Joanna Brichetto

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Father’s Day is not always a Hallmark moment. The reality of family life is usually far from perfection; for some it is farther than others. Take these three authors: children of fathers gone for good, for bad or just gone, and all left with a legacy of regret, guilt, shame or uncertainty. Each book records the drama of adult children struggling to determine who their fathers really were, and at the same time, by the very act of writing, who they are, themselves.

In Either You’re In or You’re In the Way, twin brothers Logan and Noah Miller chronicle their own wild ride of a filmic tribute to their father. The boys were blue-collar to the bone, living from odd job (roofer, bouncer) to even odder job (Abercrombie & Fitch model), trying to make enough to support themselves and their chronically homeless alcoholic dad. But when Mr. Miller suddenly dies during a routine stay in a jail cell, alone and ill, the twins vow to take his story to the world: to make a movie that will help redeem the suffering of a good man. They have never been to film school, written a script, shot a scene, nor have a single contact in the biz, yet within a year, they manage to write, fund, act in and produce a feature film. Despite ridiculous odds, the twins assemble an Academy Award-winning cast and crew with Ed Harris in the lead role. Perversely, it is thanks to the horror of the father’s end that his sons turn tragedy into a triumph of his own making. Either You’re In or You’re In the Way is told in a careening, no-nonsense, seat-of-the-pants style that is no doubt similar to the way the twins actually lived it. By the way, the boys’ movie, Touching Home, has already garnered accolades at a prestigious film festival, and is now making its way to wider audiences.

Then there is the age-old Oedipal story of a boy who literally doesn’t know who his father is. In Go Ask Your Father: One Man’s Obsession with Finding His Origins Through DNA Testing Lennard J. Davis, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, doggedly pursues answers to complicated questions, questions that several key players hoped would never be asked. After a lifetime of ignoring a persistent “underlying murmur” that his dad was not, in fact, his biological father, Davis investigates every possible clue to uncover the truth. What follows is a mix of memoir, genealogical mystery and a concise history of artificial insemination and DNA testing. “Obsession” is an apt word to describe Davis’ pursuit, yet there is no guarantee that even this level of exhausting and exhaustive research will produce all the right answers. Who was his real father: the man he called Dad, his ne’er-do-well uncle, an anonymous sperm donor, or perhaps most shocking, his mother’s gynecologist? Which man would he prefer to turn out to be so? And what does being a “real” father mean? Do genetics truly define us, and if so, to what degree? Toward the end of Go Ask Your Father, one particular family photo speaks a thousand inscrutable words in response.

Danzy Senna’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? A Personal History is a completely different exploration of personal identity. The 1968 wedding of her parents—a blue-blood Boston Brahmin mother and a Southern black father—would seem a match made in civil rights heaven, but the eight-year union and violent divorce turn out to be domestic hell. As the product of two clashing cultures and colors, Senna is shaped by the labels forced upon her by her own parents, and by the problematic reception America grants a child of mixed-race heritage. It is no accident that both of her novels, Caucasia and Symptomatic, involve a female, biracial protagonist, but now this acclaimed writer hopes to dig beneath fiction for fact. She focuses on her father: a man whose past is anything but clear, even to himself. He is abusive, alcoholic, brilliant, beautiful, drifting, maddening and mysterious. Senna travels South on the trail of contradictory rumors and legal records, negotiating this alien landscape wherein the very nature and definition of family are called into question. Ultimately, her search leads to a reframing of identity for four generations, including her infant son, and the exposure of a complex middle ground of meaning, far from black and white.

Joanna Brichetto writes from Nashville.

Father’s Day is not always a Hallmark moment. The reality of family life is usually far from perfection; for some it is farther than others. Take these three authors: children of fathers gone for good, for bad or just gone, and all left with a legacy of regret, guilt, shame or uncertainty. Each book records […]
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Who doesn't like food and love, together or apart? Together, they are magic, and whether it began with Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate, "foodie fiction" is hot. Three new choices are showcased below: all centered on a female character at or near 40, all tending toward the literary rather than strictly romance or chick lit. Each one is a sensual exploration of foods simple and complex, homey and exotic, and above all, slow. Slow food allows time for the invocation of vivid and luxuriant metaphors (a food is said to be something else: a particular feeling, wet autumn leaves, a magnolia petal, a lover's lower lip, the smell of a mahogany desk and so on). Some descriptions are so inventive they verge on outright cross-sensory synesthesia. And be forewarned—each of these novels will make you very, very hungry.

A pinch of humor

Nancy Spiller's Entertaining Disasters is aptly titled. The double entendre captures the plight of the unnamed narrator to a tee. A freelance food writer, she makes it her business, literally, to orchestrate exquisite dinner parties and record every detail for newspaper and magazine articles. Unfortunately, her journalistic output belongs not under "Style" or "Living" or "Food," but firmly under "Fiction." She makes it all up. Why? Because, without exception, every dinner party she has actually sponsored was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. As a result, her social anxieties have escalated into party paralysis. So, for 10 years she has conducted only imaginary gatherings: sparkling dinner parties peopled by an anonymous and utterly fictitious roster of L.A.'s most beautiful.

Until now. Suddenly, her editor, who has no inkling of her secret, invites himself to her next soiree. Since he's a busy man, the first available date is five months off, which gives our narrator nearly half a year to obsess about one dinner party. Her borderline stream-of-consciousness, tangential terror splits into fascinating diversions about food and food history, and ultimately, about herself. Her past gradually emerges, pulled from silence by a smell, a taste, a touch or a memory of a particular ingredient. Now, at midlife, she is ready to examine the list of her own ingredients: who she is and what she wants.


A dash of romance

The central character of The Lost Recipe for Happiness, by Barbara O'Neal, is also starting over. Elena Alvarez arrives in Aspen poised for the professional opportunity of a lifetime: her own kitchen in an upscale, new restaurant. Poised, that is, with a broken body, a broken family and a string of broken relationships behind her. Thirty-seven, unmarried with no children, she is deservedly proud of her decades of slow, hard work up the kitchen ladder from slave to sous to chef.

Elena has been rebuilding her life since she was a teenager, when a horrific accident killed her boyfriend and several family members. Elena alone survived—albeit with horrific injuries—and she remains haunted by her past. So much so, perhaps, that she is in danger of missing a different opportunity: the possibility of true love. The unlikely candidate is Julian Liswood, who is not only a four-time-divorced hotshot film director, but her new boss, as well. The story alternates between third-person viewpoints of these two, and as the intricacies of each is revealed, the plot thickens quicker than a béchamel sauce. A nice touch is the bit of magic realism O'Neal (aka novelist Barbara Samuel) throws into the mix, giving Elena a bit of ghostly guidance and a sixth sense that serves her well.


Mix with friendship

In The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, eight people are brought together in a monthly cooking class with an intuitive and slightly mysterious chef, Lillian. With the exception of one couple, all are strangers to one another and to a certain degree, to themselves. Lillian's slow but startling method of instruction spills over into their inner lives, gently nudging each to explore what needs to be examined. Along the way, of course, they cook. True to Lillian's style, they cook without written recipes, guided by senses, memory and instinct.

