An Ode to a baby

Lullaby – Etymology From Middle English lullen, to lull + bye. First recorded circa 1560, says an online resource.

Some lullabies, I think, are intentionally devoid of logic. Some are intelligently crafted to educate. While some are soaked in love, some others are plain funny. But interestingly most lullabies carry meaningful particulars of the land and its culture.

The books below are well enjoyed by my toddler and me, so much so that when read at times other than bedtime, he typically wants to at least lie down for a bit after our session.

Title: Hush Little Baby
Author & Illustrations: Sylvia Long
Published by: Chronicle Books

Disturbed by the materialistic attitude of the lyrics of the traditional American lullaby “Hush little baby” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hush,_Little_Baby), award-winning artist Sylvia Long has reworked it for a more nature-centric version. This one oozes warmth and lulls the listener and singer, in the same stillness of the night that Mama bunny and her baby in the book share.

The adorable details in the ink-and-watercolor drawings of Long, still urges the eye to wander in search of them. Like carrot prints on the curtains, bunny doodles on the lampshade and a quilt with a patchwork of playful things. Mama bunny points out to some of nature’s wonders around her porch and bedroom ( a humming bird, a lightning bug, a shooting star, a cricket and finally the moon), before kissing goodnight to her baby.

I sometimes tend to think that this version might still leave some of us promising our child the impossible, but I resort to the fact that nothing can be more calming than nature’s precious little things. Or as Sylvia Long claims in her note to readers at the end of the book It seems much healthier to encourage children to find comfort in the natural things around them…

Title: A Norse Lullaby
Author: M.L.Van Vorst; Illustrator: Margot Tomes
Published by: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books

A Norse Lullaby. That was reason enough for me to bring this home from the library. The book gave me the story later. The lullaby first appeared in January 1897 in a children’s magazine. When illustrator Margot Tomes discovered it, she wanted to paint the wintry Scandinavian landscape herself to go with the lullaby.
A family awaits the arrival of the father. The father is rushing on a sled to the “warmth” that is waiting for him at home. The children are playing. A baby is trying to retire for the night. Hush Hush in your little nest, And mother’s voice is singing.

The artwork is amazing. The greys and whites of a snowed in landscape juxtaposed with the reds, browns and greens gives us that perfect feel of the far North and its culture. Details of a traditional household are aplenty. The wood in a barrel near the huge fireplace, the rocking reindeer toy, the hurricane lamps, the clothes, the small wooden crib all transport us to the home that stands amidst mounds of snow, with the wind whistling on a wintry evening.

Title: Hush – A Thai Lullaby
Author: Minfong Ho ; Illustrator: Holly Meade
Published by: Orchard Books

This book stole my heart. And my little boy’s. Sometimes even our sleep.

The setting is a very remote Thai village. With native flora and fauna generously encompassing the small hut, a mother goes great lengths to assure her child of the quietness she needs for a peaceful sleep.

A blue cloth hammock carries a baby. Traditional Thai basketry, prints, fabrics and architecture take us to a Thai household. The mother begins her rounds by hushing a mosquito. She moves on to the cat, the mouse by the rice barn, the leaping frog, the pig, duck, monkey, even an old water buffalo and even…even…the great big elephant! Not surprising considering what the illustrations portray. Cut paper and ink illustrations of lush forestry in warm earth tones and a bold orange-red outline makes the images come alive.

Interestingly, we notice the baby getting out of the hammock and wandering in the background, just as her mother turns her back to her. My own baby took upon himself the task of finding his counterpart’s tiny depiction in every page. It was also immensely refreshing to hear and make rather new animal sounds, “uut-uut” for the pigs , “ghap-ghap” for the ducks and “jiak-jiak” for the monkeys!

As all living creatures wind down, Mother is also falling asleep. However the closing spread shows the baby wide awake on the blue hammock! As for us, the onomatopoetic verses in question and answer format are sedating enough to go down.
While some sing it by rote, some others make it a bonding experience. But lullabies, from Scandinavia or Asia or from America, are all delightfully hypnotic. A mother’s care for her child’s sleep transcends cultures.

