Picture Books as Performance

May 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

I recently tuned into the podcast Picturebooking, where Mac Barnett was being interviewed by host Nick Patton. It was fortuitous timing, because earlier that day I had told a friend that I thought Barnett’s newest picture book, The Great Zapfino (Ages 3-6), an almost wordless story in partnership with the great Marla Frazee, was one of the most brilliant and exciting wordless picture books I’d ever seen. But I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why.

Wordless picture books are a hard sell for parents. I could sit here all day and list the ways they build early literacy skills in young children (and I once did, here, with our family’s favorite wordless trilogy), but when it comes down to it, they just don’t seem like they’re going to be much fun to read aloud.

That’s because there’s a performative element to picture books that feels like it’s getting lost in the absence of words. On the podcast, Mac Barnett talks about how the story of a picture book cannot exist independent of its delivery. And that delivery changes every single time. No parent or teacher will read aloud the same book in quite the same way, with the same cadence or expression or energy, not to mention with the same participatory feedback from their young audience, which means that once an author unleashes a picture book into the world, it becomes a living, breathing entity. It becomes performance art.

When we adult readers are looking to entertain our listeners, we understandably look to text, both to build a story’s arc and to provide us with the dialogue to exercise our comedic or dramatic voices. In the absence of text, when we must look to pictorial representation for meaning, we’re unsure how to translate what we’re seeing aloud. We feel a bit adrift. We forget that what feels awkward to us is actually part of the charm of wordless books for children: they have to work a bit harder, participate in the read-aloud experience a bit more, but the payoff of discovery is that much sweeter.

Creating a picture book guaranteed to hold a listener’s attention no matter how it’s read is no easy feat, but Mac Barnett has proved himself infallible. Everything he touches has slam-dunk crowd appeal. (Spoiler alert: I’ve already chosen his forthcoming fall release, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, for this year’s Holiday Gift Guide!) In the case of The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett has done something highly effective. He front loads the book with two pages of text—the words of a circus ringmaster, introducing his biggest act—before letting Marla Frazee’s spectacular illustrations tell the rest of the story. This means that right out of the gate, he satisfies our desire for a fun, over-the-top character voice, then uses that voice to invest the listener in what’s to come. Right out of the gate, we’re poised for the performance in these pages.

But The Great Zapfino isn’t just a picture book that performs well. It’s also a story about a literal performance. And not the one we think we’re getting from the book’s opening pages, either. Because the Great Zapfino is about to blow it. He’s about to throw away his big shot in a public spectacle of embarrassment. But he’s also about to rewrite his own script, cast himself in a different role, and give himself the time and permission for second chances. His performance, we come to realize, is the performance of life, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.

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For the Sensitive Souls (A Post for Mental Health Awareness Month)

May 12, 2022 § 4 Comments

All the time I get asked, What’s a good book for my [insert: nervous, fearful, shy, super sensitive] kid? With everything this crazy world has been dishing out, even kids who aren’t naturally wired towards sensitivity are struggling under the weight of big, heavy, messy emotions. And, as parents, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make the discomfort go away.

My firstborn is an immensely sensitive child. My husband and I joke that he’s a raw nerve walking around on two legs, and the whiplash from highs to lows and back again is not always easy to witness.

Five years ago—I would remember it like it was yesterday, even if I hadn’t journaled about it at the time—my son looked on as garbage workers hauled away our twenty-year-old sofa. We had spent a few weeks trying to donate the sofa, but with a frayed slipcover and sunken cushions, no one seemed to want it.

The hysteria peaked as the garbage truck drove away. The garbage men didn’t treat it well! he wailed. They broke it apart! They tore off the slipcover! It went into the truck in PIECES! They treated it no differently than a container of moldy food! I know it was ripped and didn’t look very good, but it was so comfortable. It made us happy for so long. It should have gone to a good home! It still had life left to give! It could have made people happy! Now, IT’S RUINED!

For a long time, my maternal response to such spectacles was, MAKE. IT. STOP. You’re fine. Here are all the ways that what you’re losing your mind over isn’t actually that bad. Just please stop suffering because my heart cannot take it and also I feel very out of control right now.

But if my son’s extreme responses to everyday life were hard on me, they were a million times harder on him—and often brought with them feelings of shame and loneliness.

I’d like to tell you there was a single turning point for me, but I think it was probably lots of little signs along the way that pointed towards re-framing this sensitivity for both him and me. We began to regard it, not as a condition to overcome, but as a superpower of sorts. You won’t find a more empathetic kid than my son. A more grateful one, too. I could never add up the number of times he has hugged us before bed and said, “Today was the best day of my life.” (Lots more have been the “worst,” of course.)

If, in these turbulent moments, I don’t let his emotions hijack mine—easier said than done, of course—there is usually a nugget of truth telling that can inform my life, our life, for the better. “We did try and donate the sofa,” I reminded him. “Well, maybe someone was afraid to come forward, afraid for us to see their poverty,” he said. “We could have done more, Mommy.” I haven’t forgotten this exchange. Because he’s not wrong. He keeps me honest to the plight of others. He keeps me honest to the plight of himself.