Perhaps the most satisfying character study is the glimpse of Lillian's own genesis as a chef, and her earliest attempts in the kitchen. As a damaged child, she begins with little more than sheer will. With patient, methodical, focused experimentation (and a little help from a Wise Woman archetype), she begins what can be described as a journey of faith. Transforming basic ingredients into new works becomes a type of spirituality, a religion. With it, she saves her own mother, finds her own calling and masters her profession. Delicious.

 

Joanna Brichetto is trying to slow down.

Who doesn't like food and love, together or apart? Together, they are magic, and whether it began with Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate, "foodie fiction" is hot. Three new choices are showcased below: all centered on a female character at or near 40, all tending toward the literary rather than strictly romance or chick […]
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Meet some of the best parenting books of the year so far, culled from the gravid shelves at BookPage. Selected on individual merit, this disparate grouping nonetheless suggests a pattern: truth. These new books seem to concern themselves with rooting out truth no matter how entrenched the myth, how muddled the syndrome, how white the lie, and all entirely to our favor. Truth can be shocking. For example, what we thought was OK for kid’s health is bad, and what we thought was bad is actually OK. Or, we learn our ideals of the “good” mother and the “good” girl must be radically redefined. Or, we find the real nitty-gritty coming home with a newborn is not quite what we expected. Still, these books are just what the doctor should order: a frank, fearless and sometimes very funny heads-up. Of course, the ultimate parenting truth is that we all want to succeed, and with selections like these, we have a pretty good chance.

Myth-busters
How often have you heard these health facts: burns are best treated with ice, wounds should “air out” at night, spinach is a good source of iron, and teething can cause high fever? Guess what? These facts are fiction: baby myths, if you will. Pediatrician Andrew Adesman heard these and hundreds of other baby myths so often, he felt duty-bound to write a book: Babyfacts: the Truth About Your Child’s Health From Newborn Through Preschool. How about: raw carrots improve vision, green mucous always indicates a bacterial infection and cupcakes make kids hyper? Again, not true. If you are surprised, you aren’t alone: a pilot study showed a shocking number of pediatricians are just as credulous about these pervasive myths as the rest of us. Adesman deftly debunks the most common nuggets of misinformation in an easy-to-use, absorbing reference.

Open in case of emergency
The next book debunks myths too, but it specializes in how to distinguish a real emergency from a routine situation or a false alarm. Emergency room pediatrician Lara Zibners has the street cred to teach parents when a trip to the ER is a must, a maybe or a wait-and-see, and ditto for a regular acute office visit. In If Your Kid Eats This Book, Everything Will Still Be Okay, Dr. Zibners covers every category likely to be a concern at some point: newborn issues, skin, guts, “plumbing,” allergies, wounds, fever, head injuries and so on. The range is immense (and realistic): swallowed fish-tank gravel, super-glued body parts, high fevers or major trauma, she’s been there. A nice touch is the author’s overriding assertion that parents should always trust intuition: we know our own children best. Keep a copy in the medicine cabinet for quick, straightforward advice when you need it most.

In the trenches
Former war photojournalist Deborah Copaken Kogan is back with more stories from the family front. Picking up where her best-selling memoir Shutterbabe left off, Kogan weaves past and present into a wry portrait of real life at home. In Hell Is Other Parents: and Other Tales of Maternal Combustion the author confronts family challenges that make covering carnage in Afghanistan (which she has done) seem easy by comparison. Her frank take on Mommy & Me classes, life as a reluctant stage mother and encounters with parents who espouse decidedly different childrearing philosophies (i.e. helicopter parents) is delightful. So too are her flashbacks to younger and wilder days: days before she and her family of five must squeeze into a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment and get by on a freelancer’s pittance. Above all, do not miss the chapter about sharing a room in the maternity ward with the world’s rudest postpartum teenager.

Instruction manual
New moms and moms-to-be, meet your new best friend. Claudine Wolk, author of It Gets Easier! And Other Lies We Tell New Mothers, tells it (and all of it) like it really is: pregnancy, childbirth and those first, foggy baby months. Never mind all the other advice that will inevitably bombard the pregnant and postpartum: listen to her. Wolk, a mother of three, interviewed hundreds of women to find the real deal: the most helpful tips, most urgent issues and most practical solutions for the transition to motherhood. The three big common concerns—sleep, schedule and guilt—are covered in great detail, but each chapter is packed with invaluable, uncensored advice on absolutely everything. This book is precisely what the subtitle claims: “a fun, practical guide to becoming a mom.” Where, oh where was it when my two kids were new? A must for baby shower and new mom gifts.

The confident parent
Parents who have made it past the baby stage are ready for Jen Singer, award-winning mommy blogger and author of You’re a Good Mom. Singer’s new series began this spring with the publication of Stop Second-Guessing Yourself: The Toddler Years, and continues with the September release of Stop Second-Guessing Yourself: The Preschool Years. Singer’s cheery, no-nonsense style helps parents navigate the challenges unique to the three- to five-year-old set (or, as she calls them, “tiny teens in light-up sneakers”). Combining her own experiences with those of veteran moms from her website, MommaSaid.net, she gives the support, advice and insights most of us desperately need. Note the reassuring reader-contributed “It Worked for Me” and “Okay, I Admit It” boxes sprinkled throughout.

Giving girls voice
Rachel Simmons broke new ground with Odd Girl Out, the best-selling exploration of bullying among girls. With The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence she turns her lens to the insidious myth of the Good Girl: a narrow and unrealistic model of female perfection. Far too many girls equate self-esteem with being “good”: thinking and acting only in modest, polite, conscientious and selfless ways. Such a limited repertoire of acceptable feelings limits the healthy development of real self esteem, body image and overall confidence, and prevents girls from cultivating potential. The pattern can start in early childhood and expand throughout life, affecting choices in education, career, relationships and family life, as well as a sense of purpose and worth. Simmons presents case studies and research to illustrate the complexities of the Good Girl syndrome, as well as numerous strategies we can all undertake to encourage the authentic inner—and ultimately outer—voice of girls.

Joanna Brichetto objects to the word “parent” used as a verb, but she parents a teen and a toddler, anyway.

Meet some of the best parenting books of the year so far, culled from the gravid shelves at BookPage. Selected on individual merit, this disparate grouping nonetheless suggests a pattern: truth. These new books seem to concern themselves with rooting out truth no matter how entrenched the myth, how muddled the syndrome, how white the […]
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A Santa’s sack of winning picture books awaits choosy buyers this holiday season. Some are overtly religious, some are secular and some are a bit of both. Magic is a common thread throughout the books: the magic of the original Christmas story, of Mother Nature, anticipation, gratitude and most especially the miracle of new life.

All are in the same basic age range, which is limitless if you admit that reading aloud (and being read to) is a magic we never really outgrow.

Christmas all year long
Who Would Like a Christmas Tree?, written by Ellen Bryan Obed and illustrated by Anne Hunter, is a refreshingly different holiday picture book: an exploration of the flora and fauna of the Christmas tree. “Who would like a Christmas tree in January?” it begins, and the surprising answer is a black-capped chickadee, which eats “moth eggs and little spiders hidden under the bark,” and also roosts in the dense branches. Month by month, animal by animal, from aphids to wild turkeys, the whole year of a Christmas tree’s prolific usefulness is revealed. The book remains story-like enough for the very young and meaty enough for the older reader (and for the adult reader, who will learn much).