Pictures Courtesy: Author and Bookstore websites.

Baseball Saved Us


Title: Baseball Saved Us
Ages: 5+
Author: Ken Mochizuki; Illustrator: Dom Lee
Published by: Lee & Low Books

Baseball is an all American thing, the national sport and pastime. It is almost a cultural identity and its own epic is often burdened with American history in the background. Standing testimony to this is how a Japanese-American boy regains dignity and acceptance at the ballpark, post World War II. Written by Ken Mochizuki, whose parents were camp internees in Idaho during the world war, this book makes you cheer our little hero, while holding off that drop of tear that has already arrived.

The voice is that of a Japanese boy, an American citizen who is pulled out of school one day by his mother. His family is sent with many more Japanese families to live in barracks in an internment camp established in the desert, in the middle of nowhere in 40s USA. A soldier with a gun stands on a tall tower at the camp monitoring the group every second, every day. With no basic amenities and no work to do, kids and adults idle around. There is pent up anger, frustration and boredom. This is when the boy’s father takes the initiative to come up with a baseball diamond. Soon, with collective and creative efforts (and no interference from the guard) many games are being played on that field encompassed by barbed wire fences and armed watchdogs.

However, the boy’s track record at school, before camp, is not very impressive. Tarnished by experiences of name calling because of his smallish stature which was even more accentuated amidst American boys, he is diffident and shy at his game. He was Shorty back home. But now at camp, he does not feel different in the company of Japanese boys like him. With this feeling of normalcy and the motivation to impress the guard staring at his game all day, he buckles up and performs. Daily sessions then on hone his bat-ball skills.

The war is over and he is back at school. But he feels worse. The boys don’t even talk to him now. This is when America had been at war with Japan, when the U.S Government seemed to suspect the loyalty of immigrants in the country and hate was running high. The Jap’s no good, Shorty, Easy out, the boys scream at him, when it is his turn to bat at the ballpark in school. He stares at the pitcher and sees the guard on the tower in him. A dramatic finish to the game and to the book is the last page showing the American boys in the winning team lifting Shorty up with pride and joy. Baseball sure saved – helped his people survive the camp and helped him become a hero.

The illustrations are in sepia, in tones of brown and black reemphasizing the depressing mood in the desert. The author has also restricted some of the darker details to a few sprinkles, without going overboard about wartime camps. While it can be hard for some of us and our children to directly relate to those times, the issues are still part of what every “different” child experiences under varying circumstances today – it boils down to the battle to fit in and to feel accepted.

This book provoked questions about war in my six something year old. She could not fathom being uprooted and seemed very curious about ways in which normal life is disturbed when a country is at war. The story can also set the stage for sensitive and meaningful discussions about tolerance and oneness. It can also make children value the better times of today, that some of them enjoy. While critics might think that a home run might not be the answer to discrimination, it still works for a child’s understanding is my personal thinking. The deeper virtue might be courage; courage of the kind that the short Japanese boy who played America’s game amidst racist gibes had. This book inspires in more than one way.

Picture Courtesy: Lee & Low Books.

Jazzmatazz!

The multitude of books that carried the glossy sticker “Jazz collection” in the children’s section at the local library piqued my interest. I thought it might be interesting to read a couple of picture books about this musical form to my children. As we read them, we absorbed a distinct flavor, me more consciously than them. And soon I realized that this flavor was unfailingly delivered in every picture book that we later devoured.


Title: Jazz Baby
Ages: 0-2
Author: Carole Boston Weatherford; Illustrator: Laura Freeman
Published by: Lee and Low Books Inc.

It starts out with an assembly of ethnically diverse children ready to make music and dance. Some of them swing and sway, jiggle and wiggle, bounce and boogie while the rest are working the instruments. The verses are small and catchy. They mention the trumpet, drum, piano and bass – the simplest introductory presentation of the most important components of Jazz music. The last spread shows a tired group plopped on the floor with droopy heads and stretched out legs. The author writes – When I wrote this swinging nursery rhyme, I set out to write a jazz pat-a-cake. And I hear the diaper and toddler find the rhythm infectious. Yes! Just saying Jazz baby Jazz baby is energizing for all ages!


