Preschool Favorites: a 4-year-old’s Top Ten List

When I say my 4 year old is a book hound, I mean it. At an average of 4 books a day(usually six, but there are those days where we only get to four), it adds up to a dead minimum of 1450 we’ve read in the last year. Of course we haven’t read that many titles; some we read over and over and there are certain ones that are met with a wail of “No! Keep that one!” when it’s time to return them, and if I hear it enough, I give in and buy it to keep.

I’ve bought a lot of books this year, especially when the library was closed.

So what keeps a four year old coming back for more? A short engaging story they can identify with, rhyme, repetition (and thus predictability), and relevant illustrations. If the pictures are too abstract, it’s not going to work. Beautiful art feeds the imagination and makes the story memorable. Here’s a short list of the books my four year old can’t stop requesting:

Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner. Oh Mr. Wuffles, how many times we’ve “read” you! In this nearly wordless book, Mr. Wuffles the cat causes an alien ship to crash land, and they must team together with the ants in the walls to repair the ship and escape Mr. Wuffles. Brilliant for developing imagination and prediction, because it’s never quite the same story twice.

Penny and Penelope by Dan Richards Two girls with the same doll but very different ideas learn that being a princess or being an action hero is just as much fun. A great way to break out of the perpetual princess phase.

Little Critter series by Mercer Mayer: Classic old-school. We’ve read them all but are still looking for more. Yeah, the oldest ones are still the best, but Critter thinks like a preschooler, and they relate.

Mo WillemsPigeon books are our favorites, but Elephant and Piggie are almost as desired, and Knuffle Bunny is loved. Somehow Pigeon wound up with Brooklyn accent.

Creepy Pair of Underwear
and Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown. Four is already aware that underwear are comical, so a book about creepy underwear hits all the marks. Both books lead kids down a slightly scary story but swing it around to a safe and funny conclusion, allowing kids to explore fear safely.

David
series by David Shannon. Any of the David books will do – No, David! is the first book she was able to memorize and “read” back to me, word for word. There’s nothing like a kid getting into trouble to teach sympathy and manners – or as my preschooler called it, tablemammals.

Freckleface Strawberry by Julianne Moore. There are several Freckleface books, and they are each sweet and charming and no matter what the difficulty, they wind up in friendship and inclusion without being fake and syrupy. The illustrations by LeUyen Pham are endearing and distinctive – everything she’s illustrated has been wonderful – and she’s done a lot!

Ladybug Girl by David Soman. Lulu loves to dress up as Ladybug Girl with her friends Bumblebee Boy and Grasshopper Girl, sometimes just playing around and sometimes being superheroes and having adventures. Perfect stories for imaginative kids who already want to change the world.

Vampirina
series by Anne Marie Pace (and illustrated by LeUyen Pham) is different than the series Disney made from it – more wholesome and childlike. Vampirina’s just a vampire girl trying to fit in with regular society, whether it’s evening ballet lessons or an Addam’s-family style sleep over, with an emphasis on trying your best and being a good friend.

Superheroes: Four seems to be the age when being a hero kicks in. We loved Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Iron Man, Black Panther – all of them. They’re quick and simple, not very deep, aren’t always written logically, but they give kids enough of a background to understand what their older siblings are watching.

By all means keep rereading Little Blue Truck and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and The Kissing Hand, but if you need something more, give these books a try!

 

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope – book review

No matter what you read lately, whether it’s political, economic, or even comedy relief, the concept of a national divide keeps popping up. It seems there is nothing that we’re not crabby about – which song got the Grammy, whether poodles are better than dalmatians, whether corn counts as a vegetable or a starch. Umpteen books have been written on the divide of “liberal” vs. “conservative,” urban vs. rural, prosperity vs. lazy poor, criminal drug abuser vs. victim of Big Pharma, and into that mix Nicholas Kristof throws out an excellent one, called Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

Kristof grew up in rural Yamhill, Oregon, a White, conservative town of 1100 people. More than a quarter of the kids he went to school with died of drugs, alcohol, suicide, or reckless accidents caused by drugs or alcohol. Why did he make it out in one piece, while his friends died slowly of alcoholism, often homeless most of their lives? Why did families lose 3, 4, 5 kids to drugs and alcohol? Why did some do fine?

