5 Remembered Gems

Today's review is a little different;
It's five children's books that I particularly remember being read to me, around 5-6 years old. If I remembered them distinctly enough to find them by searching for a phrase out of them fifteen years later, you know they are memorable!!

1. Something from Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman
My five-year-old Sunday School teacher (Mrs. Hamner) was amazing. I still remember quite a bit of what I learned in her class ("Count Your Blessings," "Standing on the Promises," the books of the Bible...). She would often bring in elements of her every-day kindergarden class into our Sunday School, like snacks starting with each letter of the alphabet, and story books, such as this one. I remember very distinctly how she read its recurring phrase "It's time to throw it out!" with a perfect Yiddish accent. :)

Joseph's tailor grandfather made him a beautiful blue blanket when he was a baby. As it gets old, it wears out until his mother threatens to "throw it out!" Confident in Grandfather's ability, Joseph takes it to him. The result is a coat, followed by a vest, then a tie, then a cloth button. By the time that is lost, Joseph has caught onto the spirit of recycling and decides that he can make a great story out of "nothing"! What a sweet story of familial love, resourcefulness, the temporary nature of even precious keepsakes, and the power of words to endure. It's a great antidote to today's upgrade-obsessed, disposable consumer culture. Parents can even use this little story to point to Matthew 24:35- “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words (God's) will never pass away.” The illustrations are intricate and lush-- kids will love watching the parallel mouse-family story going on in the floorboards!

Note: (the book Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback follows the same storyline and has very fun, award-winning, illustrations. But it isn't the one I remember from 20 years ago. =D)

2. Tikki-tikki-tembo, by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent

I remember the gentleman who came to read this to my first-grade class, especially his deep voice on Old-Man-with-the-Ladder's line "out with the bad air/ in with good air" (can you tell I'm an aurally inclined?). The bright, simple wash and line illustrations perfectly complement this retelling of an old Chinese folktale. Apparently, it was long ago the custom for proud Chinese parents to name their "first and honored sons" with extremely long names with grand meanings. When Chang, the second son, falls in the well, his brother is quickly able to get him help and no harm is done him. But when his honored older brother falls in, it takes poor little Chang so long to say "Tikki-tikki-tembo-no-sa-rembo-cherri-berri-rucchi-pip-peri-pembo" (whew! how's that for from memory?) that his brother is nearly drowned. Kids absolutely relish chanting the exceedingly long name, and parents appreciate the tongue-in-cheek reminder to not place too many burdens of family pride their children.

Interestingly the pattern of a firstborn with a grandiose name, and a second-born with a lesser name is seen in the very first brothers: Cain & Abel. "Cain" reflects the idea of possessing, acquiring or gaining (his mother cries "with the help of the Lord I have gotten a man!"). Abel's name means breath, vapor, or nothing. (Genesis 4:1-2)

3. The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton
My dad read this to me nearly daily. I love the simple illustrations, and the story appealed to my love for rural life, strong even as a young child. The story is simple and powerful: a sturdy, pretty, well-built little house watches the seasons go by and appreciates the beauties in each one. Slowly, slowly, a town grows up around it, until the little house is a dilapidated husk of what it was, eclipsed by the skyscrapers crowding around it. A young woman recognizes the house for what it once was and could be again, and rescues it, returning it to the country and the open sky. Virginia Lee Burton remains one of my favorite author-illustrators.

Parents can also use this book to begin discussions on (or augment study on) seasons, the difference between urban & rural living, aging, and redemption/rescue.

4. The Five Chinese Brothers, by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
This was another one read aloud to me in my public-school first grade classroom. It came back to me in my hour of need, when I lived with a missionary family and their 5-year-old son repeatedly begged me for "please, one more story?" I haven't met a kid who didn't love this tale of justice mixed with cleverness. The black, grey and yellow illustrations add to the foreign feel to this Chinese folktale.

Five Chinese brothers lived with their mother by the sea. Each had a unique power despite their identical appearance. The first brother, for example, can swallow the sea. When he is unfairly accused of a crime and condemned to death, the judge allows him to visit his mother to tell her goodbye, and his second brother takes his place. That brother (coincidentally) is immune to the type of death they planned to inflict on him (due to his superpower). This happens four times, with each brother replacing the brother above him, until finally the judge declares that "since we cannot kill you, you must be innocent!" This story is especially fun to tell with voices, as there are only 2 speaking characters-- the bothers (which all sound alike) and the judge. I can well imagine an old grandfather cackling with delight as he spins this out for a captive audience. Don't worry-- I've never met a child who was frightened instead of delighted with this tale (and it has made its rounds!).

This could be a fun way to discuss familial similarities and differences.

5. The Little Engine that Could, by Watty Piper (I prefer the old illustrations, done by George & Doris Hauman)
I still have my hardback copy of this childhood favorite, and I can still hear my mother's voice chanting "I think I can/I think I can/ I think I can!" You probably know the tale: a train is stranded, unable to deliver her goodies to the "good little girls & boys on the other side of the mountain." The passengers of the train plead with both the Shiny New Engine and the Big Strong Engine to help them, and are disdainfully scorned. "Hah! I pull the likes of you?" Finally, a little train comes by-- just a small little engine, but with a kind and willing heart. She agrees to try, and motivating herself with the well-remembered chant, she slowly and steadily makes her way up the mountain and down to the other side.

This story is so full of conversation hooks! For starters, there's the attitude contrast between the self-forgetful little train, and the two self-important ones. Far from being solely about the power of positive thinking, there is the idea that being power turned in on yourself is wasted, while anything devoted to the service of others is used! I also have used it as a parallel to the story of the Good Samaritan.

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