Tag Archives: books

Firestar and Presents for Girls

I have three nieces and I take shopping for their Christmas gifts pretty seriously. As the mother of only boys, I guess I’m working out a lot of my feminist angst directly through what I give to my female relatives. (I have feminist angst to spare for the boys, too, I promise.)

Last year around this time, knowing that my nieces love Star Wars, I went on a hunt for a Star Wars-related gift. I was dumb. I typed in “star wars + girl” into the Amazon search field. I don’t know what I was expecting to find – just that I wanted the consumer-driven/stuff-driven society I live in to blow my mind. What I found instead was a Halloween costume for Princess Leia’s bikini from Return of The Jedi. I was pissed, but I figured it was just that Amazon sucked. [Aside: I tried this again right now and things are a little better in 2013. I found R2D2 socks.]

r2d2 socks

Surely there would be other, better places to find what I needed. I tried A Mighty Girl and I tried Think Geek and no one had what I wanted. Which is maybe a harsh way to judge them, because I couldn’t really say what I was looking for. I didn’t want a cooking set, for heaven’s sake, or anything that revolved too much around traditional “women’s work” (although, now that I think about it, an Ewok-themed tea set of twigs and acorns with a spit for roasting Han Solo would have been awesome) and I didn’t want to get them a regular Star Wars toy like a light saber that came in pink. But I also didn’t want to give them regular Star Wars stuff made for any old kid, because my nieces are special. I wanted a Princess Leia playdoh head that squirted out buns and braids or a Lego set where you could build Cloud City. Darth Vader on a pony, maybe. A pony with a Darth head and black cape?

So maybe my problem was that Star Wars isn’t best judged on girl v. boy, and I think that’s a fair assessment. But I was still so, so disappointed to discover that the Star Wars universe and the shopping universe had not collided to make Niece Awesomeness In Star Wars Flavor. [ETA: You can actually buy a Cloud City lego set; it’s $1300 on ebay and it’s ugly.]

cloud city lego

This year, I tried again. One of my nieces dressed up as the super hero Firestar for Halloween and I thought it would be fun to find her something about Firestar for her Christmas present. Well, guess what? THERE ISN’T ANYTHING.

I know, I know, Firestar is not a one of the more famous super heroes. She was on Spiderman and His Amazing Friends circa 1980. But that stuff is on Netflix streaming now and is currently having a resurgence of popularity. There are books about Spiderman (there is everything about Spiderman, really; even in my house, where the love of Spiderman is pretty low, around broccoli level, we already have a Spiderman nightlight and a pair of Spiderman sunglasses). But no books about Firestar. I thought, again, maybe I was just not searching well.


Firestar says: “WTF?”

Marvel Comics, I discovered, has a whole line of comics for younger kids; no Firestar. No female super heroes at all. Online, they have comics featuring “The Power Pack” which is a group of kids with superpowers who follow around better known characters like Hulk. It’s nice and all, but it feels a little like when sugar cereal started being “fortified” with vitamins and minerals. Fine, thank you, not exactly what I wanted. Also, please to read this one about “The Avengers” and I dare you to find all four panels featuring Black Widow. Marvel even has a line of superhero early reader e-books; women superheroes are conspicuously absent from them all.

Here is where I get a little ranty. What. Is. Going. On? Whhhhhhy? Kaaaaaaaahn! Auntie Hulk smash!

Early reader books are supposed to be high interest and low skill, so that kids who are just starting out reading, or who are struggling to read on their own, can feel excited about picking up a book. I have really started to appreciate the “early reader” section of my library, because that is where all the character-based books are – the ones about Lightning McQueen or Peter Pan or Ariel or whomever. I still have wonder and amazement in my heart for traditional picture books, but after we got a very beautiful picture book at the library called Train to Somewhere, thinking it was about trains only to discover it was about orphans who were being adopted from a train – cue tears – sometimes I don’t want the mystery of an unknown entity; I just want to get a Monsters, Inc. reader and go home.

