There’s the usual bit of bibliophilia going on in our home. My little softcover savant and we bookworm begetters have been doing eye and mind gymnastics with our latest nightstand reads.
My husband’s reading a Ford Madox Ford book and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, among a handful of other tomes. I’m reading a book similar to those I imagine a lot of my fellow parents are reading, a guide to understanding the monsters identified as toddlers. And when I’ve read a few pages of that and am feeling like I understand a tad better the human being known as my three-year-old son, I move on to either John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts?, Andrew Oldham’s collection of poems Ghosts of a Low Moon or a book a friend recently gave me, Conversations with God. My most recent conversation with God consisted of my asking him how I can end my husband’s latest fascination with the Brothers Grimm because it really has me spooked, and I don’t know how much longer I can sleep with one eye open. I’m still waiting for God’s response.
My little guy’s folio fare of late seems to be more of the creative and emotional variety. These handful of books have quickly become my favourites, and every night I ask him if we can please, please, please read one of these. Sometimes he indulges me, but last night he said, “Let’s give it a break, ma, it’s pirate book time.”
The first of the five I recommend reading with your munchkins is Zen Ghosts by Jon Muth. Muth created Stillwater the panda, who features in Zen Shorts, Zen Ties and now Zen Ghosts. The book is a tale adapted from a writing included in a collection of 48 koans by a Chinese Buddhist monk in the 13th century. These koans are defined by Muth as questions that one has to answer for himself/herself and which appeal directly to the intuitive part of human consciousness as opposed to the intellect.
I think the best children’s books are those that strike a chord with both children and adults, and Zen Ghosts certainly fulfills that criteria. Kids may not understand what Muth is trying to convey, but they will appreciate the characters and the beautiful illustrations throughout the book. Parents might be pleased that not only is this an intriguing ghost story, but also that their bambinos will learn more about duality – the people they are with their parents, the people they are with their friends, the people they are with their teachers.
While we’re on Buddhist books, another current favourite is Buddha at Bedtime. Seem as though I’m some sort of ringing endorsement for Buddhism? I’m not Buddhist, and this is purely coincidental (although in Buddhism, there is no such thing as a pure coincidence, so you can cue in the Twilight Zone theme now). A friend gave the book to Enlai as a gift, and it really is the gift that keeps on giving – our own little written, illustrated and bound philanthropist. The subtitle of the book – Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read With Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire – says everything. Author Dharmachari Nagaraja retells some of the narratives believed to have been told by the Buddha himself – the Jataka Tales – in 20 stories.
The colourful illustrations depict a particular scene in the tales, and little ones are sure to recognise the images of animals and nature. While Nagaraja says the stories are aimed at children six to ten years old, my three-year-old enjoys them, particularly The Prince and Sticky Hair, a tale about words being more powerful than weapons, and The Small Bowl of Rice, which teaches that generosity is its own reward.
And travelling from Buddhism to art, another favourite book is Beautiful Oops!. Author Barney Saltzberg is my hero, teaching children and adults alike that when you think you’ve made a mistake, think of it as an adventure in creativity and an opportunity to make something beautiful. The very colourful, 28-page board book – complete with flaps, different textures, and an accordion-like pop-up – naysays blunders and instead teaches that spills, smears, smudges and crumbled-up paper can “make magic appear”.
If I had a choice to buy one book for little ones, this would be the one, regardless of whether or not they have an interest in artistic endeavours. At any age, it’s worth being reminded that a tear in a page can literally be turned into a smile.
Another current favourite book, which happens to be in the same vein as Beautiful Oops! is The Scribble Book issued by Tate Publishing. Surprise, surprise, the book is about scribbling and allows for freehand drawing by prompting little ones to turn scribbles into blooming flowers, a dinosaur’s breath, snail shells, smoke from chimneys and hair on already-provided faces. We’ve had so much fun with this book, giving shy scribbles friends with crayon squiggles of our own, colouring in the loops created by scribbles, drawing scribble spaghetti, and sketching trails in the snow left by skiers.
Within the 64-page book, little ones are encouraged to scribble dust (“otherwise the vacuum cleaner will get bored”), scrawl over the Mona Lisa, scribble on monsters as hard as they can, and decide whether their doodles should make calm or choppy seas. And for parents who may want to borrow their budding artist’s book, it’s worth noting that art therapists have utilised the “scribble technique” as a method to lessen inhibitions and release spontaneous imagery from one’s unconscious.
The final recommendation from our three-member We Feel The Need, The Need to Read Book Club is Oliver Jeffers’ most recent piece of brilliance, The Heart and the Bottle. With thought-provoking themes of loss, longing and loneliness, the book is admittedly geared more toward adults than children, but the way Jeffers addresses mortality through both his words and his illustrations is honest and poetic regardless of the age of the reader.
In books, I appreciate when the author leaves space for interpretation. Jeffers does this. He hasn’t spoon-fed me or my little guy with this book; instead, he has given us a starting point for discussing death and the emptiness that often follows. I realise I may be different from other parents in that I have not chosen to shield my little prince from unhappy thoughts of loss, but in the same token, I know a three-year-old is, well, a three-year-old. He won’t understand it all, but I hope he will find some poetry in the story, poetry in how an empty chair doesn’t have to stay an empty chair. For any poetry buffs, this book brought to mind what I believe is one of the greatest poems ever written, Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, and I think that for a 32-page book to do that says a lot.
Now then, sashay to your local library or bookshop for your dose of bibliofeelia! Or, if it’s too chilly outside, check out the Oomphalos Bookworms Bookshop.