In November, I reviewed the first two books in the Fairy Bell Sisters series, written by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by Julia Denos. We just finished books 3 and 4 in the series (Book 5 is due out in May), so I wanted to give a brief review of those two books.
As a reminder, these books are for the 6-10 age range (at least according to the cover). I’m reading these books to M (she’s six years old). M really wants to believe in fairies and most days, it seems, she thinks they are real. She’s never actually asked about whether fairies (or mermaids) are real; she just assumes they are. This is unlike many other things that she has specifically asked us about (and to which we give her the age-appropriate truth). I admit that I am not always certain of which side of the line I should be walking on here: her seeming desire and wish for hope in this kind of fantasy, or her—and definitely my—strong preference for concrete truths. Aside from all that, she loves these stories. Thus, we read them.
The third book, Golden at the Fancy Dress Party, was a story much like the first two, where one of the Fairy Bell sisters is the main character for the book (though the other sisters appear with frequency too). Golden is chosen to go to the mainland to participate in a fancy-dress making contest and party. She goes alone, which means that she does not have her sisters there as moral support. Some of the other fairies who are present for the party are threatened by Golden’s costume and dressmaking abilities, and try to thwart her ability to win the contest. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Golden makes do with what she’s been given, and ultimately kindness and good intentions prevail. I admit: I didn’t like the premise of the dressmaking contest and the idea of there having to be one winner (there’s too much of that in our culture, I think), but I do like the fact that it shows an interpersonal conflict that an initially uncertain Golden must resolve on her own. M needs to hear more of these stories, I think, because she is often so unsure of herself in similar situations. I liked the story for that reason alone.
The fourth book, however, I had a little more trouble with thematically, at least with respect to one of the subtexts and the age of my own daughter. Clara and the Magical Charms tells the story of Clara and her developing ability to use magical powers (in this case to heal an injured animal). She struggles with how to harness it and goes against the wishes of Queen Mab who had cautioned about using such powers before one was truly ready. I am OK with that part of the story and how it ultimately panned out.
The part that I was not really prepared for, and didn’t like, honestly, was the romantic undertones developing between Clara and Rowan (a male gnome who, with other gnomes, is visiting the fairies’ island for the Valentine’s Day games). It was subtle, but certainly noticeable. At the age of six, my daughter has not really seen too many movies (or read any books, insofar as I can remember) that involve romantic love. When compared to her friends of this age, she has seen far less of the Disney princess movies where these themes come up regularly (the reasons for not watching these movies are many, and not all of them are because of our prohibiting them at one time or another; she’s just not that interested). Of course, she sees us, her parents, loving each other in a romantic way, but outside of that, it’s just not on her radar.
I’m not prudish or afraid of her knowing about these kinds of relationships, but I got a little sad when this theme entered the book. Whether it would be appropriate for the ten year old reading in the recommended age group? Possibly. But it didn’t seem to fit for the six year old set. It just seems like an all too common default plot line, and one that you do not see in books geared more toward boys (though I try to avoid gender specific books, I don’t want to censor books she likes either, and so I don’t). Plus, because romantic love, crushes, and flirting are not on her radar, I had to explain what was going on between Clara and Rowan. She really didn’t understand why he was in the story. These are not concepts I necessarily want to discuss right before bedtime due to the number of other questions it leads to. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have read it had I known beforehand, but I guess I should have paid more attention to what was forthcoming so that I was better prepared. I will make sure I am more clear about what Book 5 is about before we decide to read it.
In a nutshell, these are fairly easy lifting kinds of books. They encompass the fun fluff of young children’s literature, but perhaps not likely among the ones she will remember many years from now.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
This past summer M (just shy of six at the time) was interested in reading longer books like early chapter books. It can be a bit challenging, at times, to find the right books for her right now. She’s reading a few dozen sight words on her own, but the stories in books for early readers using many of those words are not that engaging to her. They have their importance in learning how to read (i.e. decode), but it’s really not what she wants. She wants a story. Picture books still hold a large part of her attention, but many of them are much shorter than she’d like. Comprehension and attention span wise, she is quite capable of listening to some pretty complex stories, and so we seem to be drifting into chapter book territory more and more. Though, quite honestly, I think the recommended age range for some of the books we’ve been reading has been for 6-8 or 7-9 year olds, and I’m probably pushing the envelope sometimes (more so with the subject matter than the language; sometimes you just don’t know until you’re halfway through a book that it probably could have waited another 6-12 months). She turned six on the first day of Kindergarten so, in many cases, she’s been having books read to her almost a full year more than many of her classmates, and has already gone through some that others might just be getting to. It’s a balance to find something that interests her but that is not inappropriate for her age.*
But, in an effort to start reading longer stories that appealed to her, we gave this book a try over the summer: The Fairy Bell Sisters: Rosy and the Secret Friend, written by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Julia Denos. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s actually the second book in the series, though it didn’t ultimately matter that we read it out of order.
