Reading and traveling are two passions that I share with my seven-year-old daughter. Books, pamphlets, maps, magazines, newspapers, menus. Traveling a half-hour to the museum or across the ocean with our backpacks. My work as an elementary school Reading Specialist has naturally evolved into how I travel and read as a parent. Book recommendations will be given. Dialogue about learning to read and how to encourage the habits of lifelong readers is welcome.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Nutcracker, The Nutcracker, The Nutcracker

'Tis the season for the Nutcracker to be everywhere. Apparently “The Battle of the Nutcrackers” will be on TV (Ovation channel) this holiday season, where viewers will vote on which version they like best. Will it be The Bolshoi? A filmed version of George Balanchine’s with Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker? A far out version by Matthew Bourne or Mark Morris’ interpretation called “The Hard Nut,” with the Tchaikovsky score but a sixties suburban setting?

And on the home front: Sylvia is playing violin on “The Nutcracker March,” in the holiday performance by Overture Strings in a couple of weeks. The kid that went along with us to see the New York City Ballet’s performance with Balanchine’s choreography at Lincoln Center is going to be a candy cane in her dance class performance in Point Pleasant, N.J. We just got an email from a friend that her child won’t be able to come over because she will be rehearsing to be a sheep in a production of the Nutcracker in Montclair. Everywhere. And maybe that’s why Jeremy and I felt we couldn’t find an emotional connection with the music and dance, as Jeremy noted in his blog,, and that the fun was watching the girls watch.


The week before the show, we looked at two books with the Nutcracker story.

  • The first, with the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, translated by Ralph Manheim, is illustrated by the one and only Maurice Sendak. Sendak designed 180 costumes for the Seattle ballet's Nutcracker in 1981. The illustrations come from that performance as well as additional illustrations he made for the story lines that are not be included in the two act ballet. It is refreshing to read in the introduction that at he resisted the project at first because, “Who in the world needed another Nutcracker? The mandatory Christmas tree and Candyland sequences were enough to sink my spirits completely.” He returned to the source, the original story written in 1816, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” and then researched why the version we see today is so bland compared to the complicated dark narrative of the original. He blames it on the version of the story that was popularized by Alexandre Dumas, and then simplified further in the production by Alexandrovitch Vservolojsky, director of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg at around the turn of the last century. Tchaikovsky was disappointed in the scenario and tried to compose a score that honed closer to Hoffmann – but what was missing from the written scenario – and man, is this evident when you watch the ballet – is the sub-plot – the real second act. So, if you want the real deal, take a look at Hoffmann/Sendak. (All ages)
  • A new picture book that is representative of what you’ll see on stage, as well as a quick read, is “The Nutcracker” by Susan Jeffers with her beautiful illustrations and a cover with sparkles in Marie’s hair. (Ages 3-8)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"The Red Balloon," "White Mane," Reading Books, Going To The Movies

Watching new prints of Albert Lamorisse’s “White Mane” (1953) and “The Red Balloon” (1956) at the Film Forum yesterday, I was so riveted, I could barely catch my breath. I could barely speak about it afterward. The images of the film, their beauty, can I say deeply poetic without sounding like I’m grasping for language that captures also, the feeling? The film was so quiet that the questions kids in the audience asked – “why is he doing that?” “what happened?” seemed all the more poignant given the assault of kids’ movies now. You couldn’t hear a kid reflect on what they were seeing in say, “Bee Story,” if you wanted to, and do kids reflect? – given how kids are told what to feel, think, what is right, wrong, everything spelled out so there is nothing left to the imagination. The experience of having to watch carefully and follow with your heart is absent from children’s films today.

The dialogue is sparse in “The Red Balloon”. “White Mane” has also, light narration and dialogue. The original narration for “White Mane” was written by James Agee, which would be wonderful to read sometime. “The Red Balloon,” and “White Mane” are not yet available on Netflix, though hopefully they will be before long. Jeremy has put them on our queue.

The Film Forum distributed red helium balloons to the kids as we left, and Sylvia got the connection to the movie and the humor of how Pascal (acted by Lamorisse’s son, 6 at the time) treats the balloon like a pet. She wants to keep her balloon (now deflated, dark red, with soft thick white string) as her pet.

The hardcover copy of “The Red Balloon” - we have Jeremy’s copy from when he was a boy - came out shortly after the film. It has location photographs from the movie shoot. Apparently, all of these places in Paris have been razed, except for the church. There are later versions of the “The Red Balloon”, including one with drawings from a stage production – make sure you get the original. And if ever there was a way to elevate a book to magical significance on a child’s shelf, it would be to see this film.