A baby on the way
Kids too excited to sleep as Christmas approaches will enjoy the lovely lullaby book Nighty Night, Baby Jesus by Molly Schaar Idle. The combination of gentle, rhyming text; soft, curvy illustrations; and the always welcome opportunity to make animal noises should please readers and listeners. The author/artist is a former illustrator at DreamWorks, and the influence is evident in her stylized forms (think Prince of Egypt) and cinematic treatment of light, as it originates from or above the baby and filters down and around the stable scenes. Each animal greets the newborn babe in turn and in character, until they are hushed by the mother’s gentle cooing. “Sweet dreams,” she murmurs to her son, and sweet dreams may well be likely for all who read it.

What’s Coming for Christmas? is another charmer from author Kate Banks and illustrator Georg Hallensleben, a duo known for conjuring intimate little worlds of word and image. “Something was coming,” the story begins, and the unnamed something heralds itself in marvelous ways: the way the snow whirls or the way icicles drip, or in the “flutter of paper snowflakes” or the “hiss of scissors cutting ribbon.” Centered on one cozy house and farmyard, the story is a survey of sounds, smells, sights and flavors that quietly builds into a gentle but insistent urgency, alerting even the smallest mouse. Happily, neither text nor picture comes right out and tells us what every tree, critter and kid is anticipating, even after it arrives. By paying us the compliment of letting us use our intuition and senses, the book sustains its spell even beyond the last page.

The fun begins
When Sam McGuffin sneaks onto Santa’s sleigh, it’s the North Pole workshop he’s after. What he finds instead is The Secret of Santa’s Island, a tropical paradise where the elves, reindeer and Mr. and Mrs. Claus unwind after the Christmas rush. “Unwind” may be the wrong word: they party hearty at a custom amusement park wilder than the dreams of most folks, but well within the extraordinary range of author Steve Breen, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning (and creator of the picture book Violet the Pilot). The secret island boasts life-size chocolate Christmas trees, an elvish rollercoaster and dodgeball games on flying reindeer. The best secret is revealed on the last page, deftly ratcheting the take-home message from just fun to just fabulous. Sam turns out to be the “McGuffin” (the name of a plot-enabling device in filmmaking) that puts us right where the author intends. Never didactic, the book slyly promotes the rare virtue of gratitude.

Stick Man might seem a random title in this lot, but note the best-selling team behind it: Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, whose works include The Gruffalo and one of my favorite read-aloud Halloween books, No Room on the Broom. Stick Man is, well, a stick, but quite an appealing one, and he’s on an odyssey to boot. Separated from his family tree (wherein dwell “his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three”), he faces peril after peril in romping rhyme: a game of fetch, a sand castle in need of a flagpole, a snowman in need of an arm, many inventive children and finally, worst of all: a fireplace. Can he make it past these sticky dangers to get home for Christmas? Will there be a tender or tinder ending? Stick around and see.

Cozy Christmas chores
The Christmas Magic by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Jon J. Muth, is nothing less than magical. “Far, far north, where the reindeer are, there is a snug little house with a bright red door,” begins a tale so perfectly phrased anyone can sound like a proper storyteller reading it aloud. In only three or four cozy lines per gorgeous page, we watch Santa readying his reindeer, his sleigh, his boots, his list of children and his sack of toys, our senses vicariously alive to the textures and sounds. The sequence of the perfectly ordinary chores of this perfectly extraordinary character builds our anticipation: “Is the magic here?” the music of the reindeer bells seems to ask as Santa carefully polishes each jingle. Muth’s pastel and watercolor images of Santa’s spare, Shaker-like house and the endless horizons of snow seem to slow the story: Santa is in no hurry and neither should we be. This is a book to savor. When the magic finally arrives, making the night “thrum,” it feels just right: more shivery and intimate than ho-ho-ho, and far more satisfying.

Have you heard the news?
A welcome twist on the traditional nativity storybook, The Christmas Baby demands to be read aloud to a group of enthralled children—or just to a single, special one. Written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Richard Cowdrey, the story is set in a “tiny town” in a “faraway country” on the night of Jesus’ birth. “Have you heard?” is asked again and again—by the father-to-be looking for room in an inn and by the stable animals—“have you heard a baby is coming?” The question is used like a refrain in a carol, building anticipation with each repetition, and then changing key when the baby arrives. “Have you heard? He is here!” cry the beasts and the angels, at once answered by the shepherds and kings. The excitement feels genuine. What could easily be cloying simply isn’t, even the surprise ending correlating the birth of the Christmas baby and the miraculous birth of every baby: “Now . . . every time a baby is born, stars and angels sing . . . ‘Have you heard?’ ” Only a grumpy innkeeper could miss the joy in this sweet tale.

Joanna Brichetto is grateful that part of her job involves reading aloud to children.

A Santa’s sack of winning picture books awaits choosy buyers this holiday season. Some are overtly religious, some are secular and some are a bit of both. Magic is a common thread throughout the books: the magic of the original Christmas story, of Mother Nature, anticipation, gratitude and most especially the miracle of new life. […]
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The holiday season is not only a good time for a festival of lights, but also a good time to feast on enlightenment. These new books—which offer exciting perspectives on subjects ranging from birds to the brain—would make excellent gifts for nature lovers or scientifically minded readers.

Science through the ages
A one-volume reference simply entitled Science may sound like a children’s book—grownup books are usually about something a bit more specific—but this 512-page tome is no lightweight: it really is about science, as in the whole history of the subject from prehistory to the present. Science: The Definitive Visual Guide, edited by Adam Hart-Davis, presents the grand sweep of scientific discovery era by era, beginning each section with an introduction and timeline and pulling out key concepts, Eureka moments, important people, applications and consequences. The “visual” part of the title is achieved in typical DK style, which means stunning photos, illustrations, charts, tables and the like in great quantity and quality. Especially handy are the before-and-after sections on particular subjects; for example, the section on steam power is flanked by marginalia outlining power sources in use before the invention of the steam engine and power sources that succeeded it, like internal combustion and electricity. After the chronological survey comes a practical reference section with quick facts about astronomy and space, earth sciences, biology, chemistry, physics and math.

When nature calls
Even the most casual birdwatcher would be tickled to receive Laura Erickson’s Bird Watching Answer Book: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Birds in Your Backyard and Beyond. The author has fielded many a question through her birding blog, her public radio program (“For the Birds”) and her previous book (101 Ways to Help Birds), and if this wasn’t street cred enough, she’s also enlisted the aid of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Although the guide is organized by categories like feeding, vocalization, bird problems (when starlings move in, for example), nesting, migration and the concisely titled “how birds work,” it is still surprisingly fun to ignore the subject headings and start reading at a random page. Should you heat a birdbath in winter? How often should you clean your feeder? What should you do when you find an injured bird? Can birds sleep during flight? Is there anything good about pigeons? This friendly and practical book answers a wide range of the most common (and compelling) questions.