To keep it real, Kristof explores people in similar situations in places like South Dakota, Oklahoma, New York City, Baltimore, and more, bastions of poverty and drugs in the U.S. What he finds is the same issues, handled differently – humanely – makes a world of difference. In places like Oklahoma, the entire penal code is stacked against poor people. Indigent and need a free legal defender? You are then arrested for being indigent, and fined for your arrest. Now you’re in debt to the state. So you are sent to prison for being a debtor – even if it’s only ONE dollar! Now you have more fines added. People are released from prison – private, for-profit prisons, of course – with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from a mere $25 parking ticket. Can’t make the payments on your fines? Back to jail, and more fines. It’s a gerbil wheel of punishing the poor – even though intervention programs can save $10 of tax money for every dollar spent.

And of course, once you have a felony conviction, you can’t get a job. So people turn to selling meth and heroin. And get convicted, and can’t get hired, and get homeless and depressed and turn to drugs…. Over and over and over. Why are Mexicans taking the jobs from under-educated poor white people? Because the Mexicans can be counted on to show up for work, and aren’t drunk or stoned.

Kristof narrows the biggest issues down to two: One is education. Most of the people he knew didn’t graduate, had parents that barely made it to 8th grade, and grandparents who might not have made it to fifth. If you come from a home where there are no books, no magazines, and no expectations of further education, it’s harder to succeed. He explores one family where the mother had a 5th-grade education, and five children by four different fathers. When the first was expelled from kindergarten twice for behavioral issues, she – with a fifth-grade education – decided to home-school her kids (5 under the age of 6). How much of a chance do those kids have?

The second predictor of success was coming from a two-parent home. If you had two parents – and usually two incomes – you had a much greater chance of being successful. Single mothers with a trail of children left those kids in chaos. More than one child entering Yamhill kindergarten was described as “feral.”

Kristof also explores the programs – often started by those who had had enough – that give people just the right boost, whether it’s paying those $1 legal fees and freeing people from prison or getting them a job or housing or a drug treatment program. Such programs are a lifeline for the people involved, and often get them on the track to permanent success. Unfortunately, many of the government programs to do just that have been eliminated in recent years.

The book is easy to read, informative, and does not preach or even really point fingers. It’s careful to present only facts, though the family situations and the culture of violence surrounding them can be maddening. Despite the grim realities, the book ends up on a positive note. This is one to put on your To Be Read list, and check out these other titles in similar vein:


Hillbilly Elegy
The Left Behind
Evicted
White Trash
Dimestore
Dreamland
Chasing the Scream
Detroit
Broke, USA
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
Survival Math
Nickel and Dimed

 

Facing the Music with Bill and Ted

I don’t know when I first saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but I know it was likely on HBO. Dumb, mindless comedies were in, harmless “Teen” fluff that didn’t pay much attention to reality. It had George Carlin, and Carlin was cool.

I don’t know if it was the painful but common ignorance of misprounouncing “So-crates” or the stoner-intoned dialogue, but I did find it cute, amusing, it had an actual story line, and it introduced me to that actor with the weird name. This was an era when Saturday Night Live was high on the charts, and comedy was in.

A generation later, my kids loved the film and its sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, as well.

Fast forward 30 years later – Keanu Reeves is a household name that we can all pronounce. Alex Winter also appeared in The Lost Boys, one of the better vampire movies ever made, but has had a steady career as a director of movies, television, and music videos. Together, along with many of the original cast, they come back to the big (well, Covid-big) screen in Bill and Ted Face the Music. Bill and Ted are middle-aged, still stuck trying to make the Wyld Stallyns band work, when the future calls them into service to save the world with their music.

