Category Archives: tricky emotions

Chloe’s Birthday…And Me

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By Giselle Potter

Atheneum Books, 2004

As we drove into Le Cerisier — which means “the cherry tree” in French — I squeezed my eyes shut. I wish it were my birthday, I wish it were my birthday, I said in my head over and over. Chloe was too little to even care that it was her birthday, and my birthday was my favorite day of the year — much better than Christmas or Halloween because all the attention is just for you.

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The Tub People

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By Pam Conrad, Illustrations by Richard Egielski

Scholastic, 1989

The Tub People stood in a line all day on the edge of the bathtub. There were seven of them, and they always stood in the same order — the father, the mother, the grandmother, the doctor, the policeman, the child and the dog. They were made out of wood, and their faces were very plain. They could smile or frown, or cry or laugh. Sometimes they would even wink at each other, but it hardly showed.

My son attached a piece of blue painter’s tape to the cover of this book, marking it as one of his all-time favorites. Although truthfully, he was probably also looking for a project that would stall his bedtime without making me lose my patience. (How can you get angry at a child for showing love towards his books?) One evening, the Tub Child is accidentally swept down the drain, causing untold grief, loss and helplessness to wash over the “surviving” Tub People. Despite the happy ending, there’s a melancholy tone to this book and illustrations that I’m not always in the mood for. But I recommend it all the same.

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The Only Boy in Ballet Class

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Written by Denise Gruska, Illustrations by Amy Wummer

Gibbs Smith, 2007

As soon as Tucker pushes open the door to Madame Clara’s Dance Studio, it happens. He stands a little taller. When he takes off his shoes and pulls on his very worn-out ballet slippers, he jumps even higher than usual. It feels like flying. He likes to carve the air with the other dancers.

Every once in a while, I crave a really simple rom-com in which the plot is so formulaic that exactly forty-nine minutes in, the lead actress feels sorry for herself and eats a lot of ice cream, straight out of the container. There’s something wonderfully  comforting about knowing exactly how things will turn out  — like they should, damnit — and that’s why I’m fond of The Only Boy in Ballet Class. Tucker Dohr loves to dance, although it embarrasses his Uncle Frank, his little sisters attempt to trip him, and the bullies in his class (who, of course, play football and all need haircuts) call him “Tippy-Toe Boy” or “Twinkle Toes.” It’s all so hurtful that Tucker cries sometimes when he’s alone. But then he’s goaded by his Uncle Frank to play a game of football with his arch enemies and surprise! He wows them with his pirouettes, jetes, and assembles. (Cue the feel-good pop music.)

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Fancy Nancy

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By Jane O’Connor, Pictures by Robin Preiss Glasser

Harper Collins, 2006

I love being fancy. My favorite color is fuchsia. That’s a fancy way of saying purple. I like to write my name with a pen that has a plume. That’s a fancy way of saying feather. And I can’t wait to learn French because everything in French sounds fancy.  Nobody in my family is fancy at all. They never even ask for sprinkles.

I resisted Fancy Nancy for a loooong time. Each time I saw it at our local book store or the library, I’m fairly certain I sniffed audibly and/or rolled my eyes. It just seemed so, well, fancy. But when someone gave my daughter a copy for her second birthday, I finally got past the tiara and chorus-girl coyness of the cover illustration and actually read it. And I freely admit I was wrong: Fancy Nancy is fairly marvelous — which is a fancy way of saying “pretty darn good.” What you’re getting isn’t a compelling narrative, but a compelling character. Nancy has such a unique way of seeing the world, you just can’t help but be charmed. Oh, and just for fun, take a look at Super-Completely and Totally the Messiest, the 2001 book Glasser illustrated with Judith Viorst. Any red-curly-haired girl with an exuberant attitude look familiar?

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Ella Takes the Cake

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By Carmela and Steven D’Amico

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005

It was already summer vacation and the bakery was busier than ever. Ella tried her best to help. But sometimes, she didn’t feel very helpful. She’d already swept the floor three times. There wasn’t a crumb on it. When the oven timer went off — DING! — Ella thought she’d help by taking out the macaroons. “No, no, no,” her mother sang. “You might burn yourself.”

Maybe it’s because I read this to my daughter while my son was attending his first day of nature camp and I was fraught with anxiety, but I found this book to be…a nail-biter. Little Ella, who surely owes a huge debt to Babar, insists on delivering an enormous three-tiered birthday cake. She is, of course, on her bike, while Danger Cake is pulled behind her in a clunky wooden wagon. Ella is blissfully unphased by the obstacles she encounters — including her belligerent “friend,” Belinda and an alarmingly steep hill.  I’m sure I read this story faster, louder, and with more urgency than my daughter would have liked. But I breathed a sigh of relief when Belinda delivered the cake to the Captain intact (and my son had a blast.)

