Tag Archives: children

Picture books

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times about how publishers are scaling back on picture books. Apparently there's a trend for parents to push chapter books on their young kids, resulting in a decline in picture book sales. Wow, really?  Good quality picture books are among our favorite possessions. For a few years, when the boys were small, we built up a collection, because we had to have our own home library since English-language libraries were so hard to find, living abroad. This collection is like an old, trusted friend, always there to retreat to, to pore over by oneself or to enjoy with an older sibling or parent.

My best friend Laura, who is a children's librarian (and keeps a library blog which is chock full of resources), is like a fairy godmother: when the boys were small, she gave us picture books for birthdays and Christmas. Every book she gave us became a family treasure. Books such as:

A Story for Bear, by Dennis Haseley

or Tree of Cranes, by Allen Say, who grew up in both Japan and the U.S. and has written many wonderful books. His spare prose and lush, gorgeous pictures depict stories that my children can really relate to. 

I myself love books by Elsa Beskow, a Swedish author writing during the early twentieth century, because her illustrations are incredible and detailed and depict the natural world so beautifully. In fact we always have her book, Around the Year, open on our kitchen bookshelf. This is October's charming watercolor:


Picture books are moving. I remember my four year old son crying quietly into his pillow from the image of a big lonely bear carrying books one by one back to his den in A Story for Bear. Somehow the quiet prose and the lovely picture had touched his little boy heart. 

Picture books make kids feel less alone by capturing a universal childhood experience, feeling, or memory so evocatively. They are quick enough to enjoy at any time and are a great way to match – or change – the mood of the moment. Other favorites are:

A Quiet Place by Douglas Wood

The Old Woman who Named Things, by Cynthia Rylant

The Day the Babies Crawled Away, by Peggy Rathmann

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willem

and a lovely book for my children, who probably, inevitably, sometimes wonder exactly where home might be:

All the Places to Love, by Patricia MacLachlan.


Every time I read this to my children I myself feel moved nearly to tears. (And I must also note that I love that the children in this book are born in their grandparents' farmhouse, in such an incidental way that it normalizes home birth, which I think is pretty cool).

Picture books help with transitions: a move, a new sibling, a death, a family change. Oh My Baby, Little One, by Kathi Appelt, deals with the weighty issue of separation and is still a favorite in our house. Picture books really helped my children prepare for their move to Japan five years ago, as I wrote in this guest post on The Traveler's Library.

And I'm in love with Japanese picture books. Here is an old classic, Chiri to Chiriri, about two girls exploring their town by bicycle. The pictures transport us from adventure to adventure.


At one point they wander into a yarn and thread shop. This is one of my favorite illustrations. I wish I could go there too!



Another favorite Japanese author is Hayashi Akiko. I've mentioned a book she wrote, in my post about free-range kids – it's about a five year old girl's first errand. She's also written many other beautifully illustrated books about small things. Here is a little collection of her illustrations.


This is one of our favorite books now, about a little girl and her little sister.



The slow pace of her books fits childhood exactly – things that may seem small to us loom large in the mind of a child. 

This site lists more reasons not to rush your children out of picture books. Pictures help tell your child about things he may not have experienced yet – the beach, an airplane ride, a meal with a family from a different culture. They help build a bridge between your child's comprehension and his imagination. But, in my opinion, they don't have the overpowering visual effect that a movie or tv show might. This allows imagination to fill the space. Picture books allow time and room for dreaming. And they provide a shared experience we can take with us, parent and child together, even after we lift our heads from the page. Our favorite books have become part of our common vocabulary and family lore because we have all read them together.

I'm not averse to chapter books for younger kids – I am actually one of those parents who read Stuart Little to her four year old (because he really loved the story, and looked forward to it every night). However, now I wonder if perhaps he loved it because it has the cadence and feeling of a picture book? It has a simple story, lovely prose, a few evocative illustrations. We have other favorites which I think are good for the younger set. My Father's Dragon is a wonderful and sweet adventure story which is as good in its Japanese translation as it is in English.  But to categorically look down on picture books just because a child should be "beyond" them is, I think, the wrong approach. (And, this post making the rounds, by one woman who was quoted in the Times article, makes me wonder about the story behind the story.)

According to Laura, picture books also do hone some fairly sophisticated skills. When things aren't fully spelled out for us literally and concretely, we develop the ability to comprehend and interpret and make connections. These are big skills for little ones.  As Laura says, "I try to explain it in terms of poetry: it's about quality, not quantity. Reading and understanding a short poem can be more taxing than reading a long and simple chapter book. Ditto for picture books. Some of our best living artists, in my opinion, are illustrating picture books. Too many people aren't aware of their work. Not to mention how visually sophisticated they can be – so often the text and pictures complement or contradict each other in very subtle ways!" As examples of the way that text and illustrations can play off one another, try looking for some of the humorous books she has given us, such as Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, by Mark Teague, and the Traction Man picture books, by Mini Grey. My kids like How I Spent My Summer Vacation and The Secret Shortcut, also by Mark Teague. Sometimes you don't even need words at all. We all enjoy poring over David Wiesner's books, such as Sector 7; you could just lose yourself in his rich illustrations!

