The Dog in the Dentist Chair, by Peggy Frezon

Reading The Dog in the Dentist Chair, I imagine Peggy Frezon like a reporter, walking around with a microphone in her hand, interviewing the special animals she’s discovered and getting their stories straight from the source, even though cats, dogs, and pigs can’t talk to us with human words. Her careful, loving observation of their personalities, their work, and the relationships they’ve built with their human friends make this the book our animal friends would write for us, if only they had opposable thumbs.

Peggy does an excellent job of blending points of view in each chapter. She helps us see the action from the animal’s point of view, but also from the child’s. The emotions and needs of both children and animals are noted and respected in each account. Peggy’s sympathy shines through the simple prose, inviting her young readers to feel recognized and understood.

I also like two other features of the book. Each chapter ends with fun facts about the animal we’ve just met – how big is he, what does she like to eat and play with, where does he live, what does she look like. The fact list is satisfying to the curious and a subtle reminder that these animals, and all the good things they represent, are real. That sense of happy reality is capped off with an aptly chosen Bible verse – short, sweet, and the perfect final touch. I love the rhythm this builds in each chapter, moving the child reader from curiosity to sympathy to comfort to confirmation, emotionally and spiritually.

The Dog in the Dentist Chair is also valuable for an adult reader. We grown-ups love animals too! But more than that, it’s an inspiring resource for parents, teachers, and care-givers looking for ways to reach and heal the children in their care. The book recounts a diverse array of human situations and needs, and the variety of animals who meet those needs, and the ways they do it, are thought-provoking and encouraging. I can readily imagine a reader finishing this book and going straight to the internet or library to find a local program to connect them with a helpful furry friend just like the ones in this good book.

The Dog in the Dentist Chair is available from Paraclete Press and Amazon

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Guest Post: A House of Books

Guest poster Melissa Naasko invites us to a family ritual and the powerful reason she reads to her children. 

In a corner of my house is a round oak table that was the kitchen table my husband sat at as a child. It is where the teenaged children do their school work. Next to it is a set of bookshelves that house their books and my husband’s; these are the books that are expensive or fragile and ready for when they are needed, and the little children are not allowed to play with these books or really even look at them too hard.

On the shelf with the Theology books sits an incredibly battered book, its cardboard cover fraying badly at the corners and its binding taped back together in many places and only occasionally with any real skill. It’s a cheap book club edition of a children’s book with minimal investment in its printing costs, which explains the oddly orange hue to every page. It is worn and damaged and looks ready for the bin, but it is a prized book among my children. It is carefully placed on a high shelf near the canon law book and those of the history of the Russian Church. It is there precisely because it is fragile and valuable and ready for when it is needed.

The Calm

I have heaps of children, just heaps of them. There are eleven of them all in all, six girls and five boys. You learn a lot of things by having more children than you can count on both hands, and one of those is a sense of purpose in calm. I am not the kind of mother who seeks to make every moment of childhood this memorable, Pinterest-driven event “for the ‘gram’” because no one has that much emotional currency for that many kids. I think no one has that for any number of kids; it would be exhausting. I am not the woman who turns every event into a holiday. I am not a curmudgeon about things, but I do quietly sip tea as other mothers panic about their leprechaun and April fools brunches and think, “Uh, no.” Just no.

That said, there is one notable exception, and that is the first snow. Many years ago, now more than twenty, my oldest child came into the world on the first snow. It was the middle of September, because Colorado. I woke up one cold morning to find that while I slept my water had broken and with it came a rush of knowledge that nothing would ever be the same again. It was the beginning of a complicated and messy and beautiful story that is still unfolding to this day.

The Snow

While he was still tiny, while perusing and sifting through the books at a thrift store, I found one about a first snow. There is something about that first snow that begs us to hunker down and wall ourselves off from the outside. We want to be drenched in cocoa and thick socks and fluffy blankets. Thinking about how my first-born drove my insatiable need for domesticity, it seemed a perfect element that he was born on the first snow. It all comes together. I bought the book for a quarter. I only know it was a quarter because the price is still on it, and I cannot remember anything else I may or may not have bought that day because only this is lasting.

The Ritual

In this book, a mother rabbit and her wee little rabbit are looking for a winter home because the approaching winter is slowly taking their summer one – the leaves are falling off the bush that sheltered them. They look and look, but every inn is full and they are turned away at every knock, and so ultimately they have to make their own home. I won’t deprive you of the joy of reading this charming little book to learn how this happens, and I fully expect you to find it and read it. Let it suffice to say that when the snow finally comes, they can view it from inside their own cozy little home.

