Category Archives: preschooler

The School Bus 3rd Birthday and Flower 5th Birthday Mashup Party, Or the Reason Why I am Late on All My Deadlines Right Now

A while ago I asked the kids what they wanted to do for their birthday party this year, just to feel it out. After all, maybe we are past the point of the scrappy apartment shared party? Maybe they have noticed that even though their birthdays are 2 weeks apart, most of their friends don’t have to share birthday parties, so what the hell, they want separate sleepover-at-the-museum parties?

But no, this thought had not occurred to them. Without hesitating, Harper rattled off the ingredients to a perfect party: “Chocolate cake, a pinata full of candy, goody bags with candy — do NOT try to make them healthy [this in a warning tone] — music, dancing, our friends, flowers, NO GAMES, and don’t forget the candy.” Ollie added: “School buses!” Adam had his own list culled from this one, which included name tags (because dads don’t know anyone’s names), lots of beer (or as Ollie put it, “beard for the grownups”), pizza, and a 2-hour window — people were welcome to stay longer, but we served cake like an hour in, so as not to have one of those situations were you are being held hostage by a kids’ party for your whole day. What I learned from doing pretty much this same party last year (when I was also about to have a book release!) and the year before (when we had just moved into our apartment that month!) was that Sunday afternoon parties are the easiest on Mama, because then you have all weekend to pull together all those cute decorations you pinned on your damn Pinterest page and so on.

It was relatively short and sweet, the kids had fun, their friends went home with huge bag of candy and plastic crap including whistles, so now we don’t have to worry about ever having a party again because I’m sure everyone hates us. It was fun for the grownups too, or at least it was for us, which meant we kind of forgot to take pictures of the actual party, but you can imagine how it went down: lots of kids racing around and creating a huge yellow balloon rat-king, smashing our poor beautiful pinata, and Harper and Ollie sneaking off into the other room to salivate over the presents. And now I wash my hands of kid parties until next spring. Good family-planning, us!

Recipe for a Good Day


The funny thing about parenting is that just when you think you have it all figured out, a kid stops napping or starts biting, or schedules change, or you change, and it’s almost like you have to start all over, figuring out how to have a good day. That’s my goal lately, a good day. It’s hard to think bigger than that, and when I start considering Childhood or Theories of Brain Development or What Kind of Parent One Ought to Be I get really tired and need a nap. But my kids don’t nap. So I can’t. Instead I spend a lot of energy trying to make each day good. Not perfect, but good. Each day with little kids is a marathon and a lifetime and a work of art and a mess. Inevitably.

Because I seem to have to relearn this every day, I am writing this to remind myself what helps, at this moment in time — as the kids are almost-3 and almost-5 and still home for most of the day and at the end of a long long winter — for a day to be a good one.

1) Stay busy but flexible. This is a real SAHM thing, to be sure. Maybe it’s because my kids are so, how you say, batshit crazy, it always helps us to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan Z. In this matter give them pretend choices. “Do you want to do X or Other X, both of which I have pre-approved?”

2) Remember to take breaks. Book time in bed. Juice breaks at playdates. Bench-sits at museums and parks. You actually have to make it happen and it actually makes a huge difference. There is no nap anymore. Get over it. Remember that some minutes playing math games on Starfall will not suck their imaginations out of their heads. Chillax, Mama. Break time = important.

3) Invest in healthyish convenience food. Because I am sorry, but few things are as enraging as involving the kids in menu planning and grocery shopping just like the thingy you read said to, spending an hour cooking with “helpers” wobbling on chairs in the galley kitchen, all Montesourri-like, only to end up with a huge mess and food that the kids just look at and cry. Try again with the real food in a year. Until then, fuck it, how bad can Annie’s Mac and Cheese every night be? (Do not read the story about the girl who ate only chicken nuggets for 17 years. Do not hang out with the mom whose kid eats bell peppers at the playground like they are apples. Do not click on any BuzzFeed thingies about any kind of food.)

4) Get out everyday. If nothing else, walk to the mailbox or invent something you need to buy at the store that can be scooted to. Even in the winter. Even when they’re sick. Even when the bundling up takes longer than the outside time.

5) See other grownups/text your friends/look at twitter just enough so you stay sane or at least remember that all the parents are feeling crazy.

6) Keep the ratio of art project setup/cleanup to actual kid-entertainment potential in mind. No wants to clean up fucking cloud dough all night.