Another bird expert, David Allen Sibley, author of the best-selling reference The Sibley Guide to Birds, has branched out into a different subject with The Sibley Guide to Trees. Although the new direction may surprise some fans, Sibley has been working on the book for seven years, having long ago learned to appreciate the intimate link between bird and tree. The introduction is an admirable crash course in the basics of tree identification, taxonomy and types of leaves, flowers, fruit, twigs, buds and bark. It also includes notable advice to those just getting started, such as the invitation to employ pattern-recognition skills and to “practice observing,” two simple yet rather profound methods that can make recognizing species easier and more “natural.” The tree identification section is, of course, the heartwood of the guide, and this is where Sibley’s characteristically precise artwork shines. Details are rendered far clearer in his paintings than in photographic field guides, and the types of variations—in leaf, color, fruit, habit, etc.—are more apparent. Over 600 trees are presented in taxonomical groups with all related species together, a system which he believes to be key in developing a “deeper understanding” of trees and the landscape around us.

Billions and billions
At a time when some schools are considering adding Creationism to their curricula, it may be an opportune moment to take stock of the genuine miracle of the living universe without the intrusion of either theology or ideology. Evolution: The Story of Life, by Douglas Palmer, illustrated by Peter Barrett, gives readers just such a reference. The book’s main contribution is its timeline: 3.5 billion years of life on Earth presented in 100 pictorial “site reconstructions.” The consistent double-page layouts make it easier for readers to compare and contrast different eras, while smaller boxes below the main frame give concise summaries and identifications. At first the illustrations may seem a bit old-fashioned and “textbook,” but then again, having meticulous hand-painted panoramas in this digital age is a treat. Evolution was published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.

Mind games
Not often are we able to read a book that shows how we are able to read a book in the first place, but The Human Brain Book  shows exactly that and so much more. Rita Carver, author of the popular Mapping the Mind and Consciousness, makes the latest developments in neuroscience accessible to the average curious reader, despite the overwhelming amount and scope of material presented. This is due in part to DK’s visual format—thousands of illustrations, photographs and specially commissioned brain scans—and the presiding influence of Carter’s ability to communicate complex information with the finesse of a TV broadcaster (her former occupation). After a pictorial timeline of brain exploration and a quick journey through the brain itself, chapters cover brain anatomy, the senses, movement, emotions, language, memory, thinking, consciousness, development, disorders and more. Answers large and small are everywhere: why it isn’t safe to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, what consciousness is, how memory works (or doesn’t), what constitutes intelligence, what happens when we dream, how autism spectrum disorders “look” on brain scans and, on a much lighter note, what might be the six worst smells in the world. The book includes an interactive DVD of brain areas and processes. The Human Brain Book promises to be a stellar family reference.

Icy wonders
This enthralling new book of oversized photographs is for all of us who can’t seem to keep straight the North Pole from the South—and which animals belong to each. But Paul Nicklen’s Polar Obsession actually has far higher aspirations: the photojournalist author hopes his stunner of a book wakes us all to the endangered Antarctic and Arctic ecosystems. Polar ice is melting faster than scientific models ever predicted and may, in fact, be entirely gone within five to 20 years. Nicklen’s photographs of this threatened land- and seascape are utterly amazing. He exposes a world none of us ever sees: we are face to face with a bowhead whale, a newborn walrus pup, the very pupil of the eye of a macaroni penguin. Text is spare, informative and thrilling: his adventures in the below-freezing waters are as fascinating to read as they are to view. Not to be missed are the close-ups of an enormous leopard seal that tries (unsuccessfully) to feed the photographer a penguin underwater. A more gorgeous and compelling invitation to conservation efforts is difficult to imagine.

The holiday season is not only a good time for a festival of lights, but also a good time to feast on enlightenment. These new books—which offer exciting perspectives on subjects ranging from birds to the brain—would make excellent gifts for nature lovers or scientifically minded readers. Science through the ages A one-volume reference simply […]
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Here are three things to buy that will help you either redeem or get rid of a hundred others. This trio of spirited, pragmatic books exemplify the deceptively simple principle that less is more. What’s more (and therefore less!), they offer a sound set of tools to help you take back your living space, whether you’re clearing out your clutter, becoming more thrifty with your resources or reusing what you’ve already got.

62 Projects To Make With a Dead Computer is filled with fun and surprises, and an almost puritanical zeal for the redemption of “lost souls”—otherwise known as discarded electronics. Digital cameras, keyboards, PDAs, MP3 players, earbuds and drives are, to author Randy Sarafan, raw material ripe for creative repurposing. Most of us have at least a few obsolete bits lying about—a bundle of mystery cords and a cell phone or two—as well as the basic skills to transform them into something else entirely: a mouse pencil-sharpener, a scanner side table, a cable coaster. Some projects call for tricky work involving voltage and solder, but even if you don’t “do” electricity beyond changing a bulb and you can’t begin to pronounce solder (sod’- er), many creations can be managed with a glue gun and basic hand tools. The Floppy Disk Wall Frame, for example, is super easy and really quite spectacular. The circuit panel memo board with keyboard key magnets is simple, too, and just as gorgeous. Projects range from fun to practical, with category-defying wonders like the flat-screen ant farm and the iMac terrarium. Whether weird or wonderful (or both), each aims at nothing less than the intersection of art, technology and ecology.

A penny saved
Anxious to distinguish thrifty from cheap, Be Thrifty: How to Live Better with Less, edited by Pia Catton and Califia Suntree, begins with the lesson that “thrift” and “to thrive” are cognates. Thus, thrift should radiate positive associations, not miserly ones. To be thrifty is to thrive, to flourish. The editors present seven categories in which to flourish: home, garden/pet, food, family, personal care, leisure and financial stability. Each offers more than enough information to tweak or outright overhaul even the most profligate of habits. In the first chapter, we learn to clean and maintain our home and car more greenly, reducing utility and repair bills and generating less waste. Need to know about furnace filters, clogged toilets, tire inflation or gutters? You’ll find the big picture and the little details. The same goes for every other facet of everyday life—even the faucets. This jam-packed omnibus encourages an old-fashioned, no, timeless self-sufficiency, while keeping an eye on how our choices affect not just our ability to thrive, but the planet’s as well.

Clean and clear
What’s a Disorganized Person To Do? by Stacey Platt answers its titular question with its subtitle: “317 Ideas, Tips, Projects, and Lists to Unclutter Your Home and Streamline Your Life.” As if to underline my own need for such a guide, when I type the word “unclutter,” my word processor underlines it in red: The term is unknown to it and to me. But if all I have to do is consult this fat little book full of numbered, logically sequenced bits of clarity, packed with smart photos and arranged with color-coded tabs printed on the fore-edge, I am set. Clarity is a key term: The author, a successful professional organizer, says “clarity is the foundation for a joyous and accomplished life.” (I’ll have what she’s having, please.) The message couldn’t be clearer: Reducing clutter—not just finding cute ways to store it—sets us free. Even the most overwhelmed among us can jump right in, thanks to quick tips taming every room in the house. Learn what papers to save for taxes and for how long, where to put the newspapers, when to throw away cosmetics, how to organize a closet and why you should defragment your hard drive—plus 312 other things. The format is a pleasure to browse, but it is also wisely designed to answer targeted questions on demand. Pare down, wise up. Less, again, proves to be much more.