Since the very first time I read this book, I felt like the mother rabbit and her wee little rabbit and made their home in my heart. The very next first snow, I read this little book to my oldest child and I made tea and even cake. It has continued this way every first snow since. The ritual is not elaborate. We make something to eat and drink, and what we have changes and who does the baking does as well. There are years when one or another child has claimed this privilege. The only added complexities were the increasing number of children who sat around the table and listened to the book as they sipped tea or cocoa and snuggled down into their blankets.

The Reason

Now come the years when fewer children sit around the table than the year before. There are children who are grown and away at college or work and are not there to listen to the story. The ebb and flow of the conversation have changed because there are no more babies to quiet and no toddlers to wrangle. Someday we will come to the first snow when the youngest one of these children is too old to sit and listen to her mother read the book. Perhaps I will read it to myself? While a part of me grieves for this moment, this slow approaching shift in the plot line of my life, I know that the house I have built is sturdy and strong, and what is more is that they will know it, too.

The book is called Rabbit’s Search for a Little House, and it was published way back in 1988. It was written by Mary DeBall Kwitz and illustrated by Lorinda Cauley. I bought a copy for my oldest son’s twenty-first birthday to remind him of the stories of the day that he was born, when fallen branches had knocked out the power to the doctor’s office and the streetlights were out. I want him to remember the safe harbor that is my love and the love of his father and siblings and the home he can always return to when it becomes cold outside. This is why we read to children. We read to them to give them a place to come back to, one that can outlast us, one that they can then give to their children. We read to build a wee little, warm little, snug little house for ourselves and our little rabbits.

Melissa_Naasko_280

Melissa Naasko is the wife of an Orthodox deacon, the mother of eleven hungry children, and author of Fasting as a Family from Ancient Faith Publishing. She cooks, knits, and writes from the Upper Peninsula.

Dear Komodo Dragon, by Nancy Kelly Allen

Lots of children have pen pals but one little girl has a real-life dragon—a Komodo dragon—for a pen pal! Leslie plans to be a dragon hunter when she grows up. When she and Komodo become pen pals, the wise-cracking dragon adds a generous helping of humor to letters that are chock full of accurate, interesting facts. Leslie learns not only about the world’s largest lizard, but also about the dangers they face. As their friendship builds, will Leslie change the way she thinks about dragons?

Do you remember that teacher we had in elementary school who was always trying to make learning fun? Yes, you remember. I thought you would. Sometimes, the fun was actually fun. Sometimes, not so much. Personally, I’d rather just plow through the math without also wishing I felt as entertained as that hopeful teacher hoped I would.

That’s why Dear Komodo Dragon surprised me! It’s definitely an educational book. You’ll find zoology, conservation, and math in its pages, and you could spin a lesson about letter-writing out of it, too. Arbordale provides substantial curricular support for their books. There’s a 30-page Teaching Activity Guide for Dear Komodo Dragon, perfect for classroom or homeschool use, and the book itself includes a 4-page For Creative Minds section as well.

But it’s still a story! Leslie and Komo, her dragon pen pal, both have relatable personalities, and their exchange is light-hearted and interesting (despite being informative!). You’ll realize how much you’ve been drawn into the story when you come to the plot twist just before the end! (No spoilers here!)

Laurie Allen Klein’s illustrations, like the text, are realistic but still imaginative, and provide depth to the characterizations and supporting detail for the information in the text. I especially appreciated the added dimension she provided in, for example, the labeled drawings of  various kinds of dragons displayed on pages 6-7. It’s evidence that every opportunity, every space and moment in the book, was used to add value for the reader.

I think my grade-school self would have welcomed this book with relief and interest. Dear Komodo Dragon is both fiction and nonfiction, a science story that deserves to be called both “science” and “story.” Bright pictures, clean text, engaging characters, and that plot twist I mentioned above all come together to make a good day in the classroom, or in your favorite reading nook at home.

Dear Komodo Dragon and its teaching resources are available directly from Arbordale Publishing, and also on Amazon in paperback, hard cover, and Kindle editions.

I was granted access by the publisher to a digital edition of this book in exchange for this review.

The Runaway Bunny as Christian Allegory

In this remarkable scene from Wit (2001, directed by Mike Nichols), Evelyn Ashford (Eileen Atkins) comforts her dying friend and former student Vivian (Emma Thompson) by cradling her gently and reading Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.

At the 5:00 minute mark, these two grieving women, both academics, share a surprising discovery about the book. “Ah! Look at that,” Evelyn says smiling. “A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.” Vivian is hardly able to speak, but the moment figures as a turning point as her suffering gradually gives way to sleep.