Recommended Lamorisse Reading:

"The Red Balloon" (with photos taken during the filming of the movie) and "White Mane" in hardcover by Albert Lamorisse can be found on (all ages)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Making Peace With The Book Chains: A Reading Room For Two

Jeremy got me hooked on trolling the aisles of book stores when we travel. Indeed, when we were heading home from Guangzhou after our adoption paperwork was complete, and spent an overnight at the YMCA in Hong Kong, Sylvia had her first book buying experience in the lobby bookstore: a board book of transit sounds that could fit in your palm called, “brrrrm!”. The digger goes crunch. The aeroplane, which we were about to spend many many hours on, goes whoosssh! We still have the book, with its $34.00 (1.99 pounds) price tag. We have our share of book keepsakes: a list to follow.

But for the last couple of years, when we jump the Hudson to Manhattan, we have also become regulars at Borders Bookstore on Second Avenue between 31st and 32nd Streets. It’s the only place I’ve found in mid-town where you can always find a two hour meter. At least once a week, usually twice, you’ll find Sylvia and I at a table in the coffee shop. The books that I yearn for when I read a review in the Times or hear an interview on NPR, with their shiny new covers beckoning me, are at my fingertips. Sylvia is learning the fine art of picking books that are fun to read but that are not essential to have forever.

For instance. Here’s the pile she brought to the table last week:

  • Junie B First Grader and Personal Beeswax
  • Junie B Jones and Some Sneaky Peaky Spying
  • Junie B First Grader One Man Band
  • Jack and Annie Research Guide: Rain forests
  • Two big books about shih tzus and pugs and other breeds.

I read, spread out over two weeks actually, “Matrimony: A Novel,” by Joshua Henkin, following an interview I heard on NPR. My interest was piqued hearing that the setting was a writing workshop at a college like Hampshire with a charismatic writing teacher. The story follows four people through college and adulthood. It’s a fast read, a good read, and I won’t read it again – not a keepsake book. I buy my overpriced Dean and Deluca coffee and a pricey Martinsen’s apple juice for Sylvia and we lay in. There aren’t many rules in this coffee shop within the bookstore. For instance, buying something at the counter is not mandatory. Talking on cell phones is de rigueur. Lately, however, there’s a guy watching a tiny portable TV. So, I’ve taken to plugging my ears with my IPOD. I already have my next book lined up: “Always” by Amy Bloom. Does Sylvia need more of an explanation of why “Junie Be First Grader and Personal Beeswax” might not be a Hanukkah wish list book while the encyclopedia like book on dogs that includes rare breeds - not the Eyewitness Series Dog book because that one doesn’t even have Shih Tzus, she informs me - is a better choice? Yes, just as I need some reminding as to why I don’t need to buy “Clapton: The Autobiography.”

Recommended Book Store Reading:

Series books, such as "Junie B. Jones," are great book store reads. Leveled books (marked Step 1, Step 2, etc.) that are often displayed on revolving stands are also good choices for quick reads. Think of them as introductions to a variety of subjects that children may be curious about. These will lead to more in-depth reading on the subjects that really interest them.

Monday, November 19, 2007

"The Philharmonic Gets Dressed" and Mechanical Musical Marvels in Morristown

Sylvia and Sasha punch out the tune to "Happy Birthday", and then roll it through the cylinder music box at the "Mechanical Musical Machines and Living Dolls" exhibit.

Recommended Children's Books That Love Music:

  • "The Philharmonic Gets Dressed" by Karla Kushkin is the gold standard in creating excitement about listening to music. As the sky darkens, and musicians all over the city get ready to go to work, the anticipation of their arrival to play beautiful music together builds.
  • Another, more recently written book we enjoyed was "Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin" by Lloyd Moss, with vividly colorful illustrations by Marjorie Priceman that sing off the page. Moss uses rich rhyming language to introduce the orchestral instruments.
  • Finally, "Music, Music, For Everyone" written and illustrated by the amazing Vera Williams, where the true power of music to heal and bring people together is embedded in a lovely story featuring a young girl and her Grandmother.

“Mechanical Musical Machines and Living Dolls”

You’ll hear the colorful sounds of flute, violin, clarinet pipes, trombone, piccolo, trumpet, snare drum, bass drum and cymbal all coming from one amazing mechanical music machine – the 1910 ‘orchestrophone’ from Paris, France – as you pass through the red velvet curtain and enter the wonderful world of “Musical Machines and Living Dolls.” The collection of 150 rare and beautiful mechanical musical instruments and automatic toys dating from the late 16th century to the early 20th century are displayed in the new wing of the Morris Museum. Part of the Murtogh D. Guinness collection that was bequeathed to the Museum in 1993, it is the largest collection of its kind in the Western hemisphere.

OK - you're nowhere near Morristown - fear not - you can see and hear the sounds of these incredible machines on the website. More below.

Featuring music boxes, mechanical organs, orchestrions and mechanically-activated lifelike figures, these marvels of exquisite craftsmanship represent a major milestone in the evolution of music and technology. Considered the first form of music-on-demand, they anticipated recorded sound, spreading the sound of music – from polkas to opera - to people everywhere.