Here are three things to buy that will help you either redeem or get rid of a hundred others. This trio of spirited, pragmatic books exemplify the deceptively simple principle that less is more. What’s more (and therefore less!), they offer a sound set of tools to help you take back your living space, whether […]
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In Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes, author, educator and Emmy Award-winning TV science wizard Steve Spangler conjures new tricks for kids, kidders and kids at heart. He makes it easy to transform ordinary household stuff into extraordinary outcomes, most of which tend to “ooze, bubble, fizz, bounce and smoke,” not to mention spew diet soda 12 feet into the air. Even the seemingly simple are fun: Who knew a hex nut could make a balloon scream? A few experiments are particularly suitable for Halloween parties, such as the gloriously gross cornstarch/borax goo (which made a kid lose his lunch at my daughter’s fifth birthday party), the giant smoke rings and all activities involving dry ice. Spangler’s fun-centric approach insists “it’s not about the science, it’s about the experience,” but parents and teachers can be assured the science is solid; experiments are framed with easy-to-understand explanations and real-world applications.

POOHSTICKS 101
Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts by Jane Brocket is a collection of recipes, activities and, as the author describes them, “'I want to do that!’ moments” culled from beloved books like Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, The Chronicles of Narnia and so on—books in which children always seem to be eating or doing “all sorts of marvelous things.” Each marvelous thing gets a brief introduction to establish context, to remind us why these classics are so formative to our lives and to entice us to read classics we may have overlooked. Readers can now bake Ma’s Hand-Sweetened Cornbread from Little House on the Prairie, whip up Enid Blyton cocoa, munch “Wind in the Willows River Picnic Cress Sandwiges” and try “Heidi’s Grandfather’s Simple Cheese and Bread Supper.” We can also make a Borrowers house, try Alice in Wonderland croquet, learn poems by heart just like Anne of Green Gables and plant a Secret Garden. Aside from being a charming excuse to revisit favorite stories, Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts is a ready-made opportunity to connect with young readers who “need to find out about the things children have always done [and] to make their own literary discoveries.”

TOP PICK FOR LIFESTYLES
Even the healthiest-minded readers of Candy Construction by Sharon Bowers may want to rush out and buy ridiculously large amounts of candy for the children in their lives. My own whole-food, organic scruples have been chocolate-chipped away by this seductive volume. Why? Because these sweet creations are not just cute as a (candy) button and easy as (moon) pie, they are seriously fun to make. And I mean fun to make with kids, not merely for kids, because even though the end product might be fabulous, the real goal is in the messy, focused, cooperative and creative process. With a few building materials—frosting “glue,” store-bought brownies, Rice Krispie treats and other no-bake structural elements—plus basic dollar-store candy, kids can make pirate ships, pyramids, steam trains, construction sites, fairy-tale castles, creepy critters, games and even jewelry, all 100% edible. Simple instructions and big color photos bring out the inner engineer in all of us. Perfect for a group activity at birthday or holiday parties, or for one of those days when folks are trapped indoors.

In Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes, author, educator and Emmy Award-winning TV science wizard Steve Spangler conjures new tricks for kids, kidders and kids at heart. He makes it easy to transform ordinary household stuff into extraordinary outcomes, most of which tend to “ooze, bubble, fizz, bounce and smoke,” not to mention spew diet soda […]
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Gift books for children seem to get better and better with each new holiday season. When authors, artists and publishers show this much care for budding young readers and their nurturing parents, the hopeful promises of the season seem all the more achievable.

SWEET DREAMS
The Goodnight Book for Moms and Little Ones, edited by Alice Wong and Lena Tabori, offers a surprising amount of material perfect for easing the often-difficult transition from day to night. The chubby little treasure is stuffed with “stories to read, poetry to inspire, activities to delight, songs to sing, recipes to soothe and [multicultural] prayers to calm.” Brief excerpts pluck favorite sleepy moments from classics like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Charlotte’s Web, and are interspersed with short tales from Greek mythology, the Brothers Grimm, Native American traditions and other sources. Poets represented include Robert Louis Stevenson, Shel Silverstein, Christina Rossetti and e.e. cummings, and the lullabies are culled from the canon, now extending generously to John Lennon and Paul Simon.

As the title promises, Mom also gets a bit of attention, with relaxation techniques, parenting tips and neat projects (like scented sachets and dream-journaling). The crisply organized table of contents is a necessity with so much on offer, but the book lends itself to soporifically random—call it “sandman”—sampling, thanks to all the classic illustrations on these sleepy, color-soaked pages.

ANIMALS ON PARADE
British pop-up master Robert Crowther launched his career more than 30 years ago with The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Alphabet Book, and this creative wonder is now available in a new edition. Crowther makes kids work a bit to find the animal whose name begins with each letter, but the payoff is worth it. Big, black lowercase letters march across white pages looking quite severe until little hands figure out how to slide, flip, pull or push the tab to release a colorful critter. An ape swings beneath the “a,” a frog leaps the curve of an “f,” a koala slides down the leg of a “k,” and an owl blinks inside the “o.” The names of the animals are revealed as well, so that even the youngest operator can see the spelling. Both upper- and lower-cases of the letters appear at the top of each page for reference and comparison, each pair designed with the colors and patterns of its assigned animal.

Crowther’s now-classic pop-up is even more fun when paired with its companion volume, The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Numbers Book. Like his abecediary, the counting book is irresistible. Stark numerals (with the name spelled above) hide adorable animals in just the right number: one spider, two swans, three caterpillars, four snails and so on, but all squeezed behind or inside the actual numeral, ready to pop, uncoil, scoot or slide. And he doesn’t stop at 20; Crowther crams in enough critters to make it by tens all the way to 100. All animals are named, whether ordinary or exotic, teaching animal identification and spelling along with number literacy.

WHEN LIFE GIVES US LEMONS . . .
“A torn piece of paper is just the beginning,” Barney Saltzberg assures young readers in Beautiful Oops!, a happy little book that celebrates the potential power of mistakes. Turn the page, and the other side of that torn paper is now the goofy grin of an alligator. Same with a stain, a bent corner, a scrap, a spill: All are playfully transformed into something imaginative and unexpected—a wide-mouthed frog, a penguin’s head, a collage, a pig in a car. Using ingenious pops-ups, flaps, overlays, holes and splashy illustrations, Beautiful Oops! shows us that anyone can turn blunder into wonder. This art lesson, if taken to heart, can be a valuable life lesson, too. In fact it may be the perfect chance to nip perfectionism in the bud and cultivate a lifelong tendency to be creative and react to screw-ups with flexibility. Maybe kids really can learn to learn from mistakes. Beautiful Oops! is for ages three and up, which means everyone old enough to read books instead of eat them (which would be a real mistake, by the way) has the chance to get in on the magic.