Title: Bring On That Beat
Ages: 0-8
Author & Illustrator: Rachel Isadora
Published by: G.P.Putnam’s Sons

Sparing in words can be very powerful. That is exactly what this book is – a visual celebration of Jazz and Harlem in the 1930s. Rachel Isadora is a Caldecott winner and the work that brought her the award has already been reviewed here.

Isadora’s black and white oil paintings hold digitally rendered streaks and shapes in vibrant colors, a bold visual statement, strong enough to see Jazz as a force that transformed music and people. It is Harlem drenched in music. Three men playing Jazz under a streetlamp draw a crowd. Children and adults pause, stay and dance. Things heat up. Every roof top is soon humming and grooving and the town is Jazz-ing! Each spread carries a rhyme, probably kept simple to not distract the reader from the tempo the visuals are building. Duke Ellington, a Jazz icon is also included in the drawings, as a tribute. The book closes with the verse –

When you rap and you rhyme,
Remember that time –
When cats played the beat,
It was jazz on the street.

On the side are three present day youngster boys seated on the stoop in the Harlem neighborhood.


Title: Cool Bopper’s Choppers
Ages: 4-8
Author: Linda Oatman High; Illustrator: John O’Brien
Published by: Boyds Mills Press

Logic aborted, this is hilarious! And you’ll see how.

Cool Bopper plays Jazz on his sax in a night club. He easily gets people swinging with his groovy music. But one day, during his act, his dentures fly out of his mouth and land on a bee-hive like wig of a dancing lady, from where it drops into the toilet bowl, gets flushed away and ends up deep under the ocean. Cool Bopper loses his magical music, groans and moans. Fired by his boss, he goes to the seashore where he hears his own tunes coming out of the waves. He finds his choppers and gets back his upbeat music!

Free flowing ink and watercolor illustrations also seem to sway and groove, aptly supporting the crazy incidents in a musician’s life. The highlight is the jazziness the verses carry to neatly lay out the details of the story of a jazz player that began like this – Cool Bopper was a bebopper in the Snazzy Catz Jazz Club.

A-BOP-BOP-BE-BOP, A-BOP-BOP-BOP!


Title: Willie Jerome
Ages: 5-8
Author: Alice Faye Duncan; Illustrator: Tyrone Geter
Published by: Macmillan Books for young readers

It is summer in the city. Willie Jerome plays hot bebop style jazz with his trumpet, on the rooftop all day long. And his sister Judy bops to his music all day long too. But everyone else calls it noise! The shop keeper, the other brother, the neighbor and even their mother! Willie Jerome, I just wish I knew another somebody who loves and understands your sizzlin’ hot jazz the way I do, Judy screams out to her brother who never gives up and continues to blow his horn on the rooftop. When Mama tries to put an end to the “noise” that evening, Judy begs her to stay calm and listen. Does Mama agree?

Perseverance to succeed amidst resistance, is the beautiful message. Pastel acrylics paint the picture of a hot day in an urban African-American neighborhood. The language that is typical to the people, lends authenticity to the story of Willie Jerome.

All these books imparted a very convincing musical attitude and at the same time transmitted a distinctive cultural vibe. The combination is intriguing and at the end, very satisfying.

Pictures Courtesy Publisher / Author / Book store websites. Thanks!

TO SCHOOL, TO A NEW SCHOOL, BACK TO SCHOOL OR JUST ANOTHER DAY AT SCHOOL

We certainly can’t prepare ourselves or the little ones enough, to let go and step out. Back to school or in the thick of it, we can always turn to books, picture books, for substantial help.