If raising a book lover is important to you, you might enjoy this clever little poster Laura showed me, too. And here's another wonderfully informative post which summarizes the many reasons to keep on reading picture books.

What are your favorite children's books? Do you remember any favorites from childhood? What books do your children turn to over and over again?


Japanese school food

When we went back to the U.S., one of the things that we experienced culture shock over was the food. Home, school, and institutional cooking is so very different here – it's also pretty different from the stereotypical Japanese dishes you get in Japanese restaurants in the U.S.

Here's the menu for my kids' public school lunch here in Japan over the next few days:

Vegetable fried rice, tofu and kinoko mushroom soup, spicy bean sprouts

Chilled udon with tofu, soy bean and sweet potato fritters, fruit with rice flour dumplings

Bibimbap (a Korean dish – rice with mixed vegetables and an egg), tofu and wakame soup, a plum

Somen noodles with chicken croquettes, chilled boiled komatsuna (a leafy green vegetable similar to spinach), corn, and "Tanabata" gelatin (made special for the Tanabata holiday coming up).

Yukari rice (yukari is a Japanese herb like sesame leaves or basil), whiting fish in a miso/mayo glaze, vegetables in sesame dressing, miso soup

French garlic bread, minestrone soup, cabbage and corn salad

Barley rice with yukari pickles, gingery pork saute, daikon and wakame miso soup

Rice, edamame, mackerel croquettes with grated daikon and soy sauce, clear soup, braised cabbage

Summer vegetable curry, daikon salad, and homemade peach sorbet.

Note that 1) dessert is a rarity (usually it's a small portion of fresh fruit if anything), 2) the food is heavy on grains and vegetables with only small portions of protein, such as small fish (low on the food chain) or side-dish-sized portions of meat, 3) they strive to introduce children to a variety of cuisines (though rice, and Asian flavors, do predominate, and 4) everything is made fresh. The fully-functioning kitchen is on the first floor of the school and our children personally all know the people who make their food. 

Dining etiquette is a pretty big thing here too. The children take turns serving each other in their classroom and then all sit down at tables in their classroom and wait until everyone is seated to begin. I like that the children are taught to sit down to appreciate their meal instead of eating it on the run. They bring their own placemats. They're expected not to waste food, but to eat everything on their plates. Pickiness is strongly discouraged. Everyone cleans up afterwards together – clearing plates, wiping tables, bringing dishes back tthe kitchen, cleaning the floors. Despite how one might feel about some of the etiquette taught in schools – I'm not in favor of every aspect of it and some of it might be considered downright rigid –  at the very least, it's been a chance for our kids to learn that foods – and not just food, but food customs and food culture – are different all around the world. And, sad to say, they've noticed a few things about food culture back home – such as the preponderance of kids' meals and the generally unhealthy offerings for school lunch. (Although I just found a great Facebook page about school lunches done right: School Meals that Rock).

We've never been able to live somewhere where we could cultivate a garden, so I've been happy that here, in most nursery and elementary schools, children grow and harvest vegetables – D brought us baby eggplant a few days in a row and proudly cut it up and served it, and when daikon was in season he brought baby daikon for us to sample.

My kids also gained confidence cutting up vegetables in nursery school – there's a yearly event at which the oldest kids in the school prepare curry lunch for themselves and their parents. 

It's not just in schools that you get freshly prepared food. When I had my fourth baby here – my first time giving birth in a hospital – I was nervous about having to rely on someone else for food but frankly, it was a lot tastier than what I could have managed for myself! Look at these photos:

 IMG_0368Okay, the green beans in the first photo look terribly overcooked, but everything else was fresh. 

And a final photo here is M eating the Japanese version of fast food at a food court in a mall – simple udon noodles.IMG_0705

No place is perfect, and certainly it's not like that here either. We got into a white bread habit that we can't seem to shake (white bread, or "shokupan," is the most commonly found bread around, and white rice and white noodles, as you can see above, are also pretty standard fare). French pastries are hugely popular, as are convenience store treats like Pocky, and of course there are still plenty of other unhealthy options. There's less acceptance of different ways of eating or things like food allergies and intolerances (though awareness of that is growing). And fast food restaurants do abound (the same food court where M ate those noodles has a McDonalds and Mister Donut too). There are some food "rules" I still don't understand, like the disdain for raw produce (considered too cooling for the body), but overall I feel like living here has helped influence us for the better in many ways when it comes to our eating habits and food awareness.

So to sum up, some key values are:

the importance of eating together, sitting down and appreciating your meal.

shopping daily or frequently for fresh ingredients, in small amounts, and less reliance on processed foods. Protein is served in small portions; vegetables predominate.

serving snacks and sweets in very small portions. Traditional sweets rely on sweetened bean paste or rice although there are modern, sugar-laden treats as well.

I'm excited that there's a food revolution brewing in the US – it's so long overdue. In addition to checking out School Meals that Rock, take a look at these two blogs – their commentary on current kid/food matters always inspires and informs: LettuceEatKale: Musings on Food, Family, Friends, and Growing Greens and SpoonFed: Raising Kids to Think About the Food They Eat.

What's the food culture like around you? If you have children who go to school, what's the school food like? What do you like and what (if anything) do you wish you could change, and what do you do to encourage your kids to eat healthfully?