SOMETHING'S COOKING
I’m a Scientist: Kitchen, by Lisa Burke, looks like the best kind of children’s cookbook: It has clear, simple graphics, big color photographs, easy instructions and an illustrated materials list so that even nonreaders can collect supplies, but its real goal is to help young children (ages four to eight) cook up a healthy love of science. Each two-page spread contains one kitchen-based experiment that calls for stuff already on hand, like pantry items, toys or household bits and pieces. For example, kids explore density by layering oil, syrup and water into a jar and adding small objects to see if they sink or float. Simple questions act as prompts to encourage observation and curiosity. At the right of every spread is a big flap covering scientific conclusions and follow-up ideas for kids curious enough to want more. Other experiments look at static electricity, magnets, ice and more, but always in the easiest and most fun ways. A colloid, for example, is a big new word, but when put into action as Gobbledy Goo (cornstarch suspended in colored water), the concept is fabulously weird and memorable.

BRICK BY BRICK
David Macaulay, award-winning author and artist of The Way Things Work and many more must-have books, offers a new title that combines three of his most famous and beloved works in Built to Last. The impetus behind the original editions of Castle, Cathedral and Mosque was “not only to show why and how some of the world’s best-known buildings were designed and constructed, but to connect the bricks and mortar with the vision and courage of the builders,” Macaulay writes. He did this with exquisitely detailed renderings of every phase of building and every job required, from mixing mortar to assembling stained-glass windows, plus maps, plans, illustrations, background information and stories—historical fiction, really—that made history feel immediate and real. And he does it even better in Built to Last.

All the material—illustrations and information—has been completely revised by the author and is now in full color, a process that took him far longer than anticipated. Although aimed at children ages nine to 12, Macaulay’s new collection will appeal to anyone interested in architecture, history or just the way things work.

TELLING THE TALE
What could be better than hearing a child read a story except, perhaps, hearing a child tell a story? But storytelling is an art, isn’t it, best left to those with the training and the talent? Not according to Storyworld: Create-a-Story Kit, by John and Caitlin Matthews, which sets out to prove that any reader can be a storyteller. Storyworld is a book-like box containing 40 story cards and a short guide. Each elaborately illustrated card “features people, creatures, places and special objects” based on age-old folktale traditions that are ready to mix and match in any way the teller wishes. Readers are instructed to “pick a handful of cards, and use their pictures and words as inspiration to tell a new story every time the box is opened.” There is no right or wrong way to craft a story with this kit. The storytelling book offers ideas for creating stories, games to play with the cards, suggestions for further inspiration and ways to use Storyworld alone, with a friend or even with parents. This “ingenious toolkit for the mind” is designed for ages 9 to 12.

SHIP-SHAPE
A new toolkit of another sort awaits Star Wars fans. Star Wars Millennium Falcon: A 3-D Owner’s Guide, by Ryder Windham, illustrated by Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff, is a spectacular oversized board book with a “pilot’s view” of the most famous ship from that galaxy far, far away. Every page highlights a particular system or area (propulsion, life support, crew quarters, armaments, etc.) in a cool cut-away format, which exposes only that particular area. As the pages are turned, the resulting overlay gradually builds to form the entire ship. Meanwhile, abundant specs and factoids will please the most mechanically obsessed devotee, and quotes from Han Solo and Lando Calrissian add a little dash of humor and film trivia. The whole thing is presented as if it were an actual owner’s manual, and pilots are advised to read thoroughly before taking the Falcon out for a spin.

SHHHHH
Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Best-Kept Secrets, by John Farndon, dares readers ages 10 and up to risk exposure to a world of “weird history, strange science, mysterious places, random happenings, freaky facts of nature” and other oddities. The range and amount of information is staggering (as is the nature of some of it), and each subject is presented on a double-page spread with loads of visual variety and catchy graphics. A sample of topics culled from the index includes the Fibonacci sequence, iris recognition, haunted places, bar codes, spontaneous combustion, the curse of Tutankhamun, dark matter, UFOs and Elvis. Some of this stuff can pass as cultural literacy, some is just for fun, but all is supposedly true. Not to open Do Not Open is not, realistically, an option, but where to open is—your enthralled child could start right at the beginning, or she might choose to follow the enticing leads in the cross-references at the bottom of nearly every spread. “From DNA to the CIA, hackers to hoaxes, time travel to telepathy: it’s all in here.”

Gift books for children seem to get better and better with each new holiday season. When authors, artists and publishers show this much care for budding young readers and their nurturing parents, the hopeful promises of the season seem all the more achievable. SWEET DREAMSThe Goodnight Book for Moms and Little Ones, edited by Alice […]
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All four of these featured books take their philosophical cue from the title of Bob Dylan’s album Bringing It All Back Home. The best way to help your kids have fun learning at school is to make your home a place where what happens at school really matters. In the process, you’ll also be helping school become a place where what happens at home—love and support, study habits and simple values—really matters.

WHICH SCHOOL?

We all want our kids to go the best school. The question is, what does “best” mean? Turns out, despite the fact that today’s parents are more educated, motivated and informed than ever, we are short on the skills needed to evaluate the quality of our children’s schools. The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve can change this. Peg Tyre, author of the best-selling The Trouble with Boys, gives parents a crash course in what to look for. She focuses on “seven essential domains of education” we need to know in order to help preschool, elementary and middle school children. These include test scores, class size, teacher quality and the best practices in teaching reading and math. Each chapter investigates a topic starting with a bit of history, details of current practices (good and bad), a checklist of questions for each school and a handy list of “take aways,” thoughts to keep in mind as you investigate. The checklists in particular make it easy for even the most overwhelmed (or clueless) parent to become “a more sophisticated member of your child’s learning community.”

LIVING TO WRITE

Literacy expert Pam Allyn has already written the definitive book for parents on reading, What to Read When. Now she turns her attention to writing with Your Child’s Writing Life. Why do kids need a “writing life?” Allyn give three research-based reasons: Writing “fosters a child’s emotional growth,” “helps develop critical thinking skills” and “leads to a guaranteed improvement in academic achievement.” Plus, a love of writing is a gift that can last a lifetime.

Parents can unlock a child’s potential with “Five Keys” embedded in the acronym WRITE: word power, ritual, independence, time, environment. These can be tailored to each child’s “personal comfort and unique learning style” and energized with easy, creative prompts. A chapter on the stages of writing development helps parents understand a child’s changing capabilities and enthusiasms. Allyn gives tips on creating an appropriate environment for each stage from birth up, including recommendations for books, activities, toys or materials, plus a list of “writing elements” a child might exhibit. Chapters on common challenges (like fear and frustration), great books to inspire writing and cures for writer’s block (by age group) round out a groundbreaking resource.

BE THE CHANGE

The End of Molasses Classes teaches that home and school should and can “support each other in the education of all children.” Ron Clark, named “America’s Educator,” author of the best-selling The Essential 55 and founder of a revolutionary teaching academy, knows firsthand how a few basic changes can transform a classroom, a school and a child’s entire life. Clark shares 101 strategies, some for teachers, some for parents, all aimed at helping kids succeed, in the best and widest sense of the word.

For example, parents can cultivate drama-free mornings so the school day can start right, read all the communication sent home from school, get to know other school parents, use car time to talk about what children are learning and stop rewarding kids for doing a mediocre job.Examples for any adult include: “set the tone for a love of learning,” “define your expectations and then raise the bar,” “uplift those who help raise your children,” “listen,” “provide students with a chance to shine” and simply “have fun.” Clark will help parents keep molasses un-metaphorical and right where it belongs: on cornbread and biscuits, not in classrooms.