Can 1989 comedy work in 2020, or is this just a nostalgic film for middle-aged fans? It’s hard to say. After knocking back movies like The Matrix and John Wick, seeing Reeves break the dead-pan assassin mold and fall back into comedy was strange – and fun. Both actors pick up as if they’d never stopped. Conceived and written by the original creator, the script was predictable (did you expect otherwise?) but true to the characters. It has the same feel, the same style, the same details as the originals, which isn’t the easiest thing to do – too many movies bomb on the third try (Beverly Hills Cop 3, Lethal Weapon 3, Die Hard 3, X-Men 3, Superman 3, The Godfather 3, Divergent 3, etc). George Carlin has unfortunately passed on, with his character Rufus seen in tribute as a hologram, so they brought in a new character, Rufus’s daughter Kelly – played by Kristen Schaal. Viewers are introduced to Thea and Billie, Bill and Ted’s 20-something daughters, characters who do a marvelous job of both imitating their fathers and yet modernizing them for a new generation to identify with. While it makes Bill and Ted seem old and outdated, it’s actually a touching way of passing the torch.

If you loved the originals, if you like mindless fairly clean comedy (PG-13 for language), if you like movies you don’t have to think about that have happy endings, then the movie is well-worth seeing. Is it Oscar material? Of course not. But it is faithful fun.

If you like Bill and Ted, try these other similar movies you might have missed!

Preschool Pirating

Have we all gone stir crazy yet?

Imagine if you were on a 17th century ship, with nothing around you but ocean for three months – or six months. Sure, you didn’t have bored kids fighting over whose turn it is with the TV, or a toddler screaming that Tickle Me Elmo is out of batteries again, but eventually that parrot is going to look pretty tasty when all you’ve had to eat is wormy hardtack and stale beer. If you’ve ever been to the Charles P. Morgan at Mystic Seaport, or the Mayflower up in Plymouth, Mass, or Old Ironsides in Boston proper, you know that those ships are pretty tiny on a ten minute walk-through. Now cram them with fifty people for three months, and suddenly your 1500 square foot house doesn’t seem so bad. At least you’re not seasick.

Pirates, whether illegal or privateers working for King and Country, were often violent men – and a few women – who were not very nice. But legends and lore get romanticized, and pirates – whether Captain Hook, Jack Sparrow, Long John Silver, or Blackbeard himself, and kids are attracted to each other the way ants love sugar. Fancy hats, eye patches, wooden legs, cannons, swords, boats, and treasure – how cool is that?

When a new dog-proof garbage can arrived in a box larger than my three year old, it became her favorite toy of the month, and for one of the weeks we turned it into a pirate ship. Anything that keeps a bored three year old busy for a week deserves to be bronzed. We hung a garden flag from a broom handle for a sail, used a brass fastener to make a spinning wheel, dug out costumes from the older kids, watched a lot of preschool pirate videos and read a lot of pirate books. I drew a simple outline map of our living room and taught her to read maps by placing candy in various places as treasure, and marking X on the map. By the third candy, she was proficient on her own. Then we built our finale.

Using balloons, some Cheshire Herald strips, and a little watered down Elmer’s Glue, we made some cannon balls, and then painted them the next day. Then we built our cannon. The cannon balls were about 5 ½ inches, too big for a standard paper tube. But they worked just perfectly for a paint can! So we scavanged a paint can from the garage, which, thankfully, had only an inch of dried paint in the bottom. And these new-fangled plastic paint cans? The paint doesn’t stick! A few taps and peels, and all that dead paint came falling right out. A quick rinse, and we were good. I cut the bottom off with my Ginsu knife (a product that has lived up to every claim ever made on it – thirty years later it still cuts fences AND tomatoes, and plastic paint cans). I strung a piece of waistband elastic across the hole, held tight by Gorilla Tape, and we had our cannon. It was tricky getting the right angle, but pull the elastic back far enough with the cannon ball sitting on it, and we could get the ball to shoot four or five feet, which is plenty inside a house.