Today, I’m sharing two important new picture books that I wish I’d had when my son was younger. That I wish I’d had for my daughter, too, who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from her brother, keeping her feelings close to the breast, wary of betraying vulnerability, wary of losing control (can’t imagine who she gets that from). Embedded in their charming, gorgeously illustrated stories, Deborah Marcero’s Out of a Jar (Ages 4-8) and Colter Jackson’s The Rhino Suit (Ages 4-8) employ creative, effective metaphors to explore the temptation to bottle up big, messy emotions and shelve them out of sight. To trap them on the other side of a coat of armor. Both stories ask their young readers to consider the good that might come from leaning into, not away from, uncomfortable emotions. Leaning into sensitivity, rather than fearing or disguising it.

There’s plenty of truth telling in these books for the parents and caregivers of sensitive kids, too.

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Four New Faves Celebrating Mamas and Grandmas

May 5, 2022 § 6 Comments

(Warning: I put on my most matronly dress to rage at the patriarchy.) Ouch, it’s a tough week to be a woman in this country. A tough week to contemplate the future for our daughters—and, let’s be honest, our sons, since a woman’s right to exercise autonomy over her body has always been inherently linked to the opposite sex. To say nothing of the repercussions SCOTUS’ decision will have for Black or Indigenous populations, or those living below the poverty line, or the precedent this could set for overturning protections for the LGBTQ+ community. We have only to dig into history to see that progress is never a straight line, but it’s one thing to recognize this and another to live it, to watch the work of generations collapse in a single moment. The list is growing long for horrifying things I never expected to witness in my lifetime.

Now, here we are, staring down Mother’s Day, an already complicated holiday for those mourning mothers, mourning children, mourning dreams of having children—and a day that now feels even more loaded, weighed down with the understanding that a woman’s body can be at once celebrated for its childbearing and stripped of its rights.

This is a cheery post, eh? Don’t worry, I promise we’re going to talk about some beautiful, uplifting, joyful books in just a second.

Yes, it’s a tough moment in history to be a woman. But, let’s not kid ourselves: it has always been a tough time to be a woman. Voting rights, equal pay, maternity leave, working outside the home, the right to wear pants, for crying out loud: the list for what women have been made to suffer is endless.

And still, I love being a woman. I love being a mom. I love following in the legacy of the curious, courageous, complicated women who raised me. When the fear of raising a daughter creeps in during times like this, I remember the strength of my own mother and grandmothers. My mom, who suffered the greatest heartbreak imaginable in the sudden death of my father at 51 and rallied to step into roles and master tasks she’d never imagined for herself, for the sake of her teenage daughters. My one grandmother, who for years endured physical pain without a word of complaint, because she didn’t want to miss out on a single family activity. My other grandmother, who attended science lectures in her 90s where she was the only woman, not because she knew anything about the topic, but because her own children and grandchildren’s involvement in the world had inspired her to expand her mind.

Today, I’m highlighting four new picture books that star formidable mothers and grandmothers—the kind I aspire to be, the kind who remind me that we will not go quietly into the night. Not when we know better, not when we’ve learned from the best. (You can also refer back to some older posts for favorites, like this, this, this, and this.)

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Poetry to Re-Frame Our World

April 28, 2022 § 2 Comments

You didn’t actually think I’d let National Poetry Month go without loving on a few new poetry books, did you? Now wait. I know poetry scares some of us—or scares our kids—but, like with everything from green vegetables to voting, early and often are the keys to success. National Poetry Month will always be a great excuse to infuse our shelves with a new title or three—and maybe re-visit a few that have been languishing. Getting kids comfortable around poetry means deepening their relationship with language, especially figurative language, which will carry them far in any creative pursuit, not to mention the non-linear thinking increasingly rewarded in business.

My greatest parenting win around the subject of poetry remains the year we read a poem from this gorgeous anthology every morning over breakfast. I heartily recommend forgoing conversation for poetry in the mornings! (I hear caffeine’s good, too.) When a new title came out in this same series last fall, I had high hopes we’d rekindle this ritual, but with my teen out the door so much earlier than his sister, this hasn’t happened.

So, consider today’s post as much about my own need to recommit to poetry—something my kids rarely gravitate towards without a nudge—as about inspiring you to do the same. In that vein, I’ve got two vastly different new poetry picture books: one for the preschool crowd and the other for elementary kids. The first is an absolute delight to read aloud, while the second is perhaps better left for independent readers to contemplate privately.

Take Off Your Brave: The World Through the Eyes of a Preschool Poet (Ages 3-6) is a collection of poems written by an actual four-year-old boy named Nadim, using his Mom as a “dictaphone.” Talk about making poetry feel accessible to kids! Here, Nadim gives us a window into the way he sees the world: his dream school, his best things, his “scared-sugar” feelings. Each poem is playfully brought to life by award-winning illustrator, Yasmeen Ismail.

Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek’s Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech (Ages 8-12, though adults will love this, too) is one of the most simultaneously quirky and powerful poetry collections I’ve encountered, a look at what happens when we unleash our imaginations on the natural elements around us. And it’s as much an art book as a poetry book! Artist Richard Jones is already getting Caldecott buzz for his gorgeous, full-bleed illustrations that accompany each of the 28 poems.