7) Remember Pinterest is a liar. Most of the internet is a liar. And nothing entertains kids for hours. Nothing.

8) When possible, don’t react. To hitting, to whining, to acting out. Remember Amy Fusselman, who writes in her memoir 8 that when you are parenting small children, you are a robot. When not reacting is impossible, don’t beat yourself up about it. Tell yourself some shit about how it’s good for kids to see you get mad and calm down or something . That has to be constructive somehow, right? Because you’re not actually a robot, are you? And just imagine how entertaining it must be for your neighbors down the hall to hear you yelling “I SAID STOP BITING YOUR SISTER’S BUTT!!” and how pleasant for them to get to feel kind of superior to you. That’s a great gift, really, that you are offering them. You’re welcome, them!

9) Leave the kids alone. I mean not alone alone but they can play together, and they can be screaming one second and resolve it the next, and you will surely be alerted if the skirmish is unresolvable. You didn’t have 2 kids to have 2 people to have to entertain constantly. You had 2 kids so they would play “kid/grownup” long enough for you to tap out a blog post on your phone!

10) Don’t clean up after they are in bed. Make them help even though it sucks and they do a crap-ass job of sorting the toys into the appropriately-labelled bins so that their room looks nothing like the ones on your really excellent Kids’ Rooms Pinterest page, which remember, is a liar anyway. Or at least let the kids see you do it. After they are in bed, that is your time. A coworker once told me, “I don’t have a clean house. That’s the new feminism.” Take out the trash and load the dishwasher and then read that New York Times article about how a clean house is a sign of a wasted life or just skim it and then read an amazing book instead, or make some art, or call someone, or do something crazy like talk to your husband. Fuck cleaning. Seriously. Unless you like it. In which case you’re crazy.

11) When all else fails, look at the kids’ baby pictures together. They love it, you love it, it helps put everything into perspective.

12) Don’t forget the 3:00 pm coffee. That’s the one that makes it all work.

13) Inevitably, on a crappy day, an old lady will stop you on the street and tell you to enjoy every moment. This is crazy of course and only possible to even consider if you’ve completely forgotten what little kids are like. But you can enjoy one moment. There is one magical moment in every shitstorm of a day, and you’ve got to enjoy the hell out of that moment. Remember, if you can, if for only that one moment of the day about all the wonder. All the goddamned crazy this-is-your-life wonder.




(top image from Emily Winfield Martin’s DREAM ANIMALS.)

Electric Cats in the Garden: A Printable Picture Book

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

Electric Cats in the Garden, Illustration by Peggy Shearn

My grandmother was always making these charming, crazy little picture books for me and my brother, and of course I filed this away as A Thing I Will Definitely Do For My Own Children Someday. Well, right there with make every food from scratch and never say, “Wow, you are being really annoying right now” to their faces, this has mostly gotten shelved. I know, I know — I’m a writer! I should write for my children! Remember how A.A. Milne wrote all those Winnie-the-Pooh stories and poems for his own little son Christopher Robin? Let me tell you something. The real Christopher Robin? Went to boarding school from age 6. And that is how a writer/parent finds the time to document that unmissable magic of childhood. By missing it.

Still, somehow I wrote this story (I hope it’s just a chapter of a longer book, but you know, laundry), using ideas from the children. Harper really pretends to speak Polish quite frequently (also, Arabic and Spanish — Brooklyn public schools!), the kids really do play electric cats, Harper has invented all sorts of facts about said electric cats, she really did once threaten to take Ollie to play in the garden after Adam and I went to bed, Ollie told me that nocturnal creatures run Trader Joe’s at night. My talented mother, Peggy Shearn AKA Nani Peg, was gracious enough to do illustrations, and my talented husband, Adam TetzloffAKA Daddy, laid it all out and made a little book that we gave to the children on Christmas. Predictably, it was quickly buried beneath the wrapping paper of more exciting toys and dolls, but after a day or so it was rediscovered and has been pored over intently since.

So I’ll share it here, and I think you should be able to print it out, although you’ll need to have my husband explain how to make it into an actual booklet because my brain can’t handle the geometry or whatever that is. Here, it’s a PDF: Electric Cats in the Garden

I hope you like it, and that maybe even if your kids are not the actual Harper and Ollie they might like it too! Leave me an encouraging comment so I am shored up to finish the next story. Just kidding, I’m not that needy. Just kidding, of course I am.