OWL BABIES by Martin Waddell gives the much needed reassurance to toddlers and preschoolers. Mother owl is away. The babies wonder and worry. Mama swoops in asking What’s all the fuss ? You knew I’d come back. The images of the petrified owlets later found flapping in joy is a sheer delight – thanks to Patrick Benson and his wonderful touches with crosshatching to rope in texture and depth. Read the more detailed review here: http://www.saffrontree.org/2006/12/soother.html. Published by Candlewick.


THE KISSING HAND is similar in its intent to reassure. But incorporates a little ritual to get through the first few days of school. Or even moments of sadness on an ordinary day. Now, whenever you feel lonely and need a little loving from home, just press your hand to your cheek and think Mommy loves you says Mrs. Raccoon after embedding a kiss on Chester Raccoon’s hand. Audrey Penn’s story oozes warmth, especially when Chester makes sure mom has a kissing hand too while he is away. Ruth.E.Harper and Nancy M. Leak have successfully evoked the same fuzzy feeling of warmth with their illustrations in muted tones set mostly in night time. Just the right book to calm the anxieties while saying adieu to the very young during camp, school, day care or sleepover. Published by Child & Family Press


They probably don’t need books with gentle promises. They love school! They can’t wait to go to school! But that’s only because they think school is always fun. Not anymore. Not always. Sometimes things could go wrong, very wrong. Stuff like when people with big hair sit in front of you or when the tattoo you got as a prize comes off in the bath water. We get the picture but we unfortunately can’t do much for their childish predicaments. This is where IT’S A BAD DAY comes in handy. Every little school going kid can relate to it and that’s the simple beauty of it. Of course its a bad day when the biggest bubble pops without anyone seeing it! A catalog of simple and honest mishaps from May Ellen Friday, that ends with reassurance – But hey, I’m okay. And tomorrow is another day. The typeface of the text is as if handwritten by the little reader. And the exaggerated illustrations of multi ethnic kids in these “situations” will make any child guffaw with a stamp of approval! Published by Rising Moon.


She or He has singled out a friend in class and even seriously labeled her or him “best friend”. The two do everything together and create memories for that slice of life on or off campus. There is not a conversation at home without bringing in the counterpart’s name. Simply put, this book is about best friends. The layer of interest is that Monifa is African American, and her friend is Mei Jing, whose grandmother had immigrated from China. Their individual cultures dictate their experiences. Narrated in the first person by Monifa, the account is casual, true and very school-centric. Sprinkled with instances of cultural exchange during play dates, at school, and at home, Anna McQuinn’s MY FRIEND MEI JING is a great pick to celebrate multicultural friendships, a wholesome experience during the growing up years. Illustrations are by Ben Frey and photographs inside are by Irving Cheung. Published by Annick Press.


There is that naughty side now. Something up their sleeves all the time. No place better than classroom to showcase the antics. Giggles galore. Everything seems funny, rather hilarious. And just when your child begins to appreciate humor of the tongue-in-cheek sort, its good to grab MISS NELSON IS MISSING. It can well be used as a quick refresher as the lazy summer comes to an end and when school is around the corner. May even lighten things up when he comes home with trouble from school. The children of Room 207 make it very difficult for Miss.Nelson. She disappears. They now have Miss. Viola Swamp who is intolerant to their noise and nuisance. She is portrayed mean and dressed like a witch. The children, now appreciative of Miss.Nelson, yearn for her to come back. She does reappear. But where is Miss Voila Swamp now? Did I mention they even hire a detective? Read it to solve the mystery! With simple text, amusing visuals and quirky humor, it is amazing how it eventually manages to be didactic as well. Miss Nelson is missing is authored by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall. A classic and a joy to read for slightly older elementary school kids, check out the audio versions of the book and the sequel too. Published by Sandpiper.

Most definitely a journey – from fear and anxiety through reassurance and warmth, to when they get comfortable (a little too comfortable in fact), books of all sorts find their way and become part of the experience. With good books, let the journey continue…

Pictures courtesy Amazon.com.

