Sunday, January 30, 2011

So different, so alike, babies everywhere!

Turning a page of a board book is a great activity for babies, anticipating another colorful picture appearing. But we know, they are grabbing, holding, sucking, and often chewing it rather than reading it. They certainly do not comprehend what mommy reads, but hear mommy’s voice that always excites and comforts them. The simple, repetitive, rhythmic words ring in their ears, while colorful pictures hold their short attention. For babies, board books are one of the first navigators into the world they don’t yet know.

One of the much-read children’s book blogs, Jennifer Robinson’s Book Page recently posted a great review on two board books from our Babies Everywhere series, Families and Carry Me, saying “these two books are an excellent addition to our library of board books... and a great addition to, say, a basket of books delivered to a new baby.”

In Families, each left hand page shows photographs of multi-ethnic babies and adults walking, playing, sharing food, swimming, and cuddling, and on each facing page are charming photographs of animals doing the same. “Like Mommy cuddles me, a baby in a picture hugged tightly in his mommy’s arms, so is a baby chimp; all mommies are bigger than their babies as my mommy is bigger than me,” your baby might think.

In my native culture (Korea), people carry their babies on their back (mostly mothers/grandmothers) in a wadded quilt baby wrapper. So when I saw women carry their babies on their side in Indonesia (mostly without support of any extra fabric), it was a bit of surprise, and, say, a sort of enlightenment. Carry Me is a wonderful portrait of cultures across the globe with vibrant photographs of babies carried in unique ways. Easy to flip the page for very young children. The simple and repetitive text will slide into their ears.

In addition to sucking, grabbing and chewing, with these books, babies will slowly build awareness of cultural diversity and similarity in human and animal activities. They are a National Geographic for babies.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happy Birthday, Brian Wildsmith!

Yeeaaa! One of the greatest living children’s illustrators, innovator of children’s picture books, Brian Wildsmith was born today in 1930, so much joy for children and adults around the globe. A son of a miner, he grew up in a small mining village in Yorkshire, England, where everything was grey. He was poor like everyone else in the village, so it didn’t much matter. “Everything was grey. There wasn’t any colour. It was all up to my imagination. I had to draw in my head...”

The imagination, against all odds, was, indeed, the source of inspiration that made him who he is today. He won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art where he studied for three years. But teachers at the school would not let him paint what he imagined. “They’d try and make you paint like them.” But he wants to make children “want to paint. Not to copy, but to think” (Interview in Book Trust). For a while he taught music at the Royal Military School of Music, but then gave it up so that he could paint full time. In 1962, he published his first children’s book, ABC, for which he was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal, Britain’s equivalent to the Caldecott Medal.
In 1994, the Brian Wildsmith Art Museum was established in Izukogen, a town south of Tokyo, Japan, and when the Fuji Art Museum in Tokyo hosted a traveling exhibition of his work in 2004, almost one and a half million people visited the museum.

“I believe that beautiful picture books are vitally important in subconsciously forming a child’s visual appreciation, which will bear fruit in later life,” says Brian Wildsmith. When asked why so much details in his illustrations, he assures us saying “I believe children appreciate details as well as color. I want to help young people wonder at the world and to become close observers of the beauty and harmony in nature.”

I wish I could see how your brush strokes are rendered on the white canvas, that lead us to a world of imagination. Happy Birthday, Brian Wildsmith! I am going to dive into your wonder of color all day long, here in New England, where everything is white, and below zero cold.
Dear readers, visit the Brian Wildsmith Website, where little birds from colorful bushes welcome you, flapping hard their tiny wings.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What does the groundhog really see? Shadow or food?

Children never complain about the weather: they love freezing and snow blocked ‘inconvenient’ ( grown-ups’ perspective) winter as much as they love hot sweaty ‘unpleasant’ (grown-ups’ perspective) summer. Yet, they do long for spring when winter seems too long (mainly to be free from a heavy coat, I figure). Still in the middle of deep winter, everyone is getting “restless,” and that’s around February. Luckily, Groundhog Day is right on February 2, which will tell us how much more winter fun we will have or when winter will be over.

Groundhog Day is a folk custom and a tradition that puzzles and amuses children in a way no other “days” do. It gives them a chance to know the ways farmers used to live, to learn about certain beliefs, and getting familiar with unfamiliar animals (like a groundhog), and their behaviors. Lorna Balian, one of the much-beloved children’s book authors, whose books are often passed down from a mother to a daughter, captures all aspects of this unique tradition in A Garden for a Groundhog, in a playful manner, let alone her much praised illustrations.
Mr. and Mrs. O’Leary live in a small cottage with their cat in a small farm that has a tiny shed for the goat, the lamb and two chickens, and a tiny vegetable garden. There is also an apple tree, under which a groundhog, who loves vegetable as much as the O’Learys, owns his burrow, and hibernates there. All winter long the O’Learys spend time knitting and reading, and eating a lot of zucchini dishes. But Mrs. O’Leary and Mr. O’Leary have a little different opinion about a groundhog. When Groundhog Day came they went out to see what the groundhog saw!

The water-color illustrations are so distinguished- detailed touch, gentle lines, and, the warmth of colors is radiated in page after page. There are five kitchen scenes in the book, which are slightly different one from another, that make me restless to find out what has been altered!: the stove, the sink, the calender, the cat, the “Home Sweet Home” picture, the number of zucchinis, and a lot more.

A Garden for a Groundhog can be read on many different levels (I didn’t get why they eat so many zucchini dishes when reading it for the first time), from preschoolers to early graders would find different giggling (and learning) points in their own ways. A Garden for a Groundhog is lovely and playful just like the lamb, the goat, and hens peeking outside of a shed on a snow falling winter night, or kicking-up their heels in the spring grass. And Lorna Balian tells a story in a way a grandmother tells a story in her warm kitchen when the snow falls quietly.