Both of these special books speak to the magic of poetry: the way it enables us to process the creative, off-kilter, silly, sometimes contradictory ways we see or experience the world. For as many hang-ups as we have around poetry—its perceived obtuseness, its relegation to the realm of intellectuals—these books remind us that poetry is as simple as conjuring a moment and penning it in a non-traditional way. These poems celebrate the poets in all of us.

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A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

April 14, 2022 § Leave a comment

Last week, after a two-year interruption, my daughter and I returned to one of our favorite annual traditions: we took the train up to New York City to stay with my mom and explore the magical city where I grew up. Among the many adventures we had waited too long for, I took my daughter to Broadway for the first time, where we sat spellbound before the green lights and belting voices of Wicked. (I had actually seen the show as a Christmas present in 2003 with the original cast, including Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, and I was worried no subsequent production could live up. As it turns out, it was every bit as incredible.)

Each time I take one of my kids to New York, I try and pick a special chapter book to read to them—bonus if it’s NYC-themed. (Past trips have featured this and this.) This year, I had my eye on the lavishly illustrated new chapter book, Cress Watercress (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which has absolutely nothing to do with New York City, but does happen to be written by Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel behind the Broadway show on our itinerary.  How’s that for sneaky?

Y’all. I know I get excited about a lot of books here. But this one is really, really special. A more widely appealing family read aloud you won’t find. A more fitting read for springtime you won’t find. A wittier, more darling, more deeply felt story you won’t find. This tale about a bunny named Cress, forced to relocate with her mother and baby brother in the forest after the devastating loss of her father, is about the highs and lows of starting over: of making a home, finding your people, and learning that it’s possible to make do with “good enough” when “good” is out of reach. It’s a story about love, sorrow, creativity, and renewal—and it’s penned with a depth that elevates it above your typical middle-grade animal story.

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Healing in Color

March 31, 2022 § 4 Comments

Two days before we were scheduled to move across the country, when my oldest was just shy of three years old, he broke his leg. My husband and I had left him with my in-laws outside Chicago, while we dashed back into the city to close on our house and run a few final errands. As I sat in the chair at the hairdresser, where my biggest concern was whether I’d ever find someone to cut my hair again, my phone rang. My mother in law wanted me to know that while my son and our dog had been playing, the dog had stepped on his leg. Now he couldn’t walk. They were on their way to the ER.

Did I mention I was pregnant with our second and, owing to a recurrence of pelvic joint disorder, could barely walk myself? I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a not-quite three year old with a full leg cast can’t exactly use crutches.

Fast forward 48 hours, when my husband moved to Washington, D.C. without us, and I spent the next month bunking in with my in-laws, while they took turns carrying my son and I hobbled along behind them. In the meantime, my husband toured possible places for us to live and sent us blurry pictures. My son demanded to read his Curious George books so many times that my mother-in-law and I nearly came to blows over whether a poorly behaved monkey was the best role model for a human boy. I ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection. It was…an interesting time.

And yet, when I think about my boy through all of this, my recollection is that he was often ridiculously happy. Happy to spend the first few days on the couch, as friends sent care packages and he got to watch more shows than he’d dreamed possible. Happy to spend the next few weeks swinging on porch swings, blowing bubbles, and doing loops on a local antique train. Happy his cast was the brightest shade of green, his favorite color since he was old enough to talk. Happy for bonus time with his biggest fans.

I’ll always remember him holding court on the patio, where we ate every meal that month. (Just like I’ll always remember how grateful I was for my mother-in-law’s cooking.)

But I also remember that, even as he seemed unstoppable when the cast became a walking boot, and when we left my in-laws to visit my own grandmother and tear up and down the beach along Lake Erie, he was surprisingly hesitant when he finally got his boot off. The heavy, itchy accoutrements may have been gone, but they’d left him a stranger in his body. I remember saying, “It’s OK! Come on! Your leg is as good as new!” And he would look down and continue to walk a little funny.

How tempting it is—especially for us parents—to gloss over our children’s trauma. As if, by focusing on the shiny, perfect future, we can pretend the suffering never happened.

In her gentle, insightful new picture book, Out on a Limb (Ages 4-8), author Jordan Morris speaks to the role of courage and patience in the healing process, as a girl recovers from a broken leg, moving from the novelty of sporting a cast to the awkwardness of being without it. Substitute a green cast for a yellow one, and the similarities between this girl’s story and my son’s are plentiful, including an inter-generational component. But you don’t need experience in the broken bones department to enjoy this book, especially when you factor in Charlie Mylie’s gorgeous graphite art, rendered in a largely black-and-white palette with intentional splashes of color. Many children will spark to this story of reclaiming childhood joy in the aftermath of interruption.  

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Our Words Matter

March 17, 2022 § 1 Comment

Surprising as this may sound, my son will tell you that one of his happiest memories is the day we told him he had ADHD. (He has given me his blessing to share this story here.) After years of angry outbursts, struggles to complete assignments, feeling like he didn’t fit in, and an approach to writing defined largely by paralysis, suddenly he had answers. He had clarity. He had a path before him that was not without more struggle but was also well-trodden, ripe with options, ready with support. Plus, he had a community—the Percy Jacksons of the world—who had this in common with him, many of them with inspiring stories of success to share.

All of this relieved a burden he had carried around, often without realizing it, for years. Overnight, he had been given a missing piece to the puzzle of himself.