Here’s the skinny. This series, which I now see has four books in total (the fourth will be released on 12/31/2013), tells the story about Tinker Bell’s five younger fairy sisters, one of which is toddler-aged, whom all live together on Sheepskerry Island. Each book in the series, it seems, highlights a predicament of one of the older, school-aged sisters and how they work it out. In Rosy and the Secret Friend, it tells the tale of Rosy befriending a human girl, which is a no-no for fairies. I won’t give away the story’s ending, but the book did hold M’s attention throughout the entire book and she begged often for “just one more chapter, please?”
Last week we started and finished the first book in the series, Sylva and the Fairy Ball. This one features Sylva, who’s about to turn eight (which, it so happens, is the age that a fairy must be to be invited to the Fairy Ball hosted by Queen Mab) and really wants to attend the Fairy Ball with her older sisters. The Fairy Ball, naturally, is the day before Sylva is supposed to turn eight, and so she is upset that she cannot go. You will have to read for yourself whether the age limit ultimately stops her from trying to attend.
The books are, in a word, cute. The story lines are pretty straightforward, with a conflict that must be resolved. As an adult, I knew exactly where the stories were headed, but M really did not. This tells me they are good for her age because they were interesting, entertaining and not predictable. The only minor hurdle for M, at the very beginning, was keeping the characters’ names straight because there are five speaking characters (which is a lot more than most books that kids at this age read up until this point). By the middle of the first book we read, she was able to keep them straight.
At the tender age of six, M is completely into the idea of fairies and I think this is why these stories ultimately appeal to her. Unlike Santa or the Easter Bunny, M has not once questioned whether fairies are real. Even if she has any doubt, she has not expressed it to us. I think this is because she really wants them to be real. Though I’m not sure how much longer that innocence and belief in fairies (and their magic) will last now that she’s being exposed to older, wiser kids in elementary school. We tell her the truth if she asks questions about these kinds of things, yet I think that even if the fairy myth becomes exposed before we finish the series (which we will), she will like these books nonetheless because the characters are very likeable and good-hearted. They are the kind of girls that I am positive M would love to have as friends.
The sketch illustrations are good but not anything remarkable because of how they are presented in the book, which is quite minimally. At best, they give the chapters and text a little break here and there, and let young, fairy-loving readers see that there is more than Disney’s version of a fairy out there (which I think is a good thing to let kids see in this Disney-loving culture). But, to be honest, they are hard to see very well under bedtime reading light. I really wish they were more substantial or in color in the book because I think this illustrator has some talent that is not being featured as it should be.
All in all, a nice beginning, so far, in a series that features fairies and stories about doing the right thing. The perfect kind of read for the colder, shorter days ahead.
* Full disclosure: we’ve read her five of the Captain Underpants books, which, I know, are totally geared toward slightly older kids. I also know that there has been some discord about these books, at least among some parents, but I personally just don’t buy into many of the arguments that those opponents have made. I think I will save my thoughts on those books for another post.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
Type of book? Picture book
Year published? 2013
First time reading this author? Yes (definitely not the last though!)
First time with this illustrator? Yes (again, not the last!)
The Breakdown – Mine
I was drawn in by the illustrations first, and the story second. A quick thumb through the book told me that it was, predictably, about a young boy who was afraid of the dark. But the illustrations, which were so, well, dark, interested me quite a bit because so much of children’s book illustrations is so, well, light. I like contrasts and wide range in subjects and illustration, especially for young readers who are figuring out what they like (and don’t like), and how to tell a good book (written and/or drawn) from a not so good one. This was one of only a few darkly illustrated books that I’ve found for her age range, so I was excited to see it on the shelf.