The Runaway Bunny is a picture book classic, most often read in the same spirit as books such as Love You Forever or Guess How Much I Love You. It’s meant to be read over and over again, until the words are all memorized and the spine cracks and the pages fall out. Little ones never tire of hearing that wherever they go, however life changes them, their mama will find them and bring them home.

It’s a logical choice for the film, which chronicles the inward journey of an intellect-centered college professor struggling for transcendence as she dies of cancer. Her friend and mentor in this scene is much like the mother bunny in the book. Evelyn arrives at the hospital having only just learned that Vivian is there. What are the odds? It is a detail just touched on as Evelyn takes off her coat, but it is the same quiet miracle as the mother bunny finding her baby wherever she goes. The little bunny who keeps trying to shape-shift, to become some other animal, to have some other life, mirrors the human journey to discover and improve our actual self, the one we hope to keep. And the kindly, humorous, unfailing persistence of the mother bunny is the Love that birthed us and leads us home.

Of course, once you begin to hold a lens over the story, you see more in it than you first expected. Consider the progression of transformations the little bunny suggests, and the ways his mother answers them. These pairs of images are rife with Christian symbolism!

I will be a fish in a trout stream/ I will be a fisherman. Jesus calls His apostles with the promise that they will become “fishers of men,” gathering in new believers.

I will be a rock on a mountain/I will be a mountain climber. He calls Peter the “rock” on which He will build the Christian church.

I will be a crocus in a hidden garden/I will be a gardener. When Mary comes to  the grave seeking Jesus after his crucifixion and He meets her there, she believes at first that He is the gardener.

I will be a bird/I will be the tree you come home to. The tree is a reference to the Cross, the place to which Christians “fly home” in search of eternal life.

I will be a sailboat/I will be the wind.   The wind is the Holy Spirit, and “blows where it will”, just as the mother bunny will blow her little sailboat “where I want you to go.”

I will be a trapeze artist/I will be a tightrope walker. The circus is an old and often-used metaphor for the world (as distinguished from heaven or the Church). Biblical tradition describes Satan as the “lord of the air,” and Jesus harrowing hell and rising to heaven “clears the air,” overcoming what darkness lingers there. Thus, like the mother rabbit, He meets us in danger and saves us. Alternately, the trapeze artist and the tightrope walker could prefigure the Second Coming, when believers will be “caught up together in the clouds” and “meet the Lord in the air.”

I will be a little boy/I will be your mother. This pair brings the little bunny to the pinnacle of Christian imagery, and teaching – the incarnation. Interestingly, in this final iteration, the little bunny has assumed the divine role (the Son of Man, born on earth) and the mother bunny plays the dual role of birthgiver and guide. She will be this little boy’s mother and catch him up in her arms to hug, just as Mary must so often have embraced Jesus in her role as Theotokos, God-bearer, mother. But simultaneously, this is also the role in which she succeeds in bringing her little bunny home to his true identity, a nod at the salvific power of the incarnation and the Christian striving to be in God’s image. When the little bunny chooses an identity that both parallels and transcends his present life, he has come to the end (or beginning!) of his spiritual journey. And of course, he has found his way home.

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, was first published in 1942, and is still in print!

The Happy Man and His Dump Truck, by Miryam

“A happy man thrills a group of farm animals when he takes them for a joy ride in his dump truck. This book is a true classic illustrated by the inimitable Tibor Gergely.”

The Happy Man and His Dump Truck is one of my favorite picture books. The first time you read it, you think it’s a simple, funny little story. The second time, the third time, you realize how much depth is shining inside that apparent simplicity.

Here’s the story. A happy man is driving down the road in his dump truck. He meets some farm animals who want to go for a ride in his dump truck. So he takes them for a ride. They like it so much they ask him to take their friends for a ride. He comes back and takes even more farm animals for a ride. Then they say goodbye, and he drives away, just a happy man with a dump truck.

But there’s so much more to the story!

Happiness and Kindness

The best lessons in picture books are the ones you don’t realize you are learning. When you read this story, it seems completely natural that the happy man, and the happy animals, would want to share the fun. Real happiness is generous. Little ones hearing this story are still at the age where they won’t share toys and treats without prompting (sometimes lots of prompting!). But they are also capable of deep love and sudden generosity. The story is a funny, age-appropriate example of sharing that went well for both parties, the giver and the receiver. We are all growing into the kind of people whose first impulse is to share the best of what we have, always.

