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  • Children's book reviews by Jennifer Sykes

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Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Last year, I was volunteering in my daughter’s first grade class when a little boy told me a knock-knock joke.

Knock knock!
Who’s there?
Interrupting Cow!
Interrupting Cow, wh–

This was cute  — the first 32 times, at least — so when I saw Interrupting Chicken on the shelf at our library, I thought of that joke and how much fun it was for the miniature comedian.  This book is just as fun.

This 40-page picture book features a father chicken and his daughter reading bedtime stories.  Papa reminds the little chicken before he begins reading that she should not interrupt the story.  And, yet, as the title suggests, she just cannot help herself.   She should really come with a spoiler alert, since she not only interrupts, she interrupts with a way for the story characters to save themselves or solve their problems.  Papa tries a few different classic stories, but the anticipation and knowing the ending proves too much for her.  She interrupts each time!   He finally gives up and asks the little chicken to tell him a bedtime story of her own creation.

Author and illustrator David Ezra Stein has created a colorful and humorous story that is likely quite familiar to many families.  Interrupting Chicken is a 2011 Caldecott Honor Book, and it’s no wonder why.  It’s enjoyable for adults and kids alike, and it gives parents a great springboard to talk about social skills and turn-taking.

Give it a whirl at bedtime and see if your little chickens can guess the ending — mine didn’t!

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.

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