I admit I was hesitant to get this book because, knock on wood, M has not ever seemed afraid of the dark. Sure, she goes to sleep with a very dim night light on, but we shut it off after she falls asleep. That means when she wakes up to use the bathroom, which is every. single. night. it’s dark in her room. But I didn’t want to give her any ideas that she should be afraid of the dark, like so many children seem to be, so I was hesitant at first. In the end, I’m glad I got the book because she immediately took to it and its underlying theme, which is bravery.
The topic of bravery has been a prominent one in this house and for M in particular for the past year, and it is nice to provide some “new material” in this regard with books like this, if only to reinforce the concept. Laszlo, the main character (aside from “the dark”), must summons up some courage to rectify the darkness that has besieged his room when the night light goes out. Naturally, the extra night lights are stored in the basement. The dark basement. Dark makes its range known throughout the house—in closets, behind the shower curtain, beyond glass windows at night—but it is the basement that is the ultimate dark, especially to a child. Laszlo’s bravery is ultimately rewarded at the end of the story after he ventures down the stairs into the basement.
What I really loved about the story is that it personifies the dark as a friendly entity. I think this is a good message to embrace at a young age . . . yes, this coming from a grown woman months shy of forty who still must have a night light on somewhere upstairs in order to fall asleep. Ahem. But by giving the dark some dialogue in the story, it softens the bad rap that the dark usually gets. It also reminds us that we can find courage, or at least keep an open mind, to trust in the things that we cannot always “see” in bright light. I think this kind of reminder serves us well when it comes to encountering people or ideas that are unfamiliar to us, though I am not sure that that is what the author was going for ultimately. I recommend this book to children aged 4-8, and possibly older, especially if bravery and/or fears of the dark are common topics of conversation in your house too.
The Breakdown – Hers (edited slightly for typical 6 year old tangents)*
What did you think of the book?
I liked the name Laszlo. I liked that he finally went down [in the basement] because he thought it was too dark. I liked it because it was dark. I liked the pictures because they were dark.
What was the main idea of the story, do you think?
It was about a boy being afraid of the dark but then he wasn’t afraid after he tried going in the basement.
Are you afraid of the dark?
No. I’m not afraid.
Then why do you fall asleep with a night light on?
I like to make it brighter while I’m getting sleepy. And in case I have to use the bathroom before I fall asleep I won’t trip.
* M’s teacher is having the children explore identifying the “main idea” of stories this year. While it’s certainly (and arguably sadly) driven by a long-term need related to future standardized testing where this skill and reading comprehension will be tested, I think it is still important to develop this skill in its own right so that she becomes a critical reader and thinker. To that end, I have been asking her more and more about the books we read, and will periodically include her in book reviews so that you can get her takeaway from the stories as well.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.) — Dedication in 1943 English translation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The other day I read this post on Rants from Mommyland about being in the “sweet spot” of parenting. Now that my own daughter is almost six (and probably because I only have one child), I can relate so much to what blogger/writer Julianna W. Miner (a/k/a Lydia) said in that post.
But where it most hits home for me is in children’s books. It dawned on me about two weeks ago that I am smack dab in the middle of the sweet spot of kids’ books, and it is wonderful.
M can’t read more than a few words, so she still relies on us to listen to stories. Frankly, where many parents might be itching to have an early reader on their hands, I am happy about the fact that this is still a very large ritual and daily habit for all of us in this house.
We still have picture books among the repertoire of reading material, but now we also have longer books. And this means that I get to read the ones that I loved as a child, but more importantly, the ones that I never did. Last night we started the timeless classic—one that I never read as a child—of The Little Prince. How, oh how, did I miss this one when I was little? Only a few pages in and I am already enchanted by the prose and the lessons of which we adults need to be reminded, like this one:
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.”
Yes. How true this is. I mulled this point of view over for a while as she fell asleep when we finished our reading for the night, and told myself that I need to remember this more often.
I can’t wait to see what else this book, and the many others on our “to read” list, teaches both her and me. What speaks to her and/or me, and what doesn’t. What resonates. The list of books is swelling, almost to that uncomfortable point of not knowing whether we will ever finish them all before her childhood is over, or more sadly, when she no longer wants us to read to her.
