An Elizabethan Weekend

This weekend past we took ourselves to the Much Ado About Sebastopol Renaissance Faire. It is set up in a small, park full of grass and trees, is quiet, mellow and is a benefit for the Sebastopol school district. My husband and I both worked Faires in our youth, but since the big one near us moved hours away, we were less able to attend them; until now. In its third year this Faire is focused on education; there was a Queens Progress, many craft booths, lectures on daily life of Elizabethans and Morris dancing, which J LOVED. J was dressed in mostly authentic costume, as were his super dorky parents. J, however, added a blue tutu to his ensemble. I was prepared, book-wise, ahead of time and brought home 5 potential books from the library, two were cut for terrible writing (one with poor poetic meter, the other for its bad attitude) leaving us with the following three.

The Bells of London by Ashley Wolff uses a rhyme I learned as a song at 19 while working at an Elizabethan Cottage. The song tells the sounds all the church bells in London say: “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement’s. Pancakes and fritters say the bells of St. Peter’s” The story, illustrated in beautiful linoleum cuts, tells the tale of a young noble boy buying a dove from a young girl, and once it escapes, how the two of them follow it though London trying to catch it, making friends along the way. It is always impressive when a story is told almost entirely through the illustrations. In some ways the words of the song would be unnecessary, except that the woodcuts illustrate the different Churches, as well as making reference to the couplet somehow, even when it is a stretch. Since the book was published in 1985 and interest in traditional tales about London are apparently no longer popular, the book is tragically out of print. I thank my local library for keeping books long after their popularity has clearly waned, even if I will personally be checking this book out again.

The Queen’s Progress by Celeste Davidson Mannis and illustrated in rich gorgeous detail by Bagram Ibatoulline is an Alphabet book about the historical reality of Queen Elizabeth’s summer progress through England. It is one of those books which tells the story in little poems and also includes greater historical detail. I like it when books are arranged this way, allowing me to read it to the average level of my three year old, but also being able to draw it out a bit when his attention span is capable. Part of the story in this book includes a treasonous plot against the Queen, who is saved by the young laundry girl and her copper pan. I love this version of Queen Elizabeth; beautiful, proud, brave and a woman who loved the people over whom she ruled.

Finally, on a sillier and less historically accurate note I bring you The Knight Who Took All Day by James Mayhew. In this hilarious story, when a dragon comes to a kingdom threatening the villagers, the knight takes so long to get perfectly dressed for the occasion, that the princess he is trying to impress tames the dragon before he gets out to the battle field. It is funny to see the pompous knight get slowly ready at the same time the princess is collecting his cast-offs. I am not the greatest fan of the end where the princess marries the squire instead of the knight, it seems an unnecessary stretch. But it is a fun book, full of rhyming, and even though I have a son, I will never be unwilling to read him stories about strong, brave women.

Mannis, C.D. (2003) The Queen’s Progress. New York: Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.

Mayhew, J. (2005) The Knight Who Took All Day. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Wolff, A. (1985) The Bells of London. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

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Worlds of Imagination

J is a fury of imaginative storytelling. He is equipped with an impressive vocabulary that includes words like ginormous, a well-developed sense of song, and an imaginary friend named Lucy. Lucy can do everything and does frequently, bending time and space to her and J’s will to combat dinosaurs, walk with wolves, and fly to mars.  Watching this imagination develop has been a joy, we encourage it as much as possible, asking follow-up questions about his travels with Lucy. We help him as best we can as he turns a box into a house, a cave, and a turtle shell through the course of a single hour. He can spend half a day in a dragon costume and the rest of the day in regular clothes pretending to be an entire menagerie of animals. I love books where children are encouraged to build a world out of their imaginations, and so does J, so here are the top three I have found so far.

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes was one of the very first children’s books I bought brand new. I was probably 20 and the story of a boy who creates an entire culture from a plant that grows in his backyard was beautiful and exciting. Stories of invention and creativity are stories of hope. It is about a lonely boy, Wesley who, through his own creativity and spunk triumphs over the adversity of bullies and oblivious parents. The illustrations by Kevin Hawkes are rich and luscious, full of the vibrant reds  and greens of the ‘swist’ plant. What I love best about this book is that while Wesley creates his own culture and is true to his own interests and desires, he converts the other mean children over to his imaginative backyard paradise. I love a book about overcoming one’s enemies by finding respect and forgivness.