The Other Side


Title: The Other Side
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrator: E.B.Lewis
Publisher: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, NY
Picture Courtesy – Amazon.com

“There is no school on Monday, no mail on Monday. And do you know why?”, began the teacher. I was at my daughter’s kinder room when it was my turn to help out, and I overheard the teacher beginning to read a book on Martin Luther King. I could not take my eyes off of the little ones’ faces, curious to know how they would absorb it all. They listened with intent. Silence ensued. And then they dispersed. I felt cheated when I could not comprehend what went through their minds. That afternoon I walked back home wondering how I could talk to my daughter on what Martin Luther stood for and how I could present the historical significance that surrounds him. The customary discomfort that preceded talks (with her) on “unhappy” truths, was again telling me that I was soon going to be guilty of adulterating the innocent mind. Even though, in most cases, the terminating message was good.

So, when I was at the library this weekend, I nonchalantly scanned the shelves for something besides King’s biography, and something that did not scream strong language or characters. The Other Side turned out to be the kind of book that would be an ally in my mission. In fact, it won me over to find a spot on Saffron Tree to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. today!

The opening spread, in stunning yet soft water colors, takes us to a flowery patch amidst lush greenery and scattered houses. A lengthy fence catches the eye in the middle of the rural scene. Just as we warm up to the narrative of a little African-American girl, Clover, we get involved in the incident that occurred one summer, when she noticed a white girl on the other side of the fence, staring at her. The fence is a repeating detail in the illustrations on most pages. Annie, is the lonely girl across the fence yearning to be included in the outdoor games Clover and her little group play all day. Clover also finds herself admiringly looking at Annie’s free-spiritedness. And then one day, things change. Clover and Annie exchange smiles and names. Annie invites Clover to join her on the fence. The girls exploit the technicality that their mothers’ never opposed their sitting on the fence. A fence like this was made for sitting on, we hear Annie say. By the end of that summer a friendship is born. It is not long before Annie is seen playing together with the rest of Clover’s gang. And the book ends with this –

“Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down”, Annie said. And I nodded.

“Yeah,” I said. “Someday”.

Yes, the fence is the metaphor. But the literal meaning sufficed. There was no need to mention civil rights or segregation. A warm setting, with girls her own age or older brought the much needed comfort, and kindled curiosity in my 5 yr old. I embraced the subtlety and capitalized on the situation. I mentioned King. She stared at the portrayals of Annie and the girls carelessly sitting on the fence and told me a few things. I think she will understand his context now.

The book reminded me that children have the power to make a change. Innocence is probably the secret. The story in The Other Side, I thought, brought Matin Luther King’s dream closer to reality.

Jacqueline Woodson’s another book “Coming On Home Soon” has been reviewed earlier, read it here – http://www.saffrontree.org/2007/05/coming-on-home-soon-by-jacqueline.html

Rechenka’s Eggs

TITLE: Rechenka’s Eggs
AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR: Patricia POLACCO
PUBLIHSER: Philomel Books
AGE GROUP: 4-8 years.

While Patricia Polacco needs no introduction to those of you who have been enjoying her stories, rest of you book lovers deserve to experience the warmth that her books generously ooze out. And that is why I chose Rechenka’s Eggs.

From my Russian background my stories are kind of ethnic, primitive, Eastern European — that’s one type of voice I write in, says Patricia. Set in Moskva in pre-revolutionary Russia, that is exactly the voice we hear in this book.

Babushka (Russian for grandmother) is a kind hearted old woman who spends the cold and dark winter days painting eggshells in her country home. She has a reputation for her beautifully designed eggs and she plans on taking them to a contest for the Spring Festival in the city. On a snowy day that winter, even as she is greeting a herd of caribous outside of her home, an injured goose separates from its flock and falls on her lap. The good Samaritan Babushka is, heals the goose and gives it a cozy corner in her own home. Babushka lovingly names her Rechenka and the bird lays an egg for her every morning. Thus a friendship is born.

