December 23, 2016

Christmas spiders

Christmas spider stories have been retold many number of ways. Here are two more:

The Spider's Gift: A Ukrainian Christmas Story
by Eric A. Kimmel
illustrated by Katya Krenina

Katrusya's family has no money to buy Christmas gifts, so they make their own instead. And with no ornaments, they use buttons to decorate their tree. But then they find the tree infested with baby spiders. Katrusya’s mother wants to throw the tree out, but her children don’t want the spiders to die. So the tree remains and to show their thanks, the spiders weave silver ornaments onto the branches.

The story also shows how a traditional Ukrainian Christmas is celebrated.

The Christmas Cobwebs
by Odds Bodkin
illustrated by Terry Widener

A cobbler and his family are left with almost nothing after their house burns down. The only things saved are some precious Christmas ornaments. The shack in which the family find shelter has a lot of cobwebs, but they let them remain for, having lost their home, why should they destroy the spiders’ homes?

Needing money to restart his business, the cobbler must sell the ornaments, so they only have a bare tree for Christmas. But during the night, the spiders weave replacement decorations onto the tree, bringing joy to the family.


December 21, 2016

Cobweb Christmas

Cobweb Christmas: The Tradition of Tinsel
by Shirley Climo
illustrated by Jane Manning

An old lady, called Tante (Auntie) by the village children, prepares for Christmas by cleaning her house and sweeping away the cobwebs. Then she bakes and decorates and shares Christmas with the children. She even shares Christmas with her animals. At day's end, she falls asleep while waiting for Christmas magic. Later that night, when Kriss Kringle passes by, he notices the crowd of spiders outside Tante’s door.

“We have never shared a Christmas,” the biggest spider explains. “Would you let us see Tante’s tree?” Kriss Kringle opens the door for them, and the spiders swarm the tree, leaving sticky cobwebs on all the branches. Kringle turns the webs into glittering strands of gold and silver. When Tante awakes, she rejoices in the magic and, finding one lone spider still spinning its web, realizes who has helped to make Christmas special. And that is why tinsel is hung on Christmas trees.

Based on an old European folktale, it also explains why spider ornaments are common on German Christmas trees.

December 19, 2016

Spider saves baby Jesus

The Cobweb Curtain: A Christmas Story
by Jenny Koralek
illustrated by Pauline Baynes

When word spreads that the Christ child has been born, the king sends soldiers to find the baby. Knowing that they are in danger, a shepherd leads Mary, Joseph, and the baby to a dark cave to hide. While they sleep, a spider weaves a great web across the cave’s entrance. By the time the soldiers arrive, the web has frozen solid. Seeing that the web is unbroken, the soldiers pass by, and everyone is saved.

I like to seek out diverse Christmas stories, and this is one that I have never heard before. It's an enchanting way to explain why we hang tinsel on Christmas trees.

December 16, 2016

Plantation Christmas

Christmas Gif': an anthology of Christmas poems, songs, and stories written by and about African-Americans
compiled by Charlemae Hill Rollins
illustrated by Ashley Bryan

For a serious and religious perspective on Christmas, try this collection of stories, poems, songs, and recipes. They reflect the experiences of African-Americans during olden times. Some of the stories reflect a somber mood, as in those written by Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington, but others are light-hearted as well. Roark Bradford's How Come Christmas is a rather funny take on the origin of Santa Claus. As well, poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Gabriela Mistral, and Effie Lee Newsome celebrate the birth of Christ. 

Ashley Bryan’s woodcut illustrations complement the stories well.

A thoughtful book that reflects a more solemn outlook.

To better capture the reality of a plantation Christmas, read Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, by Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack. 

In moving prose, the McKissacks show the stark differences between Christmas celebrations in the big plantation mansions and those in the slave quarters. They set the story in 1859, a few years before the Civil War. So the tone is not just one of celebration, but of rebellion and hope as well. John Thompson’s paintings add solemnity and cheer, while his closing illustration is both moving and powerful.

A good book to pair with Christmas Gif'.