Early readers are designed to keep kids interested in books and reading, even if they cater to TV shows and movies. So … how come kids who love Spiderman can have a book that caters to their interest while kids who love Firestar or Wonder Woman or Storm cannot? I can’t imagine it’s because it costs a lot to write these books. I mean, just read a few; they sound like a robot put them together. Which is totally great for kids who are early readers, I’m not trying to knock these books.

It’s just that, if Marvel already owns the rights to Firestar, and they don’t need to invest a ton of money into a creative team to write a book about her, and they can publish-on-demand to fill a need or they can upload a Kindle version and don’t have to ship thousands of physical copies to bookstores anymore – WHY HAVEN’T THEY DONE IT?

Auntie Hulk angry. Auntie Hulk think maybe Marvel not care about nieces who love female super heroes.

I love this site about girls putting together their own super hero costumes. When I first saw it, I thought it was such a testament to creativity. I guess I didn’t realize girls do this because no one is making these costumes for them. No one is making these books for them. No one is making these super hero things they love, so they have to do it themselves.


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Review: Mary Elizabeth the Spotless Cow

Today I am taking part in the blog tour for Mary Elizabeth the Spotless Cow by Sal Barbera. If you are here because of the tour, welcome! This blog focuses on reviewing lots and lots of children’s picture books.

Mary banner

We got Mary Elizabeth in the mail on Monday and have been reading it every day since then. My three-year-old has been requesting it every afternoon when we attempt to settle down for naptime. I also found him reading it on his own yesterday. He was totally engrossed in it and didn’t realize I was watching him for a few minutes. Then he looked up and said, in that nonchalant way little kids use when they are being their grown up selves, “Oh, Mommy, I just reading this book.”

Mary-Elizabeth-Spotless-Cow cover

Mary Elizabeth is the new cow on the farm and she, unlike all the other cows, has no spots. At first, the other cows ignore her and won’t play with her because she has no spots. But Mary Elizabeth has seen this kind of treatment before and she has a plan: when the other cows are asleep, she puts mud on herself to look like spots. Will it work? Will the other cows like her now that she looks like they do?

I thought this story was very sweet. At first, the other cows seem like mean bullies when they shut poor Mary Elizabeth out of their social circle, but I appreciated that Mary Elizabeth hunkers down with a plan of action. She uses her own ingenuity to take care of the problem and she does it with confidence. And once the other cows realize the error of their ways, they turn out to be not such bad cows after all.

During the month of October, the publisher is offering this book at a discount through their website. In addition, 50% of the net profits will be donated to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Child Life Program. Visit http://www.sweetles.com/product/books/mary-elizabeth-the-spotless-cow-book/ for more information.

Other picture book reviews you might like:

fancy nancycowboy boydgruffalo


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The Motel of Mysteries for Perfect Picture Book Friday

Let me present:

  • The Motel of Mysteries by David Macaulay.
  • Ages 12 and up.
  • Themes: archaeology

motel of mysteries cover

My dad loves the library. He particularly loves spy thrillers and I have believed for many years that he has read all of them. Sometimes, he tells me, he gets back from the library with a fresh new book, only to realize halfway in that he has probably already read it. I was the same way as a kid, but with horse books. The children’s librarian at the Burnhaven Library put together a small catalog of chapter books on popular topics and every week, I went down the list of horse books until I had read them all. It was a great sense of accomplishment when I finished them all, but then I ran into that problem my dad probably faces: well, now what do I read?

It was always a special treat to go with Dad on his weekly visits to the library when I was little. One week, my brother and I found the “new books” display. That is where we found The Motel of Mysteries, by David Macaulay. We sat down on the floor to look through it and realized we were looking at a book unlike anything we had ever seen. It was written in the style of a National Geographic article and it appeared to be about a archaeological dig. But instead of revealing the secrets of ancient Egypt, it revealed — with hilarious wrongness — the secrets of a 1980’s motel room. The explorer, Howard Carson, misinterprets everything about the room and its contents, believing it to be a burial chamber full of religious artifacts. The TV is an altar, the bathtub is a sarcophagus, the Do Not Disturb sign is a seal to ward off thieves.

