Seasonal books for kids

by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky

The early morning air wafting through the open windows was softly crisp on the eve of the autumnal equinox. The front lawn, an aging green, was littered with large curled sepia sycamore leaves. The house sat blissfully quiet, everyone else having left for school and work, except for “Autumn Music” playing on Pandora.

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For me, the first day of fall heralds the decorating cycle—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, Winter (snowmen!), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day (family birthdays/wedding anniversary), and Easter—that will culminate with growing season next spring. I’ll display my father’s collection of roosters in the bay window as it overlooks a young green yard carpeted with purple violets and welcomes a symphony of birdsong into the house.

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As a child I learned about the changing year—bolstering what I learned in school—through the lens of what was happening in our yard. This became linked with the cultural holidays and religious feasts taking place in each season. For example, I remember crunching through crystalline snow in rubber boots to see if the fragile gold and amethyst crocus were blooming in the icy cold beneath the birdbath near the brook that divided our front lawn. No matter how miraculous this seemed, I learned it was a sign that spring and Easter were coming.

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My parents and sisters populate these memories. My dad loved decorating the house for holidays and tended the yard with my grandfathers. In the kitchen, my mom turned garden peppers and eggplant into glorious feasts. Everyone wanted to eat at our house! Though my children find this bizarre, some of my happiest family memories involve raking leaves and shoveling snow together, talking and laughing while washing dinner dishes, and picking and canning endless pounds of plum tomatoes in late summer to jar for gravy (tomato sauce) for Sunday macaroni in the coming months.

In my developing mind, this exciting and inspiring cycle of seasons and holidays and feasts seemed to begin, not on January 1, but with the return to school and apple picking in September. It’s no wonder my first picture books are seasonal!

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Today, while decorating the house for holidays, I display a variety of seasonal picture books. The most weathered copies are mine from childhood, some belong to my children, others I’ve collected since commencing my journey as a picture book author. I love them all, but the fall and Halloween picture books are especially dear. A favorite among favorites is Pumpkin Pumpkin, by Jeanne Titherington. The simple text and amazing textured illustrations distill the story of the seasonal year down to six amazing pumpkin seeds. It’s poetry.

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It also represents everything I aspire to in my own writing—capturing the essence of an unfolding story in vivid and efficient text, and delighting in the privilege of watching as illustrators such as Susan Swan and Julia Patton elaborate in color, texture, and image.

What are your favorite seasonal books for kids? 

Seasonal books for kids

5 ways to experience back to school

Our authors dive into their childhoods to describe a memorable school experience as you go back to school this fall.

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                                   Pictured: Author Linda Joy Singleton with best friend Lori                                       at the bus stop on the first day of junior high school.

While starting a new school year could sometimes cause anxiety, especially when my best friend was going to a different school, the one thing that made returning to school fun was my back-to-school shopping day with Mom. I have three siblings so going out with Mom alone was rare. Before school started every year, each of us kids went out individually to buy school supplies and have lunch with Mom. After buying paper, pencils, binders and a new outfit to wear on the first day of school, we’d climb up to the lunch counter at Woolworths and order burgers and fries. I think I enjoyed this special lunch more than getting new clothes. And I’d always end this fun outing with a milk shake for dessert. –Linda Joy Singleton

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Pictured: Author Whitney Stewart as a young child

Back to school was always hard for me. I LOVED summer swimming and bike riding. And trips to the penny-candy store. But one thing made back to school fun—BOOK FAIRS! My mom is a big reader too, and she’d let me buy an armload of books at the fair. I could trade them for my allowance. I’d stack my new books on my desk and stare at them, dreaming of the stories I’d discover. I’d smell my books and run my hands over the clean pages. I’ve never lost that love of books—new or old. As long as the teachers let me read, I was a happy girl. –Whitney Stewart 

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Pictured: Author Nancy Viau as a child

I couldn’t wait to go back to school every September! I had my pencils sharpened, notebooks labeled, and my Scotch-plaid school bag packed and sitting at the front door by August 1st. I have very fond memories of my metal lunchbox, a favorite back-to-school item. After all, it was also Scotch-plaid like my school bag, and it came with a matching Thermos, which meant my mom trusted me with something that could shatter in an instant if dropped. I carried it like it was a glass goblet. When the first day came, I jumped out of bed the second I was called. I dove into my outfit (skirt, cardigan, knee socks, black and white saddle shoes), and skipped to the bus stop. No one was there, of course. I was always an hour early. That back-to-school enthusiasm never faded in high school or college. Always first in class and last to leave; I never wanted to miss a thing. –Nancy Viau