December 12, 2016

Christmas Spirituals

What a Morning! The Christmas Story in Black Spirituals
selected and edited by John Langstaff
illustrated by Ashley Bryan

The five spirituals collected here tell the story of the Nativity in chronological order, from the birth of Jesus to the visit of the Wise Men. Simple arrangements for piano and guitar make it ideal for small choirs. The highlight is Bryan's vibrant paintings with their multiracial cast of characters.

December 9, 2016

Christmas and Chanukah songs

Candles Snow & Mistletoe
performed by Sharon, Lois & Bram

If you like your music lively and danceable, you can do no better than this collection of Christmas and Chanukah songs by Sharon, Lois & Bram. Most of the songs are familiar, singable, and often funny, like their Winter Sweet medley of verse sung to the tune of the Nutcracker Suite. At times, their energetic and showbizzy style may try your patience, but kids will probably love it.

December 7, 2016

Make your own Christmas gifts

Craft It Up: Christmas Around the World: 35 fun craft projects inspired by traveling adventures
by Libby Abadee and Cath Armstrong

Sometimes a handmade gift is much more meaningful than the store-bought kind. And the presents you'll create from this book are much better than those made from most craft kits. These are wonderful decorative items that will be lovingly used for years afterward. 

Inspired by their travels around the world, the authors have put together a unique collection of holiday-themed craft projects divided into three sections - Americas, Europe, and Asia, Africa & Oceania. The list of things to make include jingle bell bracelets (Cuba), snowman boots (Canada), mistletoe wreaths (Denmark), candy cane cookies (France), table twinklers (Russia), origami gift boxes (Japan), and button bowls (Zambia). Fun facts explain how Christmas is celebrated in each country.

The instructions are easy to follow, with lots of photos to help you out. There's also a collection of templates to copy or trace and a glossary of craft supplies. To avoid numerous trips to the craft store, first see if you have the materials at hand, then decide what you'd like to make. Then make a list, checking it twice, and bring it with you to the nearest store.

A fun way to get into the Christmas spirit!

December 5, 2016

Christmas folk music

The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs..
performed by Eizabeth Mitchell and Friends

As a break from the repetitive secular holiday music that surrounds us this time of year, give this folk music album a listen. These carols are seldom heard, perhaps because of their religious themes. This is a shame because their simple melodies and warm harmonies make for easy, peaceful listening.

A perfect antidote to Christmas commercialization.

December 2, 2016

Restless spirit

A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost
by Natalie S. Bober

A well-written and detailed biography of American poet Robert Frost, A Restless Spirit is ideal for high school and university students who want insight into the meaning behind Frost's poems. 

Throughout his life, Frost struggled to become a well-known poet while trying to support his wife and children. Sensitive, quick-tempered, and with a great deal of wanderlust, he moved his family from place to place, taking teaching jobs to supplement his poetry earnings. Tragedy and mental illness were a part of his life, but he was always sustained by his love of nature.

The book includes a good selection of Frost's poems (either excerpts or complete ones) and numerous black-and-white photographs.

November 30, 2016

Painting with words

Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings
by Matthew Burgess
illustrations by Kris Di Giacomo

"There, as a very little child, I first encountered that mystery who is Nature; here my enormous smallness entered Her illimitable being ..."

E. E. Cummings began creating poetry when he was just a small child. He was often inspired by the natural world he could see outside his bedroom window. The above quote described his feeling after a walk in the woods. 

Birds, trees, even elephants meander through the pages of this cheerful picture book, while a variety of fonts dance across them. Combined, they capture the playful essence of e.e.'s poems. It makes for a very friendly book that serves as a good introduction to a unique and inventive poet.

November 28, 2016

Sensitive poet

Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
narrative and translation by David Jacobsen, Sally Ito & Michiko Tsuboi
illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri

In the 1900s, Misuzu Kaneko was one of Japan's most beloved poets. Her poems were lost after Tokyo was bombed in World War II, but rediscovered in 1982, when a student managed to track down Kaneko's brother, who had copies of her diaries. A sensitive and empathetic young woman, Misuzu Kaneko believed everything was alive and had its own feelings, even rocks, plants and telephone poles! Here is a poem she wrote about fish:


I feel sorry for the fish in the sea.

Rice is grown by people,
cows are raised on pastures, 
even carp are fed in their ponds.