But when I consider that this moment held so much joy for him, when it just as easily could have spurred fear, shame, or intimidation, I also credit the way we presented the diagnosis. After years of meeting his behavior with exasperation, concern, and (gulp) disappointment, this time we got it right.

On the heels of a neuro-psychological evaluation, my husband and I sat on my son’s bed, on a Saturday morning, and shared a colorful diagram I’d penned the night before. This single piece of paper attempted to capture my son’s learning profile: what his ADHD makes difficult, alongside the litany of strengths his unique wiring offers, like creativity, empathy, an insatiable quest for knowledge, and the superpower of hyper-focus when it comes to things he loves. His neurodiverse brain was all there, in its colorful, complex magnificence.

Bless second chances in parenting, because it was the magnificence piece that came through loud and clear that morning. In many ways, the process of having our son tested was as re-framing for us as it was for him. It helped us to see all of him, instead of just the parts that had monopolized the emotional space in our house in recent years. Somewhere along the way, in our obsession with trying to puzzle him out, we’d lost sight of reminding him, with our words and our actions, how deeply loved he is. How special he is. How miraculous he is.

Progress is rarely a straight line, and I won’t pretend my words don’t sometimes still veer too far in the direction of annoyance over acceptance. But I have become more cognizant of the power my words wield over the way my children see themselves. And that sometimes I need to check my own expectations at the door—my own ideas of what success or bravery or “normal” looks like—to land on the words my kids most need to hear.

Lala’s Words (Ages 4-8) isn’t about a child with any particular diagnosis. In fact, author-illustrator Gracey Zhang, a rising star just awarded the 2022 Ezra Jack Keats Medal for this brilliant and perceptive debut picture book, dedicates her book to “The Lala in All of Us,” a tribute to the universal desire to be seen, loved, and believed in for who we are. At the same time, it’s a story about a girl who doesn’t fit the model of success that her mother sets out for her. A girl who meets with more exasperation than encouragement. It’s a story that resonates deeply with me, a parent who once nearly lost sight of the magic in her own child.

And it’s a reminder that, if we look closely enough, our children will tell us exactly what they need to hear to blossom and thrive.

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Early Reading Round Up: Graphic Novels

March 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

A year has passed since my last Early Reading Round Up, where I shared recommendations for kicking off the daunting process of learning to read, as well as some early chapter books for those graduating into independent reading. (I also talked about my own parenting epiphany, learned the hard way, about how we can best support our budding readers.) Today, I thought I’d specifically highlight some new(ish) graphic novels targeted at beginning and newly independent readers.

With compelling visuals and an ability to tackle a wide range of genres and subject matter, graphic novels have become wildly popular in recent years, not just for that so-called “reluctant reader” but for nearly every kind of elementary and tween reader. So, it comes as no surprise that they’re also getting dedicated attention from publishers when it comes to younger kids, including those new to reading. THIS IS A GREAT THING.

If you’re new to the idea that “graphic novels count as real reading,” you can reference an older post with my Top Ten Reasons why encouraging your kids to read graphic novels (including comics) translates into literacy skills and a love of reading. And why, given a culture big on visual stimulation and light on free time, our kids are so enticed by this format. All of these things hold true for early readers, too. In fact, Mo Willems’ hugely popular “Elephant and Piggie” books—a big driver for both my kids when they were learning to read—are, in fact, graphic novels. They tell their stories through sequential art and speech bubbles, albeit in a highly simplified way.

The books below are presented in ascending order of reading level. All of them are a step up from “Elephant and Piggie,” and some are divided into chapters, ideal for the newly independent reader who is looking for momentum to solidify literacy skills and equate reading with pleasure. Plus, all of them are short enough to prompt repeat readings, a reason to feel extra good about investing in these books.

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Welcoming Absurdity

February 24, 2022 § Leave a comment

Last week, on an episode of the podcast, “We Can Do Hard Things” (fess up, I know you listen, too), Glennon Doyle pronounced that the 2022 vibe most worthy of embracing is “absurdity.” We’re “fresh out of giddy-up,” she says. The last two years have depleted every ounce of resiliency we had, leaving us largely “dead inside.” In her line of reasoning, it follows that the only antidote to this zombie-like state is the Theater of the Absurd.

I immediately thought of Alice B. McGinty’s absurd—and absurdly funny—new picture book, Bathe the Cat (Ages 3-6), brilliantly illustrated as per usual by David Roberts (you know him from the beloved “Questioneers” series—most recently, Aaron Slater, Illustrator). While a family scrambles to ready their house for Grandma’s visit, their pet cat repeatedly and mischievously scrambles the chore list—spelled out in magnetic letters on the fridge—resulting in a mayhem of misunderstandings. Sweep the dishes? Scrub the fishes? Mop the baby? Bathe the mat? Just you wait.

Bathe the Cat is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. The rhyming text relishes being read aloud, and the giggles will only increase with repeat readings. We’re well outside the age range over here, and my kids were still delighted by it. Much the way the four of us have been delighting in our new doodle puppy, who can’t manage to chase a ball across the wood floor without at least three of his legs splaying in different directions. Whose muppet face breaks out into the silliest lopsided grin when you scratch his neck, and whose paws move to their own mysterious beat when he’s sleeping.