Monday, January 17, 2011

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I Have a Dream speech, August 28, 1963

As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it struck me that his message is always in the present, not just in the past. Children, no matter where they are coming from, what they might show in their character or talent or not, each one of them are a unique, and distinguished being with full potential. It’s our responsibility to let them shine in their own way.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Children love tricks, so do jungle animals

Children love tricks. Don’t they? My little friend, on the way home from preschool, he often stops and asks me if I want to see his new tricks, which mainly involves jumping, kicking, spinning... spinning with kicking, and kicking with jumping. Then he proudly shows me his new tricks, so enthusiastic as if a professional gymnast would confide his new skills to his circle of close friends.
Children love watching a circus or clown shows like juggling balls (and clubs), power tumbling, hat tricks, and balancing on a rope, and of course swinging in the air. They laugh, they giggle, they are appalled, they hold their breath, they shout with joy, and they clap as hard as they can.

As he has always done, Brian Wildsmith brought another wonderful story to us: this time, one full of fun and amazing tricks by not clowns, but by wild animals in a jungle. In Jungle Party, the hungry Python announced a party and invited all jungle animals. First, the animals were skeptical of the sly snake’s invitation. But the Python promised that he would not hurt anyone at the party, and suggested a great idea for a party- the trick competition. Who would not love the party? And showing their proud tricks? So here goes a team of a Gnu, jungle fowls, and a chameleon. Jungle fowls stand on beaks on Gnu’s back, and a Chameleon catches insects. The audience says, “Not bad. Not bad.” A Hyena walks on 2 melons for 20 yards. The animals were very impressed. “That’s great. That trick will be hard to beat.” A Spotted leopard and 4 monkeys stand on their heads on the leopard’s back. The audience went wild, “Wow. These tricks are getting better and better.” A Pelican collects many animals in its beak. Then, the hungry Python says he can get more animals into his mouth than the Pelican. Everyone is too excited to be cautious... What will happen to them?

Animals and their tricks performances are rendered in Wildsmith’s magical colors, and the tricks are just fun and amusing. The responses of animal audiences make you giggle. Full of wit and zest, Jungle Party is another wonderful story children would love.
p.s. As you may have noticed, in the month of January, we are exploring more about Brian Wildsmith’s books here. What is your (and your child’s) favorite Brian Wildsmith’s book?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Teaching compassion

A friend of mine has invited me to go with her to Karen Armstrong’s talk on Thursday. A renowned British writer for her books on religious philosophy, will talk about her recent book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I haven’t read the book yet, but the idea of compassion has always fascinated me with many questions: simple questions like are we born with compassion or do we learn it from life? Is compassion a remarkably human thing? How far can our compassion be extended? In ancient China, the great Confucius thinker Mencius wrote four virtues of men, which starts with compassion: “The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence...” Can compassion be taught without being so didactic? Can compassion be a pure pleasure? Are children more compassionate than adults?

I was reading Brian Wildsmith’s Hunter and His Dog (I am re-reading Wildsmith’s books as much as I can before his birthday. Yeah! January 20th is the day. It’s my own private celebration of his birthday. I don’t think he knows, but that’s totally okay!)
A hunter was training his new puppy as his new hunting partner, and one day, he took him on a real hunt. He shot a wild duck, the duck fell to the ground. The hunter told the dog to bring the duck as he trained him to fetch sticks and eggs. But when the dog went to fetch the duck, he could not bear to retrieve the wounded duck. Instead, the dog brought sticks back to the hunter and took the wounded duck to a little island. Each time when they went hunting, the dog took wounded ducks to a little island where they could heal, and every night he brought a loaf of bread to the ducks. Then one night, the hunter followed the dog.....

Hunter and His Dog is a story of compassion. The tender-hearted dog shows remarkable compassion towards wounded ducks, the helpless, the weak, and acts on their behalf, despite it being against the authority. Brian assures us that compassion is not just a human thing. When asked why he chooses to paint and write about animals, Wildsmith says,
“We once had a blind dog that was mothered by a neighborhood dog. I was quite impressed by this and learned that animals show a great deal of compassion for one another. When I paint animals, I imagine them as a child would. I want children to make personal connections to the animals in my books.”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Begin the Year with Poetry

Happy New Year to all! It’s always good to have a new year; a new start, a new chance to reclaim (oneself), to be hopeful again, and make a new new year’s resolution; a new wish list, things to do, things to learn, places to go, and above all, books to read! In the case of books, a list is always involved with classics, either not-yet-read (shame) or re-reading a list of books that we would always return to.

No other books would do better than A Child’s Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson's timeless poems for children. The book has been in print since 1885, and is now illustrated by Brian Wildsmith’s stunning art. The year that is begun with poems, I suppose, cannot go wrong. It’s not April yet, not a national poetry month. But reading poetry gives children an appreciation for reading aloud. We all know children are very keen to hear rhyme, and rhythm and that’s how they come to know the joy of playing with language.

Read aloud to your child as poetry is supposed to be. Recite poetry with your child, one by you, another by your child. Perhaps, each night or each morning like a ritual. In the book, there are plenty of poems that resonate with a child’s every mood and imagination; whimsical, silly, exuberant, and melancholy. Then just hold a moment to study Brian Wildsmith’s enthralling wonder of color, magical brushstrokes that makes us happy again, dream again, imagine wild again, silly again and smile again. So will the year of 2011 be to all!