Simple Life

I love this book for its innocent, agrarian setting. I love it for its total absence of modernity. The only technology in the book is an old-fashioned dump truck driven by a man who isn’t being tracked by GPS and therefore can stop along the road to play with farm animals. The more screens, wires, waves, beeps, and clicks surround our children, the more they need stories that reconnect them with the simple outside world. Our children need farm animals and dirt, green grass and free time. They need to remember what sound a chicken makes. They need to develop an imagination that immediately grasps what a great slide you could make in the bed of a friendly dump-truck.

Spontaneous, Not Random

The happy man is not the only example of generosity in this book, or kindness. The animals are generous, too. Not all of the farm animals are present when the happy man first drives by. He gives several rides because each group of animals asks him to come back to the farm and pick up the next group. So all the characters in the book are responding to a gift by passing it on.

We hear a lot about “random acts of kindness,” and I am thankful for their influence in the world. But I prefer to describe kindness as “spontaneous.” Kindness is not random. Kindness is the natural expression of goodness that comes from the heart. It can inspire us at any moment, in any situation, and because we often don’t foresee that inspiration, it is spontaneous. The cycle of generosity in this book is a wonderful model for children, and adults. When something good happens, what is our first response? When we receive gifts, or are blessed with good circumstances, we need to think like the happy man and his animal friends. “I love this. How can I share it?”

This Classic Little Golden Book is available on Amazon in a hardcover edition.

Meh: A Story about Depression, by Deborah Malcolm

Meh: A Story about Depression is a wordless picture book with remarkably evocative, content-rich illustrations leading the reader on an emotional and spiritual journey through an episode of depression and recovery.

The concept of using a picture book to launch a conversation about depression with a child is fascinating and brilliant, in my view. You’ll want to see the book for yourself, through your own lens, and no doubt it will bring to mind memories of experiences and observations. It’s also a testament to the miraculous quality of art – I read all of the following from a book that has no words!

The Title

The title is a word made popular by the “meh” emoji (star of the recent Emoji Movie), and it’s a fascinating choice for two reasons. Emojis are a regular part of life for children and teens, and it’s telling that this emoticon was chosen as the main character in the film. Like the film, this picture book’s choice of “meh” is an important nod at research linking technology use with anxiety, and depression, especially in younger users. It’s one of many aspects of the book that lead easily into a conversation that’s essential for a child encountering depression, or anxiety.

But the title is also an immediate, powerful statement of understanding. “Meh” means “I’m not strongly negative or positive.” It suggests an absence of feeling where feeling would be desirable, so there’s an overtone of wishfulness. This is a simple, one-word verbalization of the complex numbness that’s often a hallmark of depression. And the choice to describe this feeling with a word anyone under 30 will immediately associate with an emoji is a message to a child reader that whoever wrote this book “gets it” and is familiar with the world the child is confronting. Loneliness is depression’s weapon, and to be understood is the first, best antidote.

No Text

One difficult but important task in caring for a child suffering from depression or anxiety is to leave space for them to vocalize what’s happening. It’s so tempting, in our effort to show understanding and support, to rush in with our own words, covering over their experience with our perception of it. The wordless pictures in Meh remind us to ask and then be quiet, letting the words come from the child. The book includes a list of questions to encourage discussion, along with a kindly reminder to be clear that there are no wrong answers.

In addition to the questions provided, Meh lends itself to the kind of simple, non-threatening questions you would ask about any picture book you’d read with a child. But in this case, those natural questions lead straight into important conversation because the illustrations are creative and intelligent. These questions could include the following, and more:

  • Why is there so much blackness in the picture now?
  • When did you first notice the cat?
  • Why do you think the cat is light-colored?
  • How do you think the boy feels about the cat?
  • How do you think the cat feels about the boy?
  • Does the cat remind you of any people you know? Why?
  • What decision do you think the boy is making on this page where he’s looking up at the cat?

Two Roles

That last question highlights another vital strong point of the book. In the depths of those black pages (and moments), our first reading of the picture is that the loving little cat is leading this boy out of the darkness (sorry for the spoiler!). The cat is rescuing the boy. This is true, but it is not the whole truth, either in the picture or in life. The boy is choosing to follow the cat.

One illustration is especially poignant. On the left page, we see the boy standing at the bottom of a formidable rocky hill, looking up at the cat, who is looking down at him from the top. On the facing page, the boy is struggling hard to climb over the ledge onto the top of the hill, where the cat is waiting for him. Just below that image, we see the boy and the cat resting together. The message is clear – the cat is not rescuing the boy single-handedly. The boy is rescuing himself, with merciful and responsible guidance from the cat.

This is an enormous truth. All of us in the darkness need that leading light, AND we need the gritty, hang-on-by-your-fingernails effort to work our way back to healthy life.