Yes, our home has welcomed its own brand of absurdity in the past six weeks, and it does feel a bit like shaking off the grogginess from a nap that’s gone on too long. Who knew watching a dog run after a ball and come back with a stick could be so entertaining? “He’s proud as a pumpkin!” my son recently said, as the dog paraded around the living room with a piece of bubble wrap in his mouth. Rather than correcting the metaphor, we merely adopted it as our new Fozzie-speak.

But back to today’s book. Because there’s something else you need to know, beyond the entertaining premise, high-energy illustrations, and purr-fect ending (trust me on that last one). The story centers a biracial family of five, headed up by two dads. In the publishing industry, the is called “incidental” representation, and it’s something to celebrate. We are finally beginning to see racial and LGBTQ+ diversity in stories that are not about that diversity. The two dads here are simply doing what families with babies and toddlers do best: rolling up their sleeves, keeping a sense of humor, and trying to survive Grandma’s visit.

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Expressing Love in Extraordinary Times

February 18, 2022 § 2 Comments

This past Monday was Valentine’s Day, and when my daughter got home from school, I read a picture book to her while she had her snack, as we do most afternoons. (One more time for the back row: older kids continue to enjoy a litany of benefits from picture books!) For the simple reason that “love” was in the title, I grabbed Love in the Library (Ages 6-10) off a pile of book mail I’d just received. I had done such a cursory scan of the cover that I assumed it would be a sweet story about two people falling in love in a library. Or falling in love with books. In any case, a story that had been told before, in one way or another.

Had I looked more closely at the cover, I would have noticed that the view through the window behind the central figures—an armed guard in a tower above a barbed wire fence—starkly juxtaposes the smiles, expressive body language, and colorful book covers of the interior setting.

By the time I finished reading the book, I had tears in my eyes. By the time I finished the Author’s Note, I had chills across my entire body. My daughter echoed aloud what I was feeling: “WOW.” This may be a story of love in a library, but it is not one that has been told before. This is an incredible, largely true story of how the author’s maternal grandparents fell in love, against all odds, during their time at the Minidoka incarceration camp, where they were unjustly imprisoned during World War Two for being Japanese American. It’s a story told with tremendous power and tenderness, both in Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s words and in Yas Imamura’s gouache and watercolor art. And it’s a story that underscores the humanity we all share.

As I was getting ready for bed Monday night, I reflected on the casual Valentine’s celebration we’d had over dinner. I thought about how each of us has our own love language. For my son, it was the ginger cookies he’d baked. For my husband, it was the heart-shaped pizzas he hurried home from the dentist to make. For my daughter, it was craft-paper hearts, decorated with personal messages of love and gratitude for each of us. For me, it was the books I wrapped and placed at my kids’ spots on the dinner table, new titles in beloved graphic novel series that I knew they weren’t expecting. (The second book in the Katie the Catsitter series for my daughter; the fourth book in the Heartstopper series for my son.) Baking. Cooking. Crafting. Reading. Each of us expressing love in our own way.

In as much as the language of love is influenced by our own personalities, it’s also influenced by our surroundings. In Love in the Library, the protagonists’ love language is actually crafted in defiance of those surroundings. Loving each other becomes a way of setting their hearts free, of holding onto hope amidst the literal imprisonment of the camp and the figurative imprisonment of injustice.

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Making Room for Joy in Black History Month

February 10, 2022 § 4 Comments

During Black History Month, I typically highlight a recent picture book that introduces young readers to an essential part of African American history in a particularly compelling and inventive way. (Last year’s post was on the picture book biography of basketball legend, Elgin Baylor, which apart from being a fascinating story about one Black man also doubles as a mini primer on the Civil Rights Movement.) But since I so recently sung the praises of Born on the Water, one of the most comprehensive and gorgeous picture books to take on the subject of Black history, I thought I’d use today’s post to remind us that, as parents and educators, we must see to it that our children are reading just as many—if not more—stories about Black joy and achievement, as they are about Black pain and oppression.

This means reading When Langston Dances, a joyous new celebration of dance, starring a Black boy who aspires to take ballet. It means reading The Old Truck, a deceptively simple multi-generational story about a family of Black farmers. Or Milo Imagines the World, where a Black boy makes sense of the world in a sketchbook. Or the ebullient picture book biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, titled Jump at the Sun. Are these books on our shelves alongside those about slavery and segregation? Have we deemed them important in our children’s eyes by giving them a seat at our (literary) table?

It also means reading about the people making Black history as I’m writing this post. The superstars of today. The people pointing us forward.

You’ll rarely see a book by a politician or celebrity plugged here. For one, these books come by publicity naturally; two, they’re usually mediocre at best. They can be dry or heavy-handed, come off like they’re trying too hard, or feel self-aggrandizing. So, while I find Stacey Abrams all kinds of dynamic and inspirational and vital in real life—and though our signed copies at the bookshop have been flying off the shelves—I put off reading her debut picture book. I figured it would be “meh.”

I stand corrected. I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Stacey’s Extraordinary Words (Ages 4-8), written by Abrams and illustrated by Kitt Thomas, is wonderful. In this story drawn from a childhood memory about a spelling bee competition, young Stacey emerges as inquisitive, bright, determined, and sensitive; and the effusively colored illustrations will endear young readers to her. But what would have appealed to me most as a young bookworm is that this is a story about a girl falling in love with the richness of language. A girl learning to wield the power of language to give voice to herself, to secure her seat at the table.