Happy New Year!

10 Reading Recommendations from Tiny Humans

The kids, as they are every day.

The kids, as they are every day.

I’ve been so remiss with my kid-book posts here that we have a huge backlog of beloved books. Thus, this truncated version, in case anyone happens to have an almost-two-year-old boy and an almost-four-year-old girl who need to be distracted from the hypnotic, unending horrors that are the Dinosaur Train books (how do they always find those at the library anyway?).

Alton’s Top Five Books for Little Boys With Even Littler Attention Spans:

1) Snuggle Puppy. He loses his mind over this book, he really does. There is nothing cuter than an almost-2-year-old’s “Oooooh…I yuv oo!”

2) Bus Stop. Any book with a vehicle is good with this kid. But this one actually doesn’t make me want to scream. The illustrations are beautiful, with lots of things to find on each page. I mean, “yots.”

3) Brown Bear, What Do You See. Still.

4) Let’s Go For a Drive! Does he really get this book? I have no idea, but it does crack him up. “WAIT!” Maybe he just knows that Brooklyn kids are contractually obligated to love Mo Willems.

5) Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. Highlights: the goat and… the goat. Just the goat, actually.

Mr. Gumpy

Mr. Gumpy and the goat. And some other things, whatever, who cares GOAT!

Harper’s Top 5 Books for Precocious Preschoolers Who Adore Sitting Still:

1) Look… Look Again! We’ve only had this from the library for about 2 days, but Harper has declared it her favorite ever. It’s full of illustrated riddles that make her snort with laughter. Except the one where the pizza eats the chef. That one is scary!

2) Mary and the Mouse, The Mouse and Mary. I’m so glad to tell you that Harper has inherited my childhood love of stories about miniature creatures. This beautiful book is perfect for before you’re old enough for The Borrowers.

3) Jumpy Jack and Googly. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Harper laugh so hard at a book. (And no, she doesn’t find it all ironic that this book is about a monster who’s afraid of everything.)

4) The Snow Globe Family. Ditto. Tiny family sledding in a snow globe! What the what!

5) It’s a Secret.  If you love cats, and dressing up, and little girls having adventures (check, check, check), this is your book.

I didn't even notice, somehow, that this book is also the work of John Burningham! YOU KNOW THE MR GUMPY GUY! How cute is it that the kids have each latched on to their own his-and-hers John Burningham books? I CAN'T STAND IT IT'S TOO CUTE

I didn’t even notice, somehow, that this book is also the work of John Burningham! YOU KNOW THE MR GUMPY GUY! How cute is it that the kids have each latched on to their own his-and-hers John Burningham books? I CAN’T STAND IT IT’S TOO CUTE

Happy Sibling Propaganda

The Adventures of Harper and Ollie in Prospect Park

The Adventures of Harper and Ollie in Prospect Park

A dear friend of mine just had her second child, and, as is already family lore, her older son gazed upon his new brother and welcomed him with a “No. No. No. No.” The mysteries of sibling relationships have been of particular interest to me, obviously, for the past, ohhhh almost 2 years I’d say. I recently met a grown brother and sister who were hanging out together, as they do every weekend, and I asked them their secret. They shrugged and said that their parents always told them it was important for them to be friends. Could it be that simple? Can you make your kids get along with each other?

Now, my children could not be more different in temperament. Every morning Ollie grabs his shoes and stands by the door and points and pleads, “Down!” The great loves of his life are going places, running, yelling, smashing things, kicking things, and trains and also trains. Harper’s favorite thing is to stay in her nightgown all day and to cry, when anyone goes near the door “I’m not going outside!” Left to her own devices, she prefers: sitting quietly and looking at books, sitting quietly and playing with paper dolls, sitting quietly and doing art projects. They do have some common ground in their shared love of jumping up and down, which I’m sure our downstairs neighbors find incredibly charming.

Just in case we have some say in the matter, ever since Ollie was born nary a fortnight after Harper’s second birthday, we have been waging a full-on assault of sibling-relationship information warfare. The thought is, if kids become what they are told, or even if any of it rubs off a tiny bit, might as well tell them over and over: “You are best friends. Brothers and sisters stick together. You are a team. Not only that, you are psyched to share a room. GO FAMILY!”