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Pictured: Author Sarah Lynn Scheerger in seventh grade

Middle school is a time of change. Changing classes, changing friends, changing bodies, changing “out” for P.E. (ugh.) One special part of my routine did not change. Our English teacher, Mrs. Moore, read out loud to us for the first fifteen minutes of every class period. I had English right after lunch, and I remember sitting in my seat, listening to the shushing sound of the air conditioner, and drinking in the story. It was one of my favorite parts of each day. I particularly remember her reading the book Tuck Everlasting out loud. After she read, she’d pause and ask us what we thought of the story. Good times. –Sarah Lynn Scheerger

Alison Ashley Formento back to school

Pictured: Author Alison Formento in first grade

When I do author visits, one of the throwback photos I share is my first grade school picture. The dress I’m wearing is made from a fabric with an autumn leaf print. I loved this dress because I felt like I was wearing a tree. I loved and still love climbing trees, hiking through a thick forest, and sitting under the shade of a tree to read a book. I was a daydreamer (I still am!) in school, often looking out of the classroom windows. It helped me focus to see the trees behind our school, especially when writing or tackling math problems. It’s no different now. If I gaze at the trees in my yard, or take a nice walk in my local park, I’m always more focused when I sit down to write.  –Alison Formento

What’s your favorite back-to-school memory?

5 ways to experience back to school

Kids Books: My childhood adventures

By Barbara Reid, illustrator and author

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As a child, my travels took place between the covers of books. I read and re-read kids books until I knew the landscapes like the back of my hand. While I haven’t been able to get to Narnia or Through the Looking Glass (yet!), I have visited the Paris of Madeline, the Central Park pond sailed by Stuart Little, the highlands of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and other storied places. Traveling to a book setting is a journey of discovery and a homecoming at the same time.

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When our daughters were young we spent hours pouring over the pages of Jeannie Baker’s Where the Forest meets the Sea. In simple words, a young boy describes a day trip with his father to the Daintree Rainforest in North Queensland, Australia. The real story is in the illustrations. Using modeling clay, papers, textured materials, natural materials and paint, Baker has created stunning relief collages that draw the reader into each page. Along with the narrator, our eyes adjust to the light filtering through the trees and more details appear. The richness of plants, animals and insects is astounding; double exposures hint at creatures and people from the forest’s past, and the boy’s imagination adds to the sense of adventure.

Where the Forest meets the Sea encourages readers to slow down, explore, observe and ask questions, perfectly mirroring the way the boy in the book experiences the forest. The attention to detail and child’s eye view influenced and inspired my own work in creating kids books.

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Recently, we followed one of our now grown-up daughters to Australia where we had the opportunity to visit the real Daintree wet rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The forest was so exactly like Jeannie Baker’s illustrations I thought my head would explode. I couldn’t stop leaping around, pointing and exclaiming. Buttress roots! It’s those ferns! Oh the vines! Look at the butterfly! Oh my gosh, look at the stream! Much to the relief of my family, I eventually was able to slow down, observe and absorb the spirit of the place.

Having read Where the Forest meets the Sea enriched my experience in the rainforest, and experiencing the rainforest heightened my appreciation of the book. This back and forth exchange between art and life is magic—almost like stepping through the looking glass.

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Author and illustrator Barbara Reid lives in downtown Toronto with her husband and two daughters. At the Ontario College of Art and Design, her focus was illustration, and it was for a class assignment that she first experimented with plasticine artwork. While she likes working with authors and enjoys writing her own stories, she still loves making pictures best of all.

Kids Books: My childhood adventures

Happy Birthday, E.B. White!

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” — E. B. White

When I volunteered to do a #FridayReads post, and randomly chose the July 10th slot, I already knew I’d be writing about E. B. White. What I discovered only as I began to write was that that was the day before White’s birthday! He was born 116 years ago, on July 11, 1899.

Charlotte's Web

It may be a bit of a cliché to claim Charlotte’s Web as my favorite children’s book, but I can’t help it. From the moment I first read (and reread) it as a child to the dozens of times I shared it with my own children, it has never failed to move me to tears. The book is more than 60 years old, but is freshly beguiling on every read. And how can you resist a story that kills off one of its main characters, but still uplifts you, ending with (slightly abridged):

[The barn] was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. . . . She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

Absolute perfection.