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Choosing Love: Four Favs for Valentine’s Day

February 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

I sat sleep-deprived in the dim winter light of early morning, stealing myself to break it to my children that their dad and I had decided we should return the puppy we’d picked up less than 24 hours earlier.

The previous day, we had driven three hours to pick up an almost five-month-old Goldendoodle. Upon entering the breeder’s house, it became apparent that the dog was nothing like what we’d been promised. Was nothing like our last puppy, either. We had expected a rambunctious, mouthy, high-energy, playful puppy.

What we left with was a dog that had never been socialized. Never seen a man or a child, not to mention a car, leash, crate, or bath. The dog was terrified of us. Of everything. After the car ride home, where we held his trembling body on our laps, he wouldn’t let us near him. We couldn’t pet him. We couldn’t handle him. When my husband tried to pick him up to bring him inside, he got his hand bitten.

The dog wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t drink. We couldn’t get him outside to use the potty and, if we did, we couldn’t get him back inside. He was terrified of our stairs, so my husband slept next to him on the living room sofa, while I stayed up all night reading everything on the Internet about fearful, traumatized dogs.

What I determined over the course of that long night wasn’t just that this was not the puppy we had envisioned for our family, but that we were in over our heads. A dog who passed the four month mark without being socialized was, the Internet assured me, beyond hope of a normal life, even with professional training.

Earlier that morning, I told my husband that I thought we needed to take him back to the breeder. He reluctantly agreed. So there I sat, waiting for my kids to wake up so we could get it over with.

My son was the first to come down the stairs. His eyes immediately scanned the room, finding the dog—we hadn’t agreed on a name—cowering in the corner. My son stood for a few moments, looking at this terrified ball of fluff, and then he curled up next to me. I braced myself to say the words, but he spoke first, with no suspicion that there was anything amiss.

“Oh, Mommy,” he sighed, his eyes twinkling, a smile breaking across his face like it was Christmas morning. “I’m so happy. I just love him so much.”

This dog, who was nothing like the dog he had wanted, who wouldn’t even let him come near him…he loved him?

I began to speak about what I’d read, about the long road ahead of us. Yes, he said, he had thought as much. He’d start reading things, too. He was excited to help. “I know what it’s like to have anxiety, so I can do this. He’s going to be so happy here. I know it.”

And though part of me wanted to cry, to scream, to run from the loss of control I felt over the entirety of this situation, I thought, What if I chose love? What if we all chose love?

What if we didn’t get the puppy we wanted, but we got the one we needed? Or maybe the one who needed us.

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Party Time! (Or Not)

January 27, 2022 § 3 Comments

With so many posts devoted to serious books lately (not to mention all the awards excitement), I decided we were overdue for a recommendation high on the fun(ny) meter. As it turns out, 2022 has given us a delightful one right out of the gate, as perceptive as it is entertaining. (Plus, if you order from Old Town Books, you’ll get a copy that’s signed by the author-illustrator in the most fitting way. Just wait until you see it!)

Apart from being a total hoot, this story is going to resonate deeply with anyone out of practice at social gatherings. That would be all of us, in case your math skills have also gotten fuzzy.

Our family will attend a dear friend’s bar mitzvah in a few weeks, and as much fun as I know I’ll have, I’m already fretting about how I’m going to wedge my feet into heels, my out-of-shape body into an old cocktail dress, and do I even have lipstick anymore? And then I wonder, how am I going to be vertical at 8pm? What are we going to talk about? Are we going to discuss the pandemic, or will we remember other topics of conversation? And if I’ve got all these worries, what about my kids?

Those of us who were a tiny bit reserved two years ago are now completely overwhelmed by the prospect of hanging out with more than one or two friends at the same time. We’ve lost ground, our social muscles have atrophied. And yet, society’s expectations haven’t adjusted. We’re supposed to want to go back to attending birthday parties and backyard parties and weddings and fundraisers. And we do…but maybe only sort of?

I remember when my dad threw a surprise party for my mom’s 40th birthday. She had an inkling moments before she opened the door that our apartment was full of people, and she shot my dad a look. There was actual menace in that look, and while I don’t remember her exact words, they were something along the lines of, “You’re a dead man.” As soon as she opened the door, she was all smiles and laughter and grace—the hostess with the mostest, as she says—but I’d had a peek into something else. She wasn’t entirely comfortable surrounded by all these people, despite her obvious affection for them. Parties can be a complicated thing, is what I’m saying.

Enter Bina Bear, the large, purple, slightly stiff, certainly awkward protagonist of Mike Curato’s new picture book, Where is Bina Bear? (Ages 3-8, though my 11 year old is obsessed with it). Bina is attending a party thrown by her best bunny friend, Tiny. There are balloons! Cake! Punch! Lots of friendly faces! Bina Bear loves Tiny, so she has come to the party. But Bina Bear doesn’t like parties. She doesn’t do crowds.

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When A Book Comes Along for the Field Trip

January 20, 2022 § 2 Comments

There was no shortage of grumbling when, one morning over winter break, I announced we were going to Arlington National Cemetery, a ten minute drive from our house.

“But we’ve been there a million times,” my son complained.