#BetheCat

Meh is an excellent tool for reaching children struggling with depression or anxiety. But it can also inspire informed sympathy in children who may see a classmate or cousin who needs help. You can read the book through the eyes of either character (or both!). Children will notice that the cat enters gently – at first, we see only the tiny paw prints on the dark earth – but becomes powerful as a lion when strength is needed. The cat is encouraging, but not enabling. And the cat stays with the boy through the entire journey, even the end of the journey, in peace and celebration. I would love to see the #bethecat hashtag taken over by children and caregivers who are choosing to walk into the darkness, and out again, for the people they love.

A paperback edition of Meh: A Story about Depression is available on Amazon. 

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Froggy Learns to Swim, by Jonathan London

“Zzzziiiinnngggg splash!
Everyone’s favorite frog learns to swim!

Frogs are supposed to be great swimmers. “Not me!” says Froggy, who’s afraid of the water. But with a little encouragement, some practice, and the help of a silly song or two, Froggy becomes an expert frog-kicker!”

You have to read this book out loud. You can’t help reading it “in voices.” Froggy’s voice is very life-like (which is to say child-like), and if you are a parent, the voice of Froggy’s mother will come naturally to you. It’s the voice you hear coming out of your own mouth a dozen times a day.

“Say, ‘Bubble bubble,’ under water. Then raise your face for air and say, ‘Toot toot.'”

“I don’t want to,” Froggy whined.

“Oh come on, Froggy, just try it. Repeat after me: ‘Bubble bubble, toot toot.'”

Frank Remkiewicz’s illustrations are the best – the froggy facial expressions and body postures exactly match the querulous, bowdacious, very human moods and reactions of this amphibian family. The story is funnier because the characters are frogs, but also because those frogs are so much like people!

I must admit that part of me would adore a watermelon swimsuit and ruffly pink bathing cap, just like what Froggy’s mother is sporting. And of COURSE her name in the book is “Froggy’s mother.” Speaking as one who has also given birth (though not to a frog), this is how we are known. If Froggy’s mother ever had a name, you can be sure no one uses it now. She’s Froggy’s mother. You can’t blame her for the watermelon swimsuit. Not at all.

But with all this froggy fun at the pond, the book makes a good point. If you are hesitating on the brink, sure you can’t do it (whether “it” is swimming or another challenge), if you just keep breathing and working the routines you’ve been taught by someone who loves you, you’ll be surprised what you can overcome – even your own nervousness.

Bubble bubble, toot toot!

This book is available on Amazon in paperback, ebook, and school/library binding editions.

10 Minutes till Bedtime, by Peggy Rathmann

“Bedtime routines have never been so hilarious!

At One Hoppin’ Place, the countdown to bedtime is about to begin when a family of hamsters arrives at the front door.”All aboard!” the child’s pet hamster, dressed as a tour guide, shouts, directing them to his bus. It’s off to the kitchen for a snack, to the bathroom for toothbrushing, to the bedroom for a story. And just as the child begins to read, the tour guide looks out the window and shouts, “More coming!” Busloads and carloads of vacationing hamsters stream through the front door, ready to enjoy the escapades as the countdown continues.

A sure-fire toddler pleaser from the creator of Good Night, Gorilla.”

This is a book for readers who enjoy finding the story, and its humor, in every detail of the illustrations. 10 Minutes till Bedtime does not have text in the traditional sense. Each page is like a full-spread comic-strip box. What the characters say is written in beside them in the picture, or in a speech bubble, just like you’d see in a comic strip. But there is SO MUCH lively, story-telling detail packed into every picture that you can almost hear them happening out loud!

One fun aspect of the book is the way the plot unfolds at child-level, right behind the backs of adults who sometimes appear in the pictures but are always oblivious to the stream of hamster antics going on all over the house. It captures the thrilling, curious, giggling fascination of a small child’s inner world. It is real and riveting to the child, but almost invisible to the adults.

I love the way Peggy Rathmann plays with levels and layers of reality in this book. Not only do we see the dichotomy between the adult narrative and the child/hamster adventure, but we also see a character from another book (the gorilla from Goodnight, Gorilla) and we see the child in this book reading 10 Minutes till Bedtime to the hamsters! It invites a cascade of imagined pictures-within-pictures – the book being read in the picture has a page like this one that shows the book being read, and the book in that book has a book in it, and so does that one…to infinity! It’s a wonderful opportunity to play with the early outlines of abstract thinking which are still in the developmental future of toddler readers.

I also love the amount of detail. The illustrations take every chance, every inch, to add action, humor, and hamster subplots galore! A book that can be so innocently hilarious to a child and still entertain an adult reading along is a good gift.

This book is available in hardback, boardbook, paperback editions on Amazon.