Next is a book written in 1967 by Doris Burn, Andrew Henry’s Meadow.  I found this on a shelf at my Dad’s house and we read it every time we visit. It is about a boy inventor, Andrew Henry, whose inventions get him in trouble with his family. Needing some place to build, he heads out to the nearby meadow to build his own home. Other children of the town follow, bringing with them the things that make them unique and strange and that their parents have told them to get rid of. Rather than giving up their passions, they build a community in the field with a unique house built for each child, one for bird-watching, another insulated for playing instruments.  Eventually the families come to find the children, embrace them and bring them home, along with their quirky hobbies. It is illustrated in simple pen drawings, but the detail makes it very magical, especially with the complex inventions Andrew Henry builds.

Finally a recommendation from my sister, Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This book tells the story of a group of neighborhood kids in Arizona in the early half of the 1900’s who build an imaginary city and playground on a hill covered with rocks, cactus and trash. Children love trash, especially the kind that can be made into treasures. These children use rocks and boxes to build homes and shops, cars and horses. This book is told like a memory, and although the oil paintings are muted and the writing quiet as well, J and I love it. We got it from the library and it is one of the top requests this week from the library stack that sits on the floor next to the couch. I think he is fascinated by the way children play and the rules they create between each other to build their imaginary games. It’s a hard thing to learn and takes a lot of trial and error to get other small children to agree on a game. Roxaboxen gives him a model of what play should be, can be, once he figures out how to communicate it.  In Roxaboxen there is even a boy’s against girl’s war described, with forts and bandits whooping. Despite J being a very sweet, loving, kind, imaginative little boy, he loves more these days than a pretend fight with swords, “gunnins” and perhaps even a dramatic death scene.

Burn, D. (1967) Andrew Henry’s Meadow. San Juan Publishing

Fleishman, P. (1999) Weslandia. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.

McLerran, A. (1991) Roxaboxen. New York: Lothorop, Lee & Shepard Books

The Trees of Autumn

School has started, and J is so interested in it that I decided it was time to dabble in some home preschool activities. Helping me out is this fancy new blog, which has already started me thinking thematically. All I really need to add is a craft and a field trip right? Since it is the beginnings of autumn, I decided to do a tree theme. We could take tree-walks and collect things for our nature table and take stock of the vast greenness of the leaves to compare with the yellows, reds and oranges we will see later in the season. I got some books from the library, we did our walk, and then J refused to be interested in any of the books I had found. On our walk we mostly talked about defeating the lions he was imagining. The only books he wants to read are fairy tales. But since I gathered tree books, that is what I am going to review today, even if the three year old gives them all a review of “NO!”

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf by Lois Ehlert (1991) is the tree book we own. It tells the story of a maple tree that grows up in the woods and then is moved to the nursery and sold to become someone’s own tree. What I like best about this book, and Ehlert’s style in general, is the combination of collage textures. She uses pictures of real things along with paper cutouts to create simple, vibrant, and striking illustrations. She also tags the different birds and plants that she illustrates throughout the book, giving the book the feel of a nature journal. J likes it because it follows a story and is not purely instructional, I like it because it does include some nature instruction, and thus feels educational.

A similar book we got from the library is Autumn Leaves by Ken Robbins (1998).This book has no story and is split between talking about the different features of leaves – narrow and wide, jagged or smooth edged and pages dedicated to specific trees. J threw this one down and refused to listen and could not even be enticed to look at any of the pictures. The pictures are what make this book significant. The leaves are photographed at different stages of their autumnal development. Each page dedicated to a different tree has 2-8 leaves of different size and color as well as a photo of the tree itself in autumnal array. I have enjoyed looking through this book, but I think I agree with J that the writing is a bit uninteresting.

The last book is another book structured with more of a story and J did like this one enough to sit through one reading. It is called Who Will Plant a Tree by Jerry Pallotta and Illustrated by Tom Leonard(2010). On each page it tells how a different kind of tree is planted by a different animal. The oil paintings include the animal in action eating a fruit or with a burr stuck to its fur, and the tree that was planted by the action at a few stages of its development.  The writing aims for cute and a little silly, making it entertaining for the tree years old who still thinks poop is hilarious.

Ehlert, L. (1991) Red leaf, yellow leaf. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Books.

Palotta, J. (2010) Who will plant a tree. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sleeping Bear Press.

Robbins, K. (1998) Autumn leaves. New York: Scholastic Press