“You’ve been there exactly once,” I responded. “Plus, my great-grandfather was a Colonel in World War One, and he’s buried there.”

“We know, because you tell us all the time,” my daughter interjected, not to be outdone by her brother.

“Well, we’ve had a Covid Christmas and we need somewhere to go that’s outside, so that’s that,” I issued, like the authoritarian parent I am.

In my 14-year parenting tenure, there has never been an outing I haven’t been able to improve with a children’s book. In this case, I’d had one tucked away for almost a year. I knew the kids would come around. They always come around.

Jeff Gottesfeld’s Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, majestically illustrated by Matt Tavares (don’t count him out for a Caldecott), takes us behind the scenes of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—indisputably the most fascinating part of Arlington Cemetery. No one can help but be awestruck upon beholding the discipline, concentration, and precision of the sentinel guards who keep vigil there, every moment of every day, 365 days a year, in every type of weather.

Especially if you’ve had the chance to read Twenty-One Steps immediately before.

Which our family had, while seated in front of my great-grandparents’ gravestone, under a brilliantly blue December sky, surrounded by thousands of wreaths placed there for the holidays. We read while we waited for the top of the hour, when we headed over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard.

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My Caldecott Front Runner

January 12, 2022 § Leave a comment

Awards season is upon us! On Monday, January 24, the American Library Association will award the prestigious Caldecott and Newbery Medals, as well as a host of other coveted honors and awards. It’s like the Oscars for kid lit! I’ll be tuning in with bated breath, ready to celebrate many of the winners and, if history is any indication, scratch my head at a few others. There will probably be some books I haven’t read yet, perhaps even one I haven’t heard of, but I’m hoping many of my favorites will make the list. In any event, I promise to share a recap on Instagram after the announcements!

Let’s talk about the picture book I’d love to see sport a shiny gold Caldecott sticker. (I’m also pulling for Watercress, which I gushed about in April. Born on the Water, of course. Time is a Flower. Probably Unspeakable, if my library hold would ever come in.) Today, though, I’m talking about Wishes (Ages 4-8), written by Múón Thi Vãn and illustrated by Victo Ngai, based on the former’s refugee journey out of Vietnam as a young child in the 1980s. This book sends my jaw to the floor. Every. single. time. (Back in May, my daughter discovered it on our dining table, sat down and read it, and called out, “WHOA, Mommy, I think I just found your favorite book of the year.”)

And yet, I’ve been putting off sharing my thoughts about Wishes. It’s a daunting book to review, because its power lies largely in what is left unsaid. How do I write about a book that manages to tell a sweeping, suspenseful, emotionally pulsating narrative in just twelve short sentences, without my own clunky words compromising the grace of such economical text? (Heck, I’ve greatly exceeded that sentence count already!)

But that’s precisely why Wishes is deserving of a Caldecott, which I’ll remind you is awarded for pictorial interpretation. To be sure, Múón’s sparse text is immensely effective: loaded with lyricism and vital in relaying the story’s central theme of desire—the wishes that frame our periods of loss and uncertainty. But the reason Múón is able to communicate such depth and breadth with her text is owing to Ngai’s luminous illustrations, which carry a great deal of the storytelling weight. (Ngai herself is a migrant, moving from Hong Kong to the United States when she was eighteen.) Wishes is that rare example of a perfect marriage between words and pictures, each working to interpret and augment the other.

Wishes is about more than one journey. Taken literally, it’s the story of a girl who leaves behind her home—including her grandfather, her dog, and nearly all her worldly possessions—to journey by boat to a foreign city of safety and promise. But it’s also an emotional journey: a sequence of wishes that speak to the turbulence within. Ngai underscores this journey with her color palette, beginning the story in dark, somber tones, moving towards super-saturated reds and oranges as the oppressive sun beats down upon the tiny boat, and concluding with a soft palette of greens and pinks for an ending tinged in the hope of fresh starts.

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The Real Science of Snow

December 30, 2021 § Leave a comment

We had a Covid Christmas, and nothing more needs to be said about that. Except it does. Because my daughter spent most of winter break isolated in her room, showing her face only at meals over Facetime, and again at read-aloud time, but otherwise building LEGO creations and making origami and decorating her room with paper snowflakes that her brother made for her. All behind the closed door of her bedroom.

It was awful for us. Except, strangely, it did not seem that awful for her. Her symptoms were fairly mild, thankfully. She smiled the widest smiles at us through the computer screen. “My graphic novels are keeping me company,” she reassured us. One day, she was heard giggling for hours on end. “What’s so funny?” we called through the door. “I’m putting my Babas through the circus.” (That’s what she calls her stuffed sheep.) She missed cuddling with us terribly—she said so multiple times—and she was a bit nervous about how she would open her stocking on Christmas morning (we let her out and all donned masks). But she had the very fine company of her imagination, and that turned out to be a gift better than anything Santa could ever bring.

We can’t know the depth of our children’s resilience until that resilience has been tested. And without question, the past two years have put resilience on display for our children. Somehow, these children have only become more loving, more courageous, more introspective, more imaginative.

Childhood can be a solitary time. We all have memories of feeling awkward or excluded or misunderstood. We have endless memories of waiting—the minutes ticking by in excruciating slowness—for a parent to play a game with us, to do that thing with us, to stop talking on the phone already. We have memories of being sick in bed, of staring endlessly at the ceiling until shadows and cracks turned into scenes of animals to entertain us.