As a kid, I thought this book was pretty funny. Parts of it have remained in my memory ever since that day, resurfacing again and again. Looking at it again now, I am tickled by the section on Souvenirs and Quality Reproductions, which is a tour through the museum gift shop. Ceiling tiles have been recreated as coasters and you can have your very own coffee set based on a toilet bowl. And then there is this picture:

motel of myteries

Which is based on this one from the excavation of the ancient city of Troy:

ancient troy jewelry

When I was in college and saw this in a textbook, my mind immediately went right back to The Motel of Mysteries. There wasn’t much of an internet in those days, so I was left wondering if I had imagined the whole book as some kind of bizarre dream.

Related activities:

  • Here is a list of excavation activities for kids,
  • But if I had an older kid, I would ask him to write a story about how the items in a room of the house, like the kitchen or the laundry room, might be misinterpreted by an archaeologist of the future. I actually do this thought experiment all the time, especially when I see certain stories on the news or on nature programs. It is really helpful at developing the kind of “consider the source” thinking you have to do once you are in college. And forever afterward, I guess, if I am any indication.

This post is part of Perfect Picture Book Friday hosted by Susanna Leonard Hill. She gets the best recommendations from the best people about the best books for kids. Every week.


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Book Problems

The books are a little out of control around here.

20130923_074121I’ve been trying to keep the board books in the basket and the paper books in the cabinet, so the baby doesn’t eat all the “nice” books. But the basket is getting too small. And maybe it doesn’t look like there are a lot of books in that cabinet, but if we stuff more in there, they fall out on whoever opens the door.

And then there is this shelf.

20130923_074152I’m not sure I even know what is on there anymore.

Not pictured: the bag of library books, the ones on the beds, the ones next to the chair, the ones on the couch. In addition to tripping over tiny cars and trains every time I go into a room, which I expected as the mom of boys, I keep finding books all over the place. Which is great! Except when I want to clean up! I also have five books waiting to be picked up from the library and they won’t let me put any others on hold until I go get the ones that are already there.

I feel the urge to simplify. Too many things! All over my house! Somewhere in my brain is a little closet where my “throw it away” personality lives. But, arg, when it’s books it’s so much harder. The good ones are beloved, so beloved. The bad ones … wait, there aren’t any bad ones. I already got rid of the bad ones. The ones we have outgrown are all chewed on. And there aren’t very many of those anyway.

So, maybe we just need a bigger basket?


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Dinosaur Roar!

What does it mean when a one year old has a favorite book? Kids (ok, babies) at this age are still a little like dogs (a lot like dogs? I’m leaning toward a lot like dogs). When they get sick, you try to measure how bad it is by how they are eating and pooping. You ask yourself if the quality of their sleep is different. You hem and haw about taking them to the doctor because the doctor is just going to do the same thing you’re doing at midnight, which is guess. And then no matter the diagnosis you end up with the advice of “wait and see” which is also what you get when you take a sick dog to the vet. I guess my point is: tiny children are mysteries.

So when a one year old kid looks at a book with that look on his face – fascinated, amazed, delighted – what exactly is he responding to? What about it is different from all the other books in the basket or piled in the corner or whatever? My one year old (pause while I freak out that he’s already a whole year old) is in love with this book: Dinosaur Roar! by Paul and Henrietta Strickland.

dinosaur roarHe will dig through the other board books with some determination until he finds it, will carry it over to me using both hands, and sit in rapt wonder as I read it to him for the sixieth time. Then he grabs it, shoves it back in my hands, and signs “more.” If I’m not quick to start it up again, he will open up my hand and place it on the binding. Which is one-year-old speak for “Do it again, silly.” And if I should dare approach him with another book, he will swat it right out of my hands and go find the dino book again. He does not have time for Maisy’s Fire Engine; more Dinosaur Roar!

This book has a lot going for it. Colorful pictures: yes. Repetition: yes. Simple concept of opposites: yes. And then it has a punchline at the end as well. I like a good punchline. Maybe Donovan does, too.

Related Activities:

Teach Your Baby About Opposites: I think this would be great if, say, you were leaving your baby with someone for a few hours who said they don’t know what to “do” with the baby. Well, here. Walk around the house and play with stuff.

Makes Opposites Cards. Take photos of your kid and make cards out of them. I need to do this. I think we would wear them out.