TIMELESS TEACHINGS

When a report card from the year 1915 turned up among a beloved uncle’s effects, authors and family educators Barbara C. Unell and Bob Unell noticed a “Home Report” section completed by parents and returned to the teacher. It included topics like “things made,” “books read,” “money earned,” “manners” and “hours worked,” and, by its very presence, made the assumption that the best education comes from an active partnership between school and home. The discovery inspired Uncle Dan’s Report Card: From Toddlers to Teenagers, Helping Our Children Build Strength of Character with Healthy Habits and Values Every Day. The authors argue that student learning and development is not just about academic achievement, but about the whole child. To succeed in school and in life, all kids “need structure, rules, routines and boundaries to feel calm and secure.” Parents, on the other end, need to know what to teach and how to teach it. The book gives the timeless tools and tips that can inspire kids to want to learn good habits, follow a “commonsense code of conduct” and become more self-sufficient. Everyone wins: parents, teachers, kids and the community.

All four of these featured books take their philosophical cue from the title of Bob Dylan’s album Bringing It All Back Home. The best way to help your kids have fun learning at school is to make your home a place where what happens at school really matters. In the process, you’ll also be helping […]
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The excellence of this year’s crop of gift books for children means there is no need to agonize over which book is best. You can find something just right for all ages and stages of young readers.

FOR LITTLE ONES
My First Farm Friends by Betsy Wallin is a sweet read-and-play combo for babies through preschoolers. Four board books, one for each farmyard favorite—goat, cow, pig and chicken—show daily life on a happy family farm. We see where the animals live, what they eat, how they play and how the whole family works together to take good care of them. We also learn the real names for animals, like father rooster, mother hen and baby chicks; or, for the goats, father buck, mother doe and baby kid. The cute gift box in which the four books are contained is illustrated inside and out and instantly converts into a play barn with a working door. Children can act out the stories and make up new ones using the four sturdy, stand-up animals. A nice touch for tired parents is that each book ends with a sunset and cozy night scene just right for winding down with bedtime reading.

The Family Storybook Treasury: Tales of Laughter, Curiosity, and Fun assembles eight complete picture books and eight poems from the wide world of children’s literature. All are ideal for bedtime or anytime read-aloud sessions. They include Curious George and the Firefighters; Lyle Walks the Dog (starring everyone’s favorite crocodile); Martha Speaks (of PBS fame); Sheep in a Jeep (the hilarious, rhyming easy-reader); Tacky the Penguin; The Great Doughnut Parade; Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed; and the classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. All the stories are read aloud on the bonus audio CD. Tucked between books are delightfully random poems: a haiku here, freeform verse or a visual poem there. An enjoyable addition is the “meet the authors and illustrators” section, which gives a bit of background and refers to other works.

If you aren’t familiar with the wild and wonderful art of Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky, now is the time. His “moving parts book” version of Knick-Knack ­Paddywhack turns the old counting song into an adventure with nonstop action. Every page has pop-ups, flaps, slides, tabs, wheels, pulls and more, and every movement furthers the story or extends the wordplay. The song unfolds (literally) as a boy and his dog wake up to not just one “old man,” but 10. Each little man enacts the words in silly ways until everyone ends up “rolling home” in a joyful heap. Read this one to little kids or let older readers have a go solo. All ages will enjoy the sophisticated paper engineering and detailed illustrations.

HANDS-ON FUN
Geraldine Cosneau’s All Around the World gives kids (ages 4 to 8) 400 cute stickers to position on huge fold-out illustrations of different biomes: the countryside, African savannah, Sahara desert, North American forest, Amazon rainforest, tropical sea, Australian outback and the Arctic. Each set of animal stickers is organized by habitat, so kids just have to decide where on that particular panorama each critter should go. The stickers are re-positionable, allowing for do-overs and repeat play. On the back of each fold-out are big, dotted outlines of animals, ready to be colored with crayon or marker. There is no text, but every animal and habitat is labeled, and the quirky artwork is enough to take kids on eight environmental adventures. Fold-outs can be removed for display or left in the book to re-do.

Hervé Tullet’s Doodle Cook is an activity book designed to get creative juices flowing in the 5- to 8-year-old set. An award-winning artist whose work appears in the New Yorker, Tullet is also known as the “prince of pre-school books,” and his exuberance is contagious. Young artists get 19 large-format “blank canvas plates” upon which to create masterpieces with crayon, pencil, pastel or marker, guided by a step-by-step recipe. Kids create Scribble Delight, Dot Stew, ZigZag Soup, Crayon Puff Pastries, Thousand Layer Cake and many more masterpieces, leading to the pièce de résistance, an original, from-scratch recipe. To be clear, no actual food is being prepared here, just actual art. Kids too young to read directions will still love to follow them if a grown-up helper reads them aloud. Both jacket flaps reveal examples of “ingredients” for kids to mimic: dots, triangles, blobs, fingerprints, spirals, squiggles and more.

Color scanimation comes to one of the most beloved movies ever in The Wizard of Oz: 10 Classic Scenes from Over the Rainbow, the latest of Rufus Butler Seder’s best-selling scanimation books, which incorporate “moving” images. Framed by a glittery, ruby-red cover (perfect!) is a picture of Dorothy’s ruby slippers tap, tap, tapping the way home. Inside are more iconic moments from the movie brought to life by the author’s technical wizardry, such as Dorothy’s house whirling into the air, the Scarecrow’s dance, the Tin Man’s reawakening, the foursome’s skipping journey down the Yellow Brick Road and the Wicked Witch with her infamous flying monkeys. Each page is faced by a quote from the character at hand, a drawing and a brief synopsis of the plot. Not to be missed: the Wicked Witch meeting her wet and memorable demise: “Oh, what a world!” The book is designed for ages 9 to 12, but anyone old enough to love the movie will love this innovative tribute.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Pop-Up Book, written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake, is the real deal. By this I mean it is the real story with the original illustrator, and even if you or your child hated (or loved, for that matter) the Willy Wonka films, the book came first and it is stellar. What’s new this time around is the pop-up feature. Pairing Dahl’s wacky story and Blake’s mad illustrations with paper engineering seems inevitable, somehow. Slide the tab and Mike Teevee disappears into the television set. Pull another and plunge Veruca down the reject hole in the Nut Room. And of course, there is a bar of chocolate needing only a few tugs to reveal a Golden Ticket. Unlike the movies, this version is guaranteed not to elicit nightmares about Oompa-Loompas and other liberties. Fun for older readers to enjoy on their own and as a read-aloud for younger ones.

Michael Hague, one of America’s most acclaimed illustrators, lends his artistry to 14 favorite stories in Treasured Classics. The “classics” include such stories as “The Grasshopper and the Ant,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Artwork on every page makes each tale all the more compelling for young readers and listeners. Hague’s style is legendary, full of fantasy and magic, and it honors the drama without infantilizing it. The target audience is 9- to 12-year-olds, if they can be convinced they are not too old for fairy tales. Of course, no one is too old for fairy tales in general—or this collection in particular.

