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  • Children's book reviews by Jennifer Sykes

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Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie

Explaining death to young children is such a touchy thing.  It’s usually something parents don’t want to do, so we put it off until we are grappling with difficult loss and in no position to be mature, thoughtful creatures.  And then we desperately turn to books to help us choke out a few reassuring words.

When my older daughter was a preschooler, we had a rough couple of years in my family.  We lost my brother-in-law, my grandmother, my father, and a beloved elderly cat.  That was a whole lot of death in a short amount of time, and it was difficult for us to process, as adults, but even more difficult for the young children in the family.

My daughter’s preschool teacher handed us Lifetimes, by Bryan Mellonie, from the school library, along with a few other books.  I read through all of them carefully before reading them with her.  I found Lifetimes to be the most calming, direct, and gentle book amongst the lot.

When I was recently asked to recommend a book about death, I came back to Lifetimes and re-read it.  I was again reminded of its strengths, and I was again reminded that this is the perfect book to read whenever — not just after a loss.

Mellonie’s text has a peaceful cadence, and the beautiful illustrations support the language well.  We are reminded that every living creature has a beginning and and an end, but the in between — the living — is the story of its life.  Children look at examples of things in nature and gain some context of what a lifetime really is.  The story gives them a vocabulary for death that is not strictly about loss or mourning.

While adults are quick to project their own feelings onto young children, the author is careful not do to the same.  We don’t hear about how sad death is, or how much crying a person does when their grandmother dies — nothing that tells the child how she should be feeling.   Mellonie merely creates an explanation of beginning, living, and end; and it’s one that allows adults to customize a dialogue based on the child’s own reactions, feelings, and questions.    Similarly, Lifetimes does not discuss an afterlife at all, allowing parents’ own beliefs to supplement the text.  I found this tremendously valuable and helpful in making this a book I could recommend to friends of all faiths and belief systems.

Losing a loved one is never easy.  Reading this book with my children in difficult times was therapeutic for me, both because it helped them understand and because it gave me some reminders that helped me process my own feelings.  It provides a great foundation for discussions about death, and it does so without intimidating or overexplaining.
While the book is recommended for children ages 5 and up, preschoolers will benefit from it, as well.  They may not comprehend everything, but it gives some key words and concepts to familiarize them with the cycle of life for “every living thing.”   This is a soothing, delicate, and reassuring book that provides comfort in a time of distress.
Time for Bed by Mem Fox

If ever there was a perfect bedtime book for the younger set, Time for Bed is it.  Written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Jane Dyer, this board book is almost trance-inducing.  Each page follows the same rhythm, and each page has gentle rhymes.  Read aloud, it is the spoken form of a lullaby.  I find it hard to stay awake while reading it — not because it’s boring, but because it is all too effective.

Each page has a parent animal peacefully calling its young to sleep.  The illustrations are soft watercolors in nighttime hues, and each scene shows a mother or father in a nurturing fashion.  Presumably, parents will be reading this book to their babies and toddlers in much the same way as the mama cat curls up with her kitten, making it all the more sweet.

The book is just right in length for the preschool and younger crowd.  Just enough pages and scenes to keep young children interested, but not so many that they struggle to stay engaged.  There are no characters to follow, just a familiar, repeating theme of doting parents and sleepy little ones.
Time for Bed makes an excellent baby shower or first birthday gift.  It’s a great bedtime routine builder with its content, illustrations, and rhythm; and it’s simply a very lovely read.

Chick ‘n’ Pug by Jennifer Sattler

The adorable cover of Chick ‘n’ Pug hints at the humor and sweet tone readers will find inside.  Both written and illustrated by Jennifer Sattler, this picture book is a winner whether read quietly to oneself or read aloud to a crowd of kindergartners.

Chick is a daydreaming, book-loving youngster who is underwhelmed by his average chicken life.  He wants excitement — the kind of life that he reads about in his favorite book, The Adventures of Wonder Pug.  As one might guess, Chick flies the coop on a quest for an adventure of his own.
He happens upon a pug and is sure that he’s discovered his hero, Wonder Pug.  The reader giggles at the idea that the snoozing, lazy dog pictured is a superhero, but Chick is earnest in his admiration and interprets the lazy pooch’s actions as all sorts of heroic gestures.  Silly, adventurous fun follows when Chick proclaims himself to be “Wonder” Pug’s sidekick.

With the popularity of charismatic smoosh-faced pugs, young children are sure to be excited to read Chick ‘n’ Pug.  The text delivers what the cover promises, and the illustrations lead the story.  This is not a tale with a deep moral or one that will keep children up at night.   It’s a cute, fun book with creative and charming illustrations and a relatable, youthful premise.  Children laugh as they discover Chick’s naivete and Pug’s sloth, but they are hopeful for adventure, all the same.  This is a great book to read to a crowd because of the large illustrations and a story that is both energetic and simple to voice.  Sattler’s sense of humor and good-natured sarcasm make it enjoyable for adults to read (really!), which proves to be a good thing since kids will be begging to read it again and again.

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