But the fish in the sea ---
no one looks after them;
they do no harm.
And yet, here I am about to eat one.

I feel so sorry for the fish in the sea.

Lovingly presented and illustrated, Kaneko's poetry speaks especially well to children in its beauty and imagination.

A gentle, compassionate book.

November 25, 2016

Let your kids go outside!

Let Your Kids Go Wild Outside: Creative ways to help children discover nature and enjoy the great outdoors
by Fiona Bird

Using a combination of crafts, games, and short biology lessons, Fiona Bird aims to get families outside and exploring! She begins with a detailed intro that covers what to wear, what to bring, and what to avoid to be safe. Since the accompanying pictures are often small or absent altogether (most likely to produce a book of manageable length), she urges parents to also invest in a good plant identification book. Chapters cover various nature habitats: woods, meadows, seashore, wetlands, and home gardens. So proximity to these areas are key, which is probably easier in England (Bird is British) than urban North America. Kids can try identifying animals by tooth marks, make string out of nettle stems (first remove the prickles), make ink out of berries, play beach hopscotch, or cook up some garden pesto. Along the way, they'll get a few lessons in pollination, tidal zones, and types of seaweed, and meet a few famous naturalists. There's a dearth of night-time and rainy/snowy activities, but hopefully, kids will be inspired to go out anyway.

November 23, 2016

Raise a wild child

How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature
by Scott D. Sampson

Sadly, many children are growing up with no experience with nature. For urban children especially, wild animals only exist in zoos and food is found prepackaged in grocery stores. Yet being outside in natural settings have been found to relieve stress, depression, and attention-deficit disorder. Being out in forests, parks, or ravines can reduce bullying and illness, and even boost academic scores. Furthermore, fostering a love of nature means greater awareness of the interconnected of things and the desire for environmental conservation.

Trying to forge a meaningful connection between children and nature may seem daunting, but in How to Raise a Wild Child, Scott D. Sampson shows that it can be as easy as simply sitting on a porch or balcony and observing or listening to the animals, plants, or birds that are nearby. If city sounds are too intrusive, visit a park or even a schoolyard. And if it's hard to lure your kids away from electronic devices, make good use of them! Take pictures, download nature apps, research nature facts, or go geocaching - anything that'll get kids wondering, wandering, and learning. Sampson provides many more examples of experiences and activities for all ages, from babies to toddlers, and childhood to adolescent. For further encouragement, he also tells stories about his own attempts to encourage a love of nature in his daughter.

An excellent and hopeful book; full of joy and wonder in the world outside.

Highly recommended.

November 21, 2016

Open your eyes

Finding Wild
by Megan Wagner Lloyd
pictures by Abigail Halpin

City children often forget that nature is all around them. In her vibrant picture book, Megan Wagner Lloyd reminds children to take notice of the wild places that exist just around the corner, even right outside a subway station.

Two protagonists, a boy and a girl, explore the wild in a city park. Even though wild can hurt – in a lovely double-page spread filled with cacti, poison ivy, and creatures that sting – it can also soothe, sing, and taste delicious! Abigail Halpin’s luscious illustrations capture nature in all its beauty.  

A good reminder to seek out green places in urban environments.

November 18, 2016

Behind the scenes at Zoo Atlanta

Bridge to the Wild: Behind the Scenes at the Zoo
by Caitlin O'Connell
photographs by Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell

During the five days scientist O'Connell and her husband Tim spent at Zoo Atlanta, they met a bevy of animals and their keepers and found out what goes on behind the scenes before and after visiting hours. Every morning they were greeted with a dawn chorus of bird songs and lion roars much like what you'd hear in the wild. Similarly, at the end of the day, a dusk chorus commences as the animals prepare for sleep. In between, we follow the keepers, curators, and vets as they go about their day. 

As O'Connell accompanies the keepers on their rounds, she asks questions and learns much about animal behaviours and the challenges of keeping them stimulated and healthy. Animal care, often involving tests, training, and simple observation, can be complex but very rewarding. The keepers' joy and dedication, plus O"Connell's love of animals, come through in her clear, informative prose and her and Rodwell's striking photographs. 

Sure to inspire, this book will have kid readers dreaming about a job in the zoo.

Highly recommended.