The outer edge of this sweet spot stills seems a way off, but as I recall at the stuff already behind us (binkies, swaddling and diapers), I know it comes and goes all too quickly in the end. A second bite at the apple of children’s books . . . how sweet it is. I’m savoring every minute of it.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
(Note: You can follow Rants from Mommyland on Twitter at @MommylandRants, and also Devon Corneal, another writer/blogger/now former attorney from whose feed I found the link to the sweet spot piece in the first place, at @dcorneal)
As I mentioned in some posts within the past year (like this one where I review the parenting book, Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress and Anxiety, by Donna B. Pincus, PhD.), M recently had some bumpy issues to conquer. They were largely driven by some of her anxious tendencies. Those issues, I’m happy to report, have been overcome in the past few months.
But there is always a slight undercurrent of her temperament that rears its head once in a while, as it does for any of us (even those who are not firmly standing someplace on the anxiety spectrum). For M, it is all still a work in progress, as it should be for her age. I constantly remind her that we (meaning our family, including her) are not afraid of hard things. That we can be brave. As we approach the start of Kindergarten, this message seems especially important.
Books are but one way to instill this notion. Sure, there are children’s books about starting Kindergarten, and in another post I will review some of the ones we’ve read (in a nutshell, I am largely turned off by them or find them unhelpful). Instead, I think books that are about being brave and working through life’s endless challenges in general are more helpful, for Kindergarten or any other daunting situation. Like swimming lessons (which M has been working on, slowly at first and now with increasing fearlessness) or participating in a largely passive, drop-in craft project at the library (she balked at the idea, even though I was right there sitting with her, I think primarily because it involved a handful of other kids who were more animated than I think she tends to prefer) or confidently standing up to a playground aggressor who won’t let her on the equipment. These are all very real, anxiety-provoking situations for many of the young school age set. Yet they need to know they can handle them, even if it is slightly uncomfortable at first.
We just took two great books about “bravery” out from the library (unintentionally…love when that happens!). They made me recall some of the other good “bravery” books we’ve read in the past couple of years. Here is my list of our favorites:
If I Never Forever Endeavor, by Holly Meade (2011). This lovely short picture book (written in poem form) is about a young bird who contemplates flying, for the first time, from his nest. He weighs the pros (being able to fly high among the trees, seeing the world, etc.) and cons (possibly falling, getting lost, etc.) of trying to fly. There is not too much text in this one, but the message rings through loud and clear: you will never know how something turns out unless you try, and you just might be pleasantly surprised. The illustrations are sweet and done via one of my favorite forms: linoleum block printing (combined with watercolor paint and collage).
Brave, Brave Mouse, written by Michaela Morgan and illustrated by Michelle Cartlidge (2004). Here is what scares the main character, a sweet little mouse: dark, bright light, loud noise, silence, staying with the babysitter, swimming pool (because it was cold, deep, smelled weird and LOUD), and some of the larger, higher pieces of equipment at the playground. (Incidentally, M can relate to all of those issues, at least at one time or another.) But, as we see him tell himself that he can get through some of them—whether it be because it won’t be that bad, or won’t last that long or that he might actually like it—it reminds kids to channel that inner voice of bravery. This voice is especially important, I think, as kids are less and less with their parents, whom for a good portion of their early lives filter and hand hold through these situations. There’s also a brief nod to bravery at the dentist, trying new foods and bedtime darkness. But here is why I REALLY liked this book: at the very end, on the playground, we see the mouse choose not to do something. He starts by asking himself if he will be brave and try the arguably scary equipment that day (even in the face of taunts from other children mice) . . . and he decides, “NO!”, not today. I think this is so very important for kids, and adults, to be able to listen to their inner voice and trust that there are just sometimes when you are not ready (yet), and that it is OK to cut themselves some slack. You don’t have to say “yes” to everything, every day. That you can stand up for yourself and say “no”, and that that does not translate into not being brave because of all the other times that you are.