That’s not to pass over Stuart Little or the sometimes overlooked but beautiful homage to wilderness, The Trumpet of the Swan. What E. B. White gave me was an early appreciation for nature and the natural ebbs and flows of life—“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder,” he advised—and though I didn’t know it at the time, he probably planted the seeds that led to my becoming an author. His prose was witty, wise, and gorgeous; he always chose the right words—and just the right words, no wasted verbiage. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered White also wrote for adults.

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I still consult his Elements of Style (the newish version, with the bonus of illustrations by the great Maira Kalman). Check out White’s story and poetry anthologies; they’re a revelation. His poem, “Natural History” is undoubtedly the most romantic poem ever written about a spider (E. B. White is a one-man PR marvel for spiders).

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So tomorrow, have a piece of cake for E. B. White—or better yet, revisit one of his classics. Prepare to be utterly enchanted. He was SOME WRITER!

Leslie Kimmelman is a children’s book author and works part-time as an editor at Sesame Street Books. She also works from home as a freelance writer and editor. She lives just outside of New York City, where her and her husband have brought up two children and two dogs.

Happy Birthday, E.B. White!

Reading Aloud—To Your TWEEN?

Lori Haskins Houran is a children’s book editor and the author of several books for young children, including How to Spy on A Shark. Lori shares some of her favorite tales to read out loud to her tweens in this week’s Friday Reads!

It is weird that I read to my kids every night?

They’re not little. My younger son is 9, and my older son turns 12 next month. They’ve been reading independently for years now, but they still insist that I read aloud at bedtime. The few times I’ve tried to beg off—I’m tired./I have a sore throat./Downton Abbey is coming on!—they’ve looked as shocked as if I suggested skipping dinner.

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Occasional slacking aside, I do love reading to my boys. It’s a chance for snuggling—and smuggling. By that I mean I can sneak in personal favorites they might otherwise miss: Little House in the Big Woods, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Pippi Longstocking, All-of-a-Kind Family. (I’m just now realizing how many of my choices feature female protagonists. Not once have my sons complained or even commented. So much for the old publishing saw that boys don’t like stories about girls.)

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A few other must-reads I would have added had my kids not already enjoyed them at school or on their own: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the essential trio of Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little.

Not every selection has worked out as well as I expected. I thought my boys would enjoy The Borrowers, but they didn’t warm to it. A Wrinkle in Time felt confusing as a read-aloud, and I’m sad to say that we gave up on it after three nights. I hope my boys will read it to themselves soon and adore it as much as I do. 

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I don’t always choose the books, of course. My boys’ picks have included everything from comic books and movie tie-ins (I can tell you pretty much anything you need to know about Batman, Star Wars, and the Avengers) to gems that I might otherwise have missed, among them Jacqueline Davies’ The Lemonade War, Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda, and Cynthia Lord’s Rules.

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I don’t know long I’ll continue reading aloud to my kids. Will I Skype them in college and read The Secret Garden? No, no, that would definitely be weird…right? But for now, I’ll keep going.

Do you still read to your tweens/pre-teens? What’s on your must-read list?

Reading Aloud—To Your TWEEN?

#Fridayreads: Story time tales

Marketing Manager Annette Hobbs Magier discusses some of her and her daughter’s favorite story time tales in this week’s edition of #Fridayreads.

I’m not going to pretend I’m not still reading kids books only. I am. But now the little lady is on a “vintage classics” kick and it’s awesome. Sure, I’m the one that collected all these kitschy, vintage titles over my years in publishing, but they’re mixed in with all the bright, flashy new stuff, so I’m giving all the credit for this reading kick to her.

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For the last month, every night before bed she wants to read The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. It was first published in 1954 and the sweet story still holds up. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the story of a lion that is quite content with his life in a little French zoo in the middle of a quaint town. Each day, the townspeople come to say, “Bonjour, Happy Lion” and leave the lion “meat and other tidbits.” One day, though, the zookeeper leaves the door open and the Happy Lion decides to go out and say hello to his friends. As he roams the town looking for his regular visitors, the townspeople scream and scramble to get away. The lion can’t understand why they’re all acting bonkers and just before the fire department captures the lion, Francois, the keeper’s son, appears and offers to walk his friend, the lion, back to the zoo.

