions to answer while dispensing a lot of knowledge: ‘you’re in the Arctic and a one-ton, two-tusked walrus goes floating by. What are those long tusks for?’  And ‘You’re watching a race between an ostrich, horse, gazelle, and cheetah. Who will win?’

I saved the best for last ─ the Bill Peet books, with whimsical stories and fabulous illustrations.  We especially liked Big Bad Bruce; How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head; Ella; The Pinkish Purplish Bluish Egg; The Caboose Who Got Loose; and Buford the Little Bighorn.  Peet books were such favorites I’m making a mental note to come back to them in another blog.

So these are my thoughts today on what gets on the favorites list ─ and why.

I hope lots of guest bloggers come forward to share your thoughts ─ what gets on your favorite book list and why?   And if you want to share your favorite ice cream flavor, that would be good too!