Children and adults will be enchanted by the ingenuity of these objects: an automatic banjo plucked by metal fingers, a clown with a disappearing head, a barrel organ containing 16 animated characters and 4 ranks of pipes that plays ten tunes. Live demonstrations, interactive technology, and hands-on activities will make you feel like you’re right inside the music.

See collection highlights, with video and audio availability.

Morris Museum

6 Normandy Hts. Rd.
Morristown, NJ 07079
(973) 971-3700

Daily demonstrations at 2 PM, excluding Monday

Regular Hours
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Thursdays: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Sundays: 1-5 p.m.

Holiday Schedule
Closed on New Year's Day, Easter Sunday, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Members free
$8 / Adults
$6 / Children
$6 / Seniors
Children under 3 years of age are free
Free admission on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

All Of A Kind Family, Tenement Museum, & Combining Reading and Museum Trips

Just one elementary school trip to the Museum of the City of New York, and I had enough material for years of fantasy. I imagined myself inside the dioramas of times past and enacted scenes in my head to put myself to sleep at night. The “All of A Kind Family” books by Sidney Taylor, which follow a large immigrant Jewish family living in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early years of the twentieth century, also, enchanted me. The first book was written shortly after WWII. The books do not have the authentic dialect and family dynamics that modern readers might expect. But children’s books about the Jewish experience were rare at that time, and for me, there was enough detail to open the door into their world and tap my family’s roots. I drew comfort in the small dramas that the children were able to navigate with the help of their parents. They were poor, but had traditions that enriched them. Each of the characters were presented with strengthens and weaknesses, and it wasn’t lost on me that these were not perfect girls. I fell inside the stories with rapt enthusiasm. I couldn’t wait to introduce the books to Sylvia.

I held on to my hard cover copies all the way to college, but they were lost when my parent’s house burned down. I expected they might be hard to find – seemingly so old-fashioned. The first one was easy– Borders had it. The others were located on line. I read some of the very positive review on Amazon, and interestingly, someone recommended them for girls who like historical fiction, like the American Girl series. Someone else pointed out that with these books, you don’t have to buy a doll!

While my husband has been reading books with complex narratives to Sylvia since she was a toddler, these kinds of books are perfect mother/daughter reading. Comforting and warm. We read them before going to sleep in our twin beds on the top floor of the B&B Belgravia in London, or on a night when Jeremy is playing viola at an open mike in Maplewood. Sometimes Sylvia rereads a chapter on her own and sometimes she reads ahead so she knows what happens. There’s comfort in familiarity.

History is not a big part of the second grade curriculum. There are some ‘fun facts’ like the names of the continents, how to read simple maps, a few American history highlights. Biographies, if you’re at a certain reading level, can be taken home from the classroom library. As my daughter tells me, ‘if you’re on the sunshine level, you can’t read chapter books,’ and also, if you’re in first grade. So last year, in her multi-age class, she couldn’t read them. This year, she can, but there’s no discussion and no context provided. So building an understanding of history has to be provided at home. Immigration is something she and I have in common, something that is part of our identities.

I knew from looking at the Tenement Museum website that "All of a Kind Family" was in their bookstore - a quick connection to make with Sylvia as we made the twists and turns downtown on our drive to the museum. Don’t look for a ‘museum.’ You buy your tickets for the hour long tour in the gift shop and then meet your guide a few doors down, in front of the tenement. The guide asked our group if anyone had connections to the Lower East Side. I was expecting at least some of the visitors to feel, even a metaphoric connection with the immigrant experience. I was wrong. European tourists shook their heads. Students from Alabama and Minnesota said ‘no’ in the way that indicated nothing could be further from their reality. Actually, I was the only one who said yes, my grandparents were among the thousands and thousands of immigrants who packed into this part of town 100 years ago.

I don’t want to reveal the surprises of the tour and the layers of fascinating New York City architectural and historical detail that were revealed. If it sounds like being on an archeological dig, it was. You can view a virtual audio tour on-line, although missing will be the wonderful stories our guide, who grew up on the LES, added.

Take a virtual tour of the apartment.

This morning, as we read, “All of A Kind Family Downtown,” the details were fleshed out so much more having stood inside a tenement apartment from the turn of the century yesterday. It gave a richness to stepping in of the shoes of the characters, and by feeling empathy with their experience, widened our own.

Recommended Reading on the Immigrant Experience:

"All of a Kind Family," "More All of a Kind Family," "All of a Kind Family Uptown," "All of a Kind Family Downtown," by Sidney Taylor

"Life on the Lower East Side" by Jennifer Blizin Gillis, includes a recipe for latkes.

"When Jessie Came Across the Sea" by Amy Hest , illustrated by P.J. Lynch