My little gal LOVES it when the ladies scream in fear and faint, when the marching band plays “ratatatum, ratatatum, boom, boom, boom,” and when the fire engines roar into view with their sirens screaming “wwwhooooooooooo, whooooooo.” And she especially loves changing the title a few times before we begin reading, The happy…Tiger! No. The Happy…Turtle! Nooo. The Happy…Porcupine! Noo…The Happy LION!

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Whatever “long” book we read first, we always finish our bedtime reading with The Carrot Seed by Ruth Kraus and illustrated by Crockett Johnson. It’s so short and sweet, that sometimes we read it twice. And my pint-sized lady is convinced (!) that the little boy in the Carrot Seed is also Harold from Harold’s Purple Crayon.

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Speaking of Harold, he’s also a staple in our reading. It’s strange, I was just thinking as I was reading through Harold for the one thousandth time the other night, “I’m not getting tired of these books yet.” I love reading them aloud to the nugget and watching her eyes widen as Harold eats through 9 different kinds of pies at a picnic, or as the ground rumbles and a giant carrot pops out of the earth right in front of the patient little boy’s eyes. It seems a trip to the library is in order to find more Happy Lion adventures and Ruth Kraus classics! Happy reading!

#Fridayreads: Story time tales

It’s #FridayReads with Editorial Director Kelly Barrales-Saylor!

Thanks for popping in for another installment of #FridayReads with Albert Whitman staffers.  Chime in on our Twitter (@AlbertWhitman) and tell us what you’re reading this Friday.  We’d love to know!

Today’s guest post is from our Editorial Director Kelly Barrales-Saylor:

Reading and editing children’s books as a career is definitely the coolest job I could have ever dreamed of. And having a toddler at home, I read more picture books than I ever thought possible. This is precisely why when I’m not reading The Little Blue Truck I gravitate toward adult nonfiction. My guilty pleasures are celebrity memoirs and big, glossy cookbooks.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought I’d write about one of the memoir-ish books I’m reading right now that is full of nuggets of wisdom: What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey. Say what you will about Oprah and her empire, but growing up in Chicagoland, her show was a staple in my house. And in Chicago her show ran at 9am and 11pm so even before DVRs existed, I never missed an episode—probably saw at least a few minutes of every one from the first season until its finale.

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Side story: Oprah and her various shows are a large part of my personal history. Just one example is when my dad was in the Oprah studio audience back in the late 1980s and a very young Jonathon Brandmeier was a guest as part of Oprah’s conversation with “outrageous disc jockeys.” Johnny B (as he was known) pointed to my very tall and burly biker dad sitting in the audience and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but the mass murderer show was last week.” The show was live! They showed my dad on TV! My dad laughed (he was a fan of Johnny’s) and waved him off. After the show, according to my dad, Johnny approached my dad to apologize and then asked my dad to act like his bodyguard so he didn’t get mugged on his way to the car. My dad obliged and had some nice conversations with Johnny on the way. I still have that episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show on tape. After my dad passed away, having this little video with my dad waving and saying “Hi, Johnny!” has been quite comforting.

(OMG. Remember 80's Oprah?)
(OMG. Remember 80’s Oprah?)

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Ok, back to this #FridayReads post (sorry, I’m quite wordy when telling stories).

What I Know for Sure is a collection of essays that originally appeared in Oprah’s magazine. They’re organized by themes such as joy, gratitude, resilience, possibility, awe, etc. Remember that book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum? Well, this is sort of the Oprah version. The essays are small enough to digest a few at a time or all at once.

I admit that on the weekends you can probably find me wearing my Oprah Winfrey Show T-shirt while drinking out of my Oprah Winfrey Show mug (both of which my husband scored in a swag bag from producers of the show—like I said, I’ve got a few Oprah stories). But I swear this little collection of essays is worth reading for non-Oprah fans too.

It’s the perfect little book to help me reflect and find peace and (especially right now) remember the true meaning of Thanksgiving…before or after I run in and out of five different grocery stores in search of the one ingredient I forgot to buy that everyone is sold out of while my son insists I sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” over and over. And if you happen to have a meltdown while arm wrestling someone for the last can of pumpkin, just remember what Oprah knows for sure: “no matter where you are, you are a single choice away from a new beginning.”

It’s #FridayReads with Editorial Director Kelly Barrales-Saylor!