Dinosaur Costume: Because Halloween is coming up. And also just because this is a really cute picture of a baby dressed like a dinosaur.

And just in case anyone needs another, here is my kid. Dressed like a lion, but it’s close.

donovan lion

This post is part of Perfect Picture Book Friday hosted by Susanna Leonard Hill. She gets the best recommendations from the best people about the best books for kids. Every week.


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Look What Arrived!

I took the moon for a walk

We just got a whole box of books from Barefoot Books! This was my prize for winning a contest at Mothering.com for a post I wrote for World Breastfeeding Week. You can read the post here, if you like: On Motherhood.

I Took the Moon for a Walk has to be my favorite book from this collection. We read it quite frequently and it is perfect for a bedtime book. I enjoy the rhyme and rhythm of it, which I don’t often say because sometimes I feel like the rhyming in children’s books is kind of overwhelming. Usually, it’s fine and sometimes it’s fun, but I don’t generally fall into the camp of “I love this poem!” But I am making an exception here. I also like that the story shows a child exploring the world at night without being scared or monitored by his parents. It was the kind of thing I always wanted to do when I was a kid – and something I did do a lot when I was older.

I’ve raved before about Barefoot Books because their website features free podcasts of children’s audio books. I highly recommend these if a.) you are tired of reading to your kids (it is ok to admit that it happens), b.) your child keeps asking for the same story on repeat, c.) you need something to listen to on a roadtrip. When Finn was quite young, maybe 2 years old, we found he enjoyed listening to audiobooks once he already knew the story. Our favorite was The Gingerbread Man. I told him a simple version of it, then we listened to it together for a few minutes, and before long he was requesting it after naptime.

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Thoughts I Had While Reading Lyle, Lyle Crocodile

I’ve said this before, somewhere: when I wind up reading the same book dozens of times, I have to find a way to keep it interesting. Here are some of the thoughts I recently had while reading Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber for many, many days in  row.

Look at all the square footage in this New York apartment/house. Holy moly.


Mrs. Primm and Lyle sure do spend a lot of time together.


Now it’s starting to look like they are on dates.


My favorite page in the book. Says the information lady, “I have no information about a crocodile wearing a red scarf.” If I ever work at an information booth, I am going to start every sentence with “I have information/no information about …”


I am a little traumatized that Lyle has been sent to the zoo. Don’t cry! Why am I such a wimp about crying in children’s books?


Oh, good, Lyle gets to come back from the zoo and everyone is happy. And it looks like Mrs. Primm has her nose back.


Finn loves this book and asked for the “Lild”story almost every night. His favorite part is the character of Mr. Grumps. He asks where Mr. Grumps is on every page and when a page does not contain any pictures of Mr. Grumps, he is unhappy. I would gladly buy a book entirely devoted to the adventures of Mr. Grumps.

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Review: Chanticleer and the Fox

Have you ever checked out a picture book because *you* wanted to read it and didn’t really care if your kids thought it was interesting? I admit, I have done it. And not just because I am tired of reading the same fifteen train books they have at our local branch. It happened last week when I forgot the library bag and made some dumb pronouncement outside the doors, like, “Ok, just one book each!” And then Finn came out of the stacks with one called Buenos Noches, Miami and I thought, “Ok, fine, I will puzzle out the Spanish on that for you,” and Donovan grabbed one of those First 400 Words in the Kitchen type books that are just pictures and are impossible to read.

And then I saw Chanticleer and the Fox. Ooh, ooh, a book based on Chaucer! With sweet olde-tyme illustrations as well. My heart skipped a beat. I am still still a nerd English major of the worst sort.


So … it’s not that great. I mean, the story is cute, but they could have divorced it from Chaucer a little more, in my opinion. True, they updated the language to Modern English, but they didn’t really try to make the words child-friendly. And even though I I recently fell in love with Corduroy, a story about a teddy bear who searches for a button which is not exactly high adventure, I am not sure most kids are ready to follow a story about a rooster. A married rooster, at that. My kids listened to it exactly once, with looks on their faces that seemed to say, “They make books about all kinds of things, do they?” but I guess there is value even in that. I was tired of Chanticleer by about page four. And when the fox arrived, I hoped he would get eaten.