However, an accident that ends the serenity and goodness that we have gotten used to so far, also leads to a chain of magical events. A clumsy Rechenka overturns paint jars and even breaks Babushka’s gorgeous eggs. Babushka is upset. But the next morning, her usual breakfast egg from the goose is not an ordinary one, but an exquisitely painted one! A dozen more follow. “A miracle”,thrilled, Babushka whispers. It is soon spring, time for the festival. Also, the time for Rechenka to move on and migrate with her clan. Time for adieu. Babushka leaves for the city with her (Rechenka’s) eggs. The eggs win her accolades. Back home, curled up loney with her book in bed, Babushka hears something. Following it, she finds a glorious egg left in the basket Rechenka rested. But this one moves….jumps..rolls…and there lies Rechenka’s special gift!!!

The reader swallows a lump in the throat. A sigh. Beautiful does not describe it. And I am not saying it just for the story but for all those pictures that whisked us off to old Moscow. The Moskva women in ethnic attire, the onion-domed architecture, the eggshells – a dozen of them with intricate folkloric art, even the wrinkles and folds of skin on Babushka’s face and limbs, all do their bit in binding us to the story.

There is also this balance in the elements of reality and imagination – while the backdrop of wintry Moscow, the festival and the contest, the caribous and a warm-hearted Babushka ground the story, the painted eggs from the bird and the element of surprise impart a fairy-tale like magical quality that children will love. With her eye-catching illustrations, richness in flavor, lucid writing and a touching storyline, Patricia Polacco is truly a wonderful writer and artist. You need to read the book, to experience the joy!

Mrs.McCool And The Giant Cuhullin – An Irish Tale


TITLE: Mrs.McCool and the Giant Cuhullin
AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR: Jessica Souhami
PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Company
AGES: Good for “Read Aloud” and “Read it Yourself”.

The joy of folktales is something that we recently discovered at our home. Stepping aside from classics and contemporary humor , we seem to embrace folktales, quite effortlessly. The book that I have with me is an Irish folklore, bearing a tale very similar to the ones that were orally passed on to me while I was growing up.

The central characters in this tale are legendary giants Cuhullin and Finn McCool. Mrs. Oona McCool is the one with the brains and quite intuitively, also the one to save her husband oftentimes from Cuhullin. Now, Cuhullin has a magic finger that makes him strong and Finn has a magic thumb that bestows upon him, the power to foresee things. Finn uses his magic thumb and announces (in jitters of course) the impending arrival of Cuhullin. Mrs.McCool to the rescue! A simple story you think, buckle up for a good dose of slapstick humor! Children will be laughing boisterously as they see fun illustrations and hear goofy dialogues.

Mrs.McCool is quick witted. She drops Finn with a bonnet in a cradle and welcomes Cuhullin for tea. She makes unreasonable, rather unrealistic (not that there is realism to worry here) requests that demand extreme brawn from Cuhullin. And this she does, so nonchalantly that Cuhullin is led to believe that the tasks are all a routine in the McCool household. Just look at the front cover – there is Cuhullin trying to lift the house so Oona can broom off the dust underneath! Here is also a sample of silliness to taste – “Goodness!” exclaimed Cuhullin. “Look at the size of him! Look at the moustache! If this is the baby, what must Finn be like?” , as Cuhullin mistakes Finn for a real baby. He also ends up sticking his finger in the “baby’s” mouth, only to have his magic finger bitten off! Petrified, the shrinking Cuhullin runs amok, leaving a cheery couple dancing!

It was nothing, dear Finn,” said Oona.”Big is Big. But brains are better!” . Probably the profound truth that this story intended to convey to little children and just as the message drives home, you are still not really far from the jocund moments. The magic of folktales it is. Loony and wacky, oh yeah! But did you also realize the feminist undercurrent, the portrayal of the woman endowed with brainpower, the one to thwart a giant – amazing to think of it when there is still so much gripe in contemporary children’s literature about the roles women or girls are given! Quick paced with bright collage like illustrations, this book is wonderful to be read aloud to children!

There is never enough said about folktales. Flavorful, informative and historic, with so much room for imagination. These hand me downs from wonderful storytellers, sometimes didactic and sometimes just for laughs. Timeless.