We won Preschool Zoom that week.

So scrounge your house, and see what you can come up with! With warmer weather, try staking out a ship outside with lawn chairs or wooden pallets.  Anything that keeps a kid busy and sparks some interest is a good thing – and they just might learn something.  And by the way, Saturday September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day – check out these awesome stories to get you in the pirate mindset:

Pirate’s Perfect Pet        Pirates Go to School               Peter Pan   

Pirates Past Noon           Pinkalicious and the Pirates

Pirates Don’t Take Baths        No Pirates Allowed, Said Library Lou

Pirates Don’t Change Diapers        Sea Queens:  Women Pirates Around the World

  Treasure Island      Pirates of the Caribbean     Jake and the Never Land Pirates 

Groovin’ with Pete the Cat

Children’s books are notoriously hard to get published. Everyone has an idea for a children’s book, and almost all of them will never see a contract. More than 21,000 children’s titles are published every year in the US, by a number of publishers, which is only a dent in the number of actual submissions. Scholastic, the one who haunts school kids with that monthly flier, publishes just 600 books a year, from board books through High School. So when a children’s book is self-published, sells 7,000 copies in its first ten months and is then signed on by major publisher Harper Collins, you know there’s something really good there. And in this case, the really good is Pete the Cat .

If you haven’t read him, Pete the Cat is a groovy large-eyed, laid-back blue/black cat who lives with his mom and dad and his tuxedo-patterned brother Bob. He has a host of friends (Grumpy Toad, Gus the Platypus, Callie, Squirrel, etc) and he loves bananas and surfing. His stories are mostly easy-readers that play to the 2-7 year old crowd, but he is infinitely more interesting than that. Pete is the kind of story you want your child to like, because you want to read more of his stories.

Pete is the creation of James Dean, whose early illustrations wound up as musically or rhythmically-oriented stories by storyteller/musician Eric Litwin. Litwin wrote four of Pete’s adventures (Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons, Rockin in my School Shoes, I Love My White Shoes, and Pete the Cat Saves Christmas). I have to admit, these early volumes are my favorites, and I cannot help but read Pete stories as if he’s a surfer dude. Groovy, man. While Litwin and Dean split in 2011, Dean and his wife Kimberly have written more than 60 Pete adventures, with more on the way. Pete’s adventures range from curing hiccups (Mom knows best!) to sleepover friends who won’t sleep, to shopping in the grocery store and scuba diving.

The actual Pete the Cat

Being an artist was not Dean’s plan. His father was an artist, and he didn’t relish  reliving the struggle. While being an electrical engineer paid bills, art crept into his life more and more, until he began to pursue art full-time. When he adopted a tiny black kitten he named Pete, Pete’s antics crept into his artwork , and a legend was born.

Dean’s success is an author’s dream – self-published, picked up by a real publisher just two years later, a runaway success (more than 7 million copies sold), merchandise deals, and now a TV series on Amazon Prime, with voices by no one less than jazz singers Jason Mraz and Diana Krall (which totally fits, because Pete gives off that groovy chill of a cool jazz cat). They say self-publishing doesn’t pay, but Dean is one of those handful of lucky authors who won that lottery.

While I find some of the titles to be uneven and lacking the lyrical qualities of the bigger titles such as Groovy Buttons, Pete remains one of my current favorite preschool titles, stories you don’t mind reading over and over again, with subtle morals (family, keeping your cool, how to be a friend, sharing, learning, etc) that won’t make you roll your eyes with saccharine. Rock on, Pete!

Cheshire Library has more than thirty Pete titles!  Here are some of them:

Pete the Cat: Rockin in My School Shoes
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes
Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons 
Pete at the Beach
Pete’s Big Lunch
Pete the Cat: Scuba Cat
Pete the Cat: Snow Daze
A Pet for Pete
Pete the Cat and his Magic Sunglasses
Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes
Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues
Pete the Cat Goes Camping
Pete the Cat and the Perfect Pizza Party
Pete the Cat and the New Guy