I think children are drawn to stories that speak to solitariness. Stories that don’t diminish the emptiness of that solitariness, or the fear or sadness that can reside inside it, but intentionally dwell on the possibilities embedded there. The wonder. Even, perhaps, the magic. Stories that demonstrate how solitariness can be a beautiful thing, a fortifying thing, so long as we are secure in the knowledge that we are still held in the strong, secure embrace of those who love us.

The Irish writer Maggie O’Frarrell, who has penned some of my favorite reads for adults (Hamnet, This Must be the Place), makes a spectacular children’s debut with Where Snow Angels Go (Ages 6-10), a longform picture book, with gorgeous illustrations by Daniela Jaglemka Terrazzini on each of its 67 pages. It’s not, at first glance, a story of solitariness; rather, it hails the companionship of a “snow angel,” born of past snowfalls, who watches quietly and mostly invisibly over a young girl through the seasons. And yet, this girl, our protagonist, is often alone. She’s sick in bed, or staring up at the night sky, or tearing down a hill on her bike. She’s marveling at the universe, she’s working out its questions in her own solitariness. Her parents are close by but rarely pictured; the snow angel maybe a figment of her imagination, maybe not.

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2021 Gift Guide: Young Adult Fiction for Ages 13+

December 9, 2021 § Leave a comment

All good things must come to an end, so here we are at my final Gift Guide post of the year. I didn’t want to send you into the holidays without some fun, gripping, eye-opening, occasionally heart-wrenching new reads for your teens!

The titles below are truly stand-out works of fiction. But it doesn’t have to stop here! If you’re looking for graphic novels, remember that there are three not-to-be-missed titles for teens at the end of my Graphic Novels Gift Guide post. (And for mercy’s sake, if your teen hasn’t discovered the Heartstopper graphic novel series by now, with the fourth out in a few weeks, please remedy that now.) And, if non-fiction is your teen’s jam, check out Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Shutdown, included in my Middle-Grade Gift Guide post.

Finally, a gentle reminder that with YA increasingly finding readership among adults in addition to teens, it skews older than it used to. The subject matter is getting more mature and, oftentimes, downright heavy. If you have young teens, encourage them not to graduate from middle-grade literature too quickly; there are a rising number of gems being expressly written for the 10-14 crowd, with elevated prose and complex characters (there are at least four favorites in this earlier post, for example). That said, pay close attention to the age ranges listed below for each title, and I’ll be sure to follow each review with any trigger warnings.

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2021 Gift Guide: The Board Books

December 7, 2021 § 1 Comment

I’m a huge fan of board books that are better than they need to be. Books that not only respect the attention and intelligence of our littlest minds, but appeal just as strongly to the parent or caregiver looking to break up those long, long days with a little joy and a little connection. This year, lots of authors and illustrators have indulged my very high standards, and the result is a rich assortment of board books that sing of science and shapes, sweetness and silliness. Some are cleverly interactive; some are downright revolutionary; and some are just storytelling at its finest.

One more thing: board books aren’t just for babies! Some of my selections below even extend past the toddler years to preschoolers, imparting concepts and subjects in novel, thought-provoking ways. (Amazon affiliate links while we restock at Old Town Books!)

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My Favorite Holiday Book of the Year

December 2, 2021 § Leave a comment

With two posts remaining, I’m once again hitting pause on my Gift Guide, this time to tell you about my favorite holiday book of the year. It’s rare to find a December holiday-themed book that speaks to Christians and Jews, much less one inspired by true events. Trust me: you do not want to miss this. You might not get through it without shedding a tear. You definitely won’t get through it without getting chills. If there was ever a story to conjure up the true spirit of the holiday season—while also reminding us of the meaning of community—this is it.

With words by Lee Wind and art by the esteemed Paul O. Zelinsky (don’t forget this holiday gem), Red and Green and Blue and White (Ages 5-10; affiliate link) is a nod to the real events of December 1993 in Billings, Montana. It’s the story of two best friends, who live across the street from one another—one in a house decked out in red and green, the other in a house lit up in blue and white—and an anti-Semitic act that threatens to diminish the latter. It’s as much about what happens when we won’t be silenced, as what happens when we stand beside our friends and rally support from an entire community.

It’s about what it looks like when love wins.

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Gift Guide 2021: Middle-Grade Picks for Ages 7-14

November 30, 2021 § 2 Comments

(A reminder that all the books in my Gift Guide are available for purchase at Old Town Books here in Alexandria, VA, or on their website. Put KIDS21 in the Notes to get free gift wrapping and $5 shipping on orders over $25; one order per address, please. Thank you for supporting this wonderful indie bookstore where I assist with the buying!)

Last week, I recapped my favorite graphic novels of the year. This week, I’m talking about middle-grade reads that are so good, your reader won’t even notice they’re not graphic novels. (Wink wink.)

It has been another incredible year for middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, and while I’ve likely missed a few gems, I am thrilled with the ones I’ve discovered. Of the slew I read, these rose to the top and have great gift appeal. The stories have tremendous heart, raise thoughtful questions, and immerse readers in compelling worlds and rich settings. If you’ve been hanging around here, you’ll recognize