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Not Norman: A Goldfish Story

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By Kelly Bennett, Illustrated by Noah Z. Jones

Candlewick Press, 2005

When I got Norman, I didn’t want to keep him. I wanted a different kind of pet. Not Norman. I wanted a pet who could run and catch. Or one who could climb trees and chase strings. A soft, furry pet to sleep on my bed at night. Not  Norman. All Norman does is swim around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around…

Here’s the perfect book to read your kids when they’re asking for a Dalmation or pony and you’re thinking more along the lines of… koi. The young narrator of the story think he’s been gypped out of a “good” pet. After all, Norman can’t do anything. Or can he? The more time and attention Norman spends on his little googly-eyed fish (albeit under the guise of bringing him back to the pet store), the more he begins to appreciate his new finned friend. The cheerful digital drawings keep up, er, swimmingly, with Bennett’s gentle narrative.

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The Bora-Bora Dress

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By Carole Lexa Schaefer, Illustrated by Catherine Stock

Candlewick Press, 2005

Lindsey never ever ever wore a dress. She wore her baggy shorts to run on the beach. She wore her old jeans to climb up to her tree house. She wore her patch overalls to jump in heaps of leaves. “What’s a dress good for, anyway?” said Lindsey.

The answer: Going to her Aunt Fiona’s extremely fancy dress-up party. Lindsey reluctantly lets her mother take her to Miss Beeline’s Girls’ Shop to look — just look –– at dresses. As any tomboy in her right mind would expect, they’re hideous, with fluffy ruffles, lots-of-dots and plaids-and-pleats. (I do enjoy a good hyphenated phrase.) But then Lindsey spies a surprising frock that looks as if it was made just for her. My two-year-old daughter, who points to any dress and says, “I will never, ever wear that,” finds this book quite curious. I think she appreciates long-legged, adventurous, sloppy-in-a-cool-way Lindsey. (There are those hyphens again.) And the illustrations of Aunt Fiona’s party — especially her hedge maze and Tower O’ Cupcakes — are magical. Blissfully, Lindsey doesn’t make a Kafka-esque transformation into Prim and Proper Princess.  She simply comes to the logical conclusion that a good dress serves a purpose as well as jeans.

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Spoon

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By Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Illustrated by Scott Magoon

Disney Hyperion Books, 2009

Lately, Spoon had been feeling blue. “What’s wrong?” asked his mother. “You look a bit out of shape.” “Nothing,” mumbled Spoon. “It’s just that…I don’t know…All my friends have it so much better than me. Like Knife. Knife is so lucky! He gets to cut, he gets to spread. I never get to cut or spread.”

Sad little Spoon thinks everyone’s got it better than him. Fork gets to plunge face-first into a fiery BBQ grill and lasso spaghetti, for instance. And Chopsticks are just so cool and exotic. Fortunately, patient and wise Mama Spoon is there to remind Spoon of his unique abilities. This picture book offers a refreshing spin on a heard-it-lots-before message (“Everyone’s special in their own way”). Rosenthal’s droll insight is as welcome as ever and Magoon has somehow managed to make various kitchen utensils as cuddly and winsome as Winnie the Pooh.

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Half a World Away

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By Libby Gleeson, Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006

Amy and Louie built towers as high as the sky. They dug holes deep enough to bury bears, and they saw magical creatures in the clouds…But one day Amy and her family moved a long, long way away…to the other side of the world.

I’ve come across precious few children’s books that deal gracefully with death (Up in Heaven, by Emma Chichester Clark, is by far the best) and way fewer which acknowledge the smaller, yet also significant, losses kids might experience as well. At the top of that list? Having your best friend move away. The beauty of this very simple book is its reassuring message: A special friendship won’t be broken by distance. When my son’s best friend moved to the opposite coast last fall, he was devastated — but didn’t want to talk about it. I like to think reading this book offered him some comfort.

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Lovable Lyle

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By Bernard Waber

Houghton Mifflin, 1969

Everyone loved Lyle the Crocodile. The Primm Family, with whom he lived, loved him dearly, of course. And the bakery lady loved him. She always gave Lyle a cookie; his favorite kind, with colorful sprinkles on top. 

Look closely at the above image. I’m pretty sure that’s red Kool-Aid, circa the 1970’s, spilled over the top right cover. On the left is a piece of Scotch tape on which either my sister or me priced this book at a reasonable 3 cents. But of course, we would never really sell it to anyone besides each other. Out of all the Lyle books, this was by far our favorite. Uber-friendly, tender-hearted Lyle is crushed when he starts receiving hate mail from a secret enemy. To try to make the terrible missives stop, he ramps up his juggling abilities and practices big, big smiles in the mirror. But the letters keep coming. The mystery of who is sending them and why will keep kids interested, and I love the myriad of important life lessons this book teaches. Take your pick: “It isn’t always possible to please everyone.” “Don’t judge people before you get to know them.”  “Watch your kid at the beach,” and so on.

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