LOOKING & LEARNING
Legendary Journeys: Ships, illustrated by Sebastian Quigley, is written by Brian Lavery, who in his day job is Curator Emeritus of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. The book is like a personal, interactive museum display, full of exploded views, fascinating marginalia and 10 amazing slide-out extensions that double the width and bring the ships to life. Readers take a journey through time from the earliest ships, such as a Greek trireme warship, to modern cargo giants and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In between are famous vessels like the ships of Columbus, Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ironclad Monitor from the Civil War, the clipper ship Cutty Sark, the ill-fated Titanic and the USS Nimitz from the current naval fleet. Cutaways and cross-sections detail inner and outer workings, and an index rounds out the volume. For ages 8 and up.

My Fabulous Look Book: Fashion Drawing Made Easy claims no drawing skills are required, but whoever uses Karen Phillips’ entertaining guide will build skills soon enough. Budding designers, personal stylists, makeup artists and hairstylists will find a complete kit: 10 pencil colors, teeny sparkly stickers, a die-cut portfolio to show off favorite looks and, most importantly, “art starters”: tons of pale sketch outlines ready to make over. These include various head shots, full body poses and details of hands, feet and bags to inspire hairstyles, clothes of all sorts, plus jewelry and accessories to die for. Tips show how to draw specific effects with cross-hatching, rubbing and layering. Plenty of examples in each category (hair, skin, cheeks, eyes, lips, apparel, shoes and so on) offer authentic technique and inspiration for ages 8 and up.

The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums is the must-have companion for fans of the best-selling Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart. Just as Reynie, Kate, Sticky and Constance had to pass certain tests of wit to be admitted into the Society, so all fans must pass the “ultimate challenge” within this collection. The variety of puzzles is staggering: Morse code, geography, logic, wordplay, memory, spatial relations, patterns, hidden codes, limericks, sequences and counting in Tamil, to name a few, and all require an extensive knowledge of the stories. Luckily, the book includes a section of “helpful resources” with a glossary, many hints and a sneak peek at the next entry in the series. For ages 8 to 12.

The excellence of this year’s crop of gift books for children means there is no need to agonize over which book is best. You can find something just right for all ages and stages of young readers. FOR LITTLE ONESMy First Farm Friends by Betsy Wallin is a sweet read-and-play combo for babies through preschoolers. […]
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No matter how we spell it, Hanukkah or Chanukah is a unique holiday, an eight-day celebration that commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Celebrated from December 20 to December 28 this year, Hanukkah continues to inspire new children’s books that offer historical background and cultural details about the holiday. We've selected three that are particularly noteworthy additions to the Hanukkah repertoire.

THE HISTORY OF THE HOLIDAY

Hanukkah is a holiday about miracles, and sure enough, it’s almost a miracle to find a picture book about Hanukkah origins and customs that’s suitable for all children, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the classroom and at home. The Story of Hanukkah, written by David A. Adler and illustrated by Jill Weber, successfully combines history, modern customs, attractive artwork and a word-picture ratio that should keep even wriggling preschoolers interested. Recommended for ages four through eight, this pictures book assumes no prior knowledge of the holiday, and yet covers crucial ground that experienced children could hear again. The book begins and ends with the Holy Temple, making clear the reasons for the military essence of the holiday in the middle. The Jewish people learn to be soldiers to fight for religious freedom and rescue the Temple from the ancient Syrian Greeks, a feat depicted in color-soaked, double-page spreads of swords, arrows and cavalry, including the unforgettable elephants. After the miraculous victory, the Jews dedicate the Temple back to God—Hanukkah means “dedication”—and this is where another miracle comes in: the oil. The book’s last two pages deftly cover modern customs like candle-lighting, latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts) fried in oil, songs, gifts and dreidels. My only wish is that our present-day candles could be more overtly linked to the Temple’s oil menorah. Candles are a convenient way to kindle Hanukkah flames, but as a substitute for the original olive oil.

The illustrator’s latke recipe and a handy page of dreidel rules are included. These additions round out The Story of Hanukkah as an excellent and much-needed option for teachers and parents looking for just the right way to tell the story of the holiday.

HANUKKAH IN 3D

Near-miraculous also describes what it’s like when master pop-up artist Robert Sabuda makes a Hanukkah book. Fans of movable books and Jewish kid lit will be thrilled. In Chanukah Lights, Sabuda joins veteran author Michael J. Rosen to imagine the holiday through the world, through time. Each night represents a different stage of Jewish history, starting with the very first first night of Hanukkah at the Temple in Jerusalem. The second night is in a desert encampment, the third in a refugee ship, the fourth in a new continent (Europe), the fifth in a shtetl, the sixth in a tenement block, the seventh on an Israeli kibbutz, and the eighth with a city skyline. Rosen uses “we” to include readers and listeners in the hushed, historic feel, and sums up mood and meaning of each scene in a single, poem-like sentence. No matter that children might miss the subtle historical timeline, because they will not miss the overall effect, which is spectacular.

Sabuda’s artwork—expandable, three-dimensional illustrations in cut, embossed and printed card stock—erupts in ascending layers of white. Like magic, a turn of the page reveals an entire diorama. To give an idea of the detail lavished, the tenement scene includes awnings, pickle barrels, pushcarts, carthorse, a hanging shop sign and two lines of laundry strung on a telegraph pole, all floating in different spatial planes.

Tucked somewhere in each diorama is a Hanukkah menorah, magically indicated only by its ever-increasing number of lights. Even if the youngest kids can’t play with the delicate paper engineering, they can find and point to the gold foil flames shining against a black window. Chanukah Lights is recommended for ages five and up, including adults.

WHEN PLANS GO OFF TRACK

Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap, written by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Shahar Kober, turns mistake into miracle in the third of a series set against the historic Jaffa-to-Jerusalem railway. Engineer Ari is in a rush to get home to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah with old friends, but must halt the engine to avoid a camel on the track. The caboose derails and Ari’s packages are scattered, including his Hanukkah menorah, oil, dreidels and sufganiyot (which is so much more fun to say and write than “doughnuts”).

He meets Kalil, the camel’s owner, who helps to collect his things and invites Ari into his tent for coffee until help arrives. Ari ends up celebrating the first night not with old friends, but with a new one. He lights his menorah using what is left of the oil—“enough for only one night,” as per the first Hanukkah story—and shares dreidels and sufganiyot with Kalil. The spontaneous friendship between Jew and Bedouin, miraculous to grownups, feels natural and inevitable. What a lovely seed to plant in the minds and hearts of listening children.

The plot weaves snippets of history and customs as revealed through encounters with kids at play, and through the discovery that Kalil’s tent lies in what used to be Maccabee territory, site of much of the original Hanukkah action.

Koben’s colorful illustrations are cartoony and adorable. They toy with perspective while conveying the feel of the old walled city, the countryside and helpful flashbacks like the re-lighting of the Temple menorah.

Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishapis recommended for ages five to nine. A brief glossary and Hanukkah summary are included, plus an author’s note about the significance of the 1892 Jaffa-Jerusalem railway.

No matter how we spell it, Hanukkah or Chanukah is a unique holiday, an eight-day celebration that commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Celebrated from December 20 to December 28 this year, Hanukkah continues to inspire new children’s books that offer historical background and cultural details about the holiday. We've selected three […]

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