But I did love the pictures.

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Review: Choo Choo, The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away

A review of Choo Choo, The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away by Virginia Lee Burton. I really love this book; it has a special place in my heart.

choo choo

Choo Choo is dedicated, with a beautiful charcoal drawing of a little boy, to the author’s son Aris. In this picture, he is surrounded by his toy trains and — in ever-widening circles — historical, real life trains. The story itself includes all the train-related high-points: tunnels, bridges, stations, traffic crossings, hills, train noises. It is not hard to imagine that Burton knew exactly what her son wanted to see in a train book and made him one that fit the bill. Even the endpapers feature a large panoramic scene of the tracks where Choo Choo runs. My son likes to trace his fingers over the tracks in these pictures, going over the hills and through the tunnels and across the bridge. If you have a small train lover, this book has almost everything you could ask for.

Choo Choo was one of the very first books we checked out from the library that wasn’t a board book. Finn was very young at the time, less than 18 months old, and he had very little patience for this book. There are a lot of words and they don’t rhyme or have a noticeable rhythm. It seemed to take us forever and ever to get through it and, to be honest, many times we did not read the whole thing. I thought it was too long and too wordy and spent a great deal too much space in the beginning laying out the names of the engineer and the fireman and the conductor.

But now that Finn is older, this has become one of his favorite books. Duh, of course we need to know everything about Choo Choo before she decides to run off. We need to know her engineer and see his oil can and hear about how much he loves her; because if you are a person who loves trains, you need to know all about everyone in the book who loves trains. You need to see his hat and imagine it on your own head. You need to see the conductor’s pocket watch and imagine you have one, too. We have to see where Choo Choo goes every day before she runs off, because this is how trains cast their magic spell on us: they travel along paths we can’t always see from our windows or from the roads we usually travel.

Burton is better known for her book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which is a pretty great book, too. But I like this one better. I saw The Little House, another book of hers, at Half Price Books last week and I am still a little irritated that I didn’t buy it (someone wanted to spend his summer reading gift certificate on a Thomas book). I think I will put that on our list.

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Review: The Keeper and the Rune Stone

Today I am featuring something a little different: a guest post by my talented colleague Christa French! Christa and I met a hundred years ago when we worked at a store together. We watched a lot of instructional videos on wicker while we were there and learned the “right” way to fold up a rug. Since then, she has proven herself to be a wonderful writer and an amazing friend. And I’m sure she remembers the right way to fold up a rug, just like I do. Christa blogs here: http://christafrench.com/ Read her review below and then go show her some love.

Review: The Keeper and the Rune Stone by Paige Pendleton

keeper and the rune stone

The Keeper and the Rune Stone is a charming, family-centric novel that takes the sweet earnestness of The Boxcar Children and maps high fantasy elements onto it.

Eleanor Driscoll, our narrator, is a precocious, empathetic thirteen-year-old with two brothers and a younger sister. She begins her story with a reasonably awesome wish-fulfillment laundry list: the Driscoll family has moved into an enormous, beautiful mansion! And they get new computers! And bikes! And horses! Of course, they will have to do chores in order to maintain these last, because this is a family story.

More to the point, the children are quickly introduced to the world of magic. Their indoctrination comes with the enhancement of the senses, though not actual superpowers – except for the reasonably fabulous ability to speak with animals.

But, of course, magic always comes with a price. There are negative elements within the world of magic, and now the Driscoll children are exposed to them – and must fight on the side of the good.

This is the kind of light, middle-grade fiction that will be torn through by hands eager to find out what happens next in the world of Eleanor and her brothers and sister.

A note for parents: most of the novel is safely PG, but there are vampires (in this book they’re called noctivagi), and the bad-guy scenes are decently scary. It doesn’t get scarier than the prologue, though, so if you’ve gotten through that with no trouble, the rest is smooth sailing.

If you read and enjoy The Keeper and the Rune Stone, we would love to hear about it. Book 2 in the series, The Keeper and the Alabaster Chalice, has recently been released.

This week, Christa is featuring a review of Dark Companion by Marta Acosta on her blog. Go. Read it.


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