Cork & Fuzz: The Swimming Lesson, written by Dori Chaconas and illustrated by Lisa McCue (2011). Two pals are at the center of this book (which is part of a 7 part series): Cork (a muskrat) and Fuzz (a possum). Cork knows how to swim and Fuzz does not. This inability to swim presents a problem when Cork desperately wants Fuzz to come to his house to play for a change. Cork offers to teach a reluctant Fuzz. Fuzz decides he will get to Cork’s den another, non-swimming way…but that plan ultimately leads Fuzz into the water anyway. It all ends well and highlights that 1) sometimes the biggest obstacle is the fear itself; and 2) that good, trustworthy friends are often essential overcoming something that requires some bravery.
Sheila Rae The Brave, by Kevin Henkes (1996). We are HUGE Kevin Henkes fans in this house. M has loved every single one of his books (and I think we’ve read close to them all). This one is about Sheila Rae (a mouse) and Louise, her younger sister. Sheila Rae is the “brave” one, and Louise is the “afraid” one . . . except, that is, when Sheila Rae ends up getting lost walking home from school. Louise ultimately saves the day. A good book to remind young kids who are often around older kids (siblings, at school) that it is not always older age and bigger size that makes you infallible. Sometimes the little ones can shine in unexpected ways. Also, the expressions on the faces of Henkes’ characters (in this book and all his others) are nothing short of spot on and funny.
Brave Bear, by Kathy Mallat (2004). This story, which contains very little text but much in the way of lovely illustrations, is about a bear helping a little bird get back into its nest. The bear must be brave and climb a very high tree and out onto a seemingly too small branch to get the bird back home. It’s a nice way to see a large animal (rather than the standard meek mice) be afraid of something but work through it with some bravery, all in the name of helping a friend. If that desire to extend kindness toward a friend isn’t motivation enough for overcoming fear, what else is there? This is probably the one book that is geared toward the younger range, say 2-5 years old, while the others listed here work better in the 3-7 range.
Humpty Dumpty, by Daniel Kirk (2000). This one is clever. It is about an egg (Humpty Dumpty) and a young child of royalty (King Moe). It’s King Moe’s birthday and there’s a parade. Humpty wants to go, and though his mother is worried about her fragile egg, she lets him go. King Moe, on the other hand, is afraid of leaving the house and doesn’t want to take the risk of falling off the horse/coach and is afraid of the clowns and crowd. His mother essentially forces him to go, all in the vein of “try it and you might like it!”. Naturally, Humpty ends up falling and getting cracked and breaking into pieces. King Moe finds some bravery and sets to work in putting him back together by using his love of puzzles. They end up as friends and King Moe even wants to go to Humpty’s house, something that probably would not have happened prior to this. A word of caution on this one: first, there is a line where King Moe worries that he might “die” (that might be too strong of language for some parents to want to have their children hear/contemplate) and second, there is a passage where King Moe’s mother tells him, or chides him rather, that he is “terribly shy” that he “can’t make a friend” and that he’s “scared of [his] shadow” (for various reasons, I don’t like when adults, particularly parents, label children negatively that way and it seemed a little mean-spirited for my taste…I worked around it when M was younger by changing the language slightly). The illustrations are mixed media in a collage format, which, to me, always makes it interesting because you notice something new on each consecutive read.
When I’m Feeling Scared, by Trace Moroney (2005/2009). This book is part of a larger series on various emotions (happy, sad, lonely, etc.). It’s not a book about bravery per se, but where the essence of the reason to be brave in the first instance centers around a fear or being scared of something, I am including it on this list. It’s a short book (and together, all of the books in this series are really great for teaching 2-4 year olds in particular about labeling the various emotions we all feel) that uses a few examples of when this bunny feels scared (dark, bugs, bullies). It mentions the physical feelings associated with being scared, that everyone gets scared once in a while, that it is a good thing once in a while (from a survival point of view), and how it is always good to talk to someone when we are feeling scared because they can help us see that it might not be that bad after all. It also points out that what might be scary to one person, might not be to another. I think this is an important reminder about empathy for young children who are always at various stages and phases among their peers (learning to ride bikes, climb high on the playground, scary Halloween costumes, etc.). There’s also a long blurb on the inside back cover that is for parents, discussing self-esteem and its relationship to anxiety and being scared. Plus, the illustrations are super cute (I’m a sucker for bunnies in books!).
Do you have any books about bravery that you’d like to recommend? Leave a note in the comments. Be bold, be brave, readers!
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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