In this vein, we bombard them with the ruthlessness of communist USSR propogandists. I’m not talking about “there’s a new baby in the house” type books, most of which take a “and that’s a bummer” tack. I mean just nice models of nice siblings.


Harper still loves everything Charlie and Lola. (Saw the cartoon once, wasn’t terribly interested. But the books! Oh the books!) Siblings who share a room and are nice to each other. Check.  Big sibling looks after little sibling. Check check. So we assign Charlie and Lola studies at least once a day.

The Magic Treehouse books, which I mentioned in my roundup of chapter books, features a non-squabbling brother/sister pair who goes on great adventures together. Perfect. I like to throw a little notebook in a backpack and tell Harper she and Ollie are Jack and Annie and goodbye, have fun with the dinosaurs.

Runners-up: Max and Ruby, though Ruby is a bit bossy if you ask me. But Max, with his non-verbal, grinning mischeviousness, is a pretty good stand in for our own baby brother character.


We’ve just discovered the Olive Us video series and are all pretty obsessed. These lovely, under-5-minute videos show an adorable family of 6 (!) siblings having sweet, wholesome fun together while wearing really cute clothes. Mountain picnics. Making cookies. Washing the car. The best.

Learning by Rote:

Adam brilliantly instituted a program called “The Adventures of Harper and Ollie on Earth.” This started off as a simple homemade binder to hold drawings we collaborate on, of adventures Harper and Ollie had, have, or may someday have, and has really taken off. Harper always wants to draw Harper and Ollie stories (sample quote: “Ollie! Get away! I want to draw a Harper and Ollie story!”), about, say, when they are grownups and live together in Manhattan, where it is fancy, and ride their scooters together to the café. Or else, when they go skydiving together, holding on to a rope that is taped to the sky. Now that she is starting to draw figures and faces herself this is even less work for us, and the result is a cuter-than-cute scrapbook of hypothetical sibling adventures dreamed up while one sibling was napping.

Any other happy sibling propaganda we should check out? We’re committed to making this life-long psychological experiment work. I’m pretty excited to meet them in Manhattan for lunch circa 2033.


3 Chapter Books for 3 Year-Olds

I wrote here a while back about how Harper and I fell hopelessly in love with the Winnie-the-Pooh gang.  What I haven’t mentioned is that this sent us on a wormhole-ish hunt for toddler-friendly chapter books. It is really so fun to read chapter books together – the curling up, the flicker in her eyes as she pictures a scene, or asks me to repeat a detail so she can really really picture it — and it is also, I’ve found, really hard to find just the right books that she can follow, aren’t too dark or complicated, and have enough pictures but not too many. And that don’t involve dying parents. Or dying anyone. We’re just not there yet (thankfully!). I mean, Harper thought the Heffalump was terrifying.

Here are our findings so far:

1. Jenny and the Cat Club, by Esther Averill

"Time is nothing to a cat when he is dancing."

“Time is nothing to a cat when he is dancing.”

This is, next to the Winnie-the-Pooh books, our biggest hit so far. Harper has been playing Jenny Linsky, drawing Jenny Linsky, telling stories about Jenny Linsky, ever since she recovered from the shock of receiving this (deceivingly!) boring-looking chapter book as a Hanukkah present. Esther Averill’s stories about Jenny Linsky, a shy yet brave little black cat who lives with her master, Captain Tinker, in Greenwich Village, are just nonstop charming. There is nothing scarier than a mean dog who steals Jenny’s signature red scarf – this episode made Harper hyperventilate with anxiety, both at the meanness of the dog, and the great crime of a theft of an accessory. Throughout these sweet stories, Jenny deals with issues like her shyness, smallness, and learning to be generous, all big issues in a preschooler’s life.

For here is the rub – I find that other chapter books, probably naturally, address questions Harper hasn’t even started to consider yet, like getting teased by mean kids. I am so thankful, particularly in the face of horrifying recent events, that this is so – that Harper still lives in a sweet little bubble where her biggest issues are her brother, Hair Puller Extraordinaire, and that sometimes her annoying mama wants her to brush her teeth, and that the meanest person she knows is her imaginary friend Murray. So in that vein, I find that older books, somehow, are the only ones that can manage to be innocent enough for this highly sensitive kiddo. Isn’t that a little weird and sad?

Anyway, good thing this book has been reprinted by the excellent New York Review Children’s Collection, and is just such a lovely object, full of charming drawings, that I find myself looking through it again and again (and unable to choose illustrations to share because they are all the best one). Best of all, this is part of series, so we can read even more about our dear little J. Linsky, as Harper likes to call her.

2. The Magic Treehouse: Dinosaurs Before Dark

I heard about Mary Pope Osbourne’s insanely popular series on, who knows, probably Pinterest. Apparently all kids everywhere love it, though I, elderly ignoramous!, had never heard of it. Harper and I had a very lovely afternoon at a local coffeeshop having hot chocolate and tearing through chapter after chapter of this first book in the series, Dinosaurs Before Dark. She liked studying the pictures, and most of all she liked the idea (as did I!) of this magic treehouse full of magic books (!!!!!!!), and the brother and sister who have adventures together. She was carrying around a notebook and backpack for a few days, just like Jack and Annie in the book. I thought we were really on to something. But somehow the next books in the series have not held her interest. I think they’re a bit too complicated – there’s all this business with magicians and Merlin and legends. But that first one, wow, what a page-turner it was! And we love happy-sibling-propaganda. So this was a good one too.

3. A Bear Called Paddington

I’m cheating a bit here, because we’ve only read one chapter of this book, which Harper’s grandmother gave her for Christmas – Harper’s daddy’s childhood copy! This has been fun for me to discover too, though, since somehow I missed the whole Paddington phenomenon as a kid. Were you aware Paddington is a real bear? From Peru? (Excuse me, darkest Peru?)Who comes to live with a family in London? There aren’t quite enough pictures for Harper’s tastes, and there is that problem familiar to us from our painstaking attempts at Stuart Little of the humor being largely pitched to witty adults, but one chapter in, so far so good. I even heard some stories being muttered about darkest Peru in one of Harper’s marathon story-telling-sessions. Chapter two happens tonight. Wish us luck!

Any other good chapter books for the very wee we’re missing? I have been remiss, by the way, in not thanking lovely commenter Genevieve who this summer led us to many awesome wordless picture books, including our favorite, You Can’t Bring a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum. Genevieve, are you out there? Do you know about chapter books too??

The Read Balloon: Virginia Woolf for Little Wolves

Virginia Wolf, written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, just especially for me. Wasn’t that nice of them?

I fell in love with this book the moment I saw its title: Virginia Wolf. Never before has a picture book seemed so obviously created specifically for me. I had this crazy friend in high school who did too many drugs and, worse, read too much philosophy and became convinced that the he was the only person who was actually real, and that the world he knew was an elaborately designed set (this preceded The Matrix, mind you), and every once in a while something would happened that, due to some strange serendipity, would seem to him to be proof that this was so. Anyway, I thought of him, the dear fruitcake, when I happened upon this book in the library – I actually looked around, like, really? This book is happening to me? I love Virginia Woolf. No, like, LOVE love. I love the Bloomsbury Group, the art, the thinkers, its shocking sexy-bookishness back when that had the ability to shock, all of it.  I love pretty picture books with extravagantly colorful illustrations, particularly if they concern strange little girls, especially siblings. Hello, book! Thank you for existing!

This book is a loose interpretation of the relationship between Virginia Woolf, grumpy writer, and her sister, Vanessa Bell, painter and proponent of the everything-beautiful life way before Pinterest. So I would probably like it anyway, but I am particularly charmed by the poetic text – I love kids’ books that don’t talk down to kids – and its portrait of sisterhood, and the idea that connecting with things that make you happy can lift you out of a wolfish funk. (And I’m so pleased and not at all surprised to see that this beautiful book has just won some fancy-shmancy Canadian literary award.)

That said, I couldn’t really get Harper to comment on this book. She very much enjoyed the trick of Virginia’s wolfish ears transforming into a point hair bow (we all have those days), but other than that I have to admit she wasn’t as in love with the book as I was. When pressed, she said only, “She says too many mean things.” So I said, “Honey, you don’t have to be nice and happy all the time just because you’re a girl, you know. It’s okay to have wolfish feelings, to need help dealing with them.” JK, I sighed and said, “Fine, you don’t have to help me write my blog post. We can play with Photo Booth instead.”

But the book is, in truth, not only more fun than playing with Photo Booth, it’s also led me to the other works of Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault. Don’t you love that buzzy feeling when you’ve discovered some new (to you) artists?

Here, a lovely book trailer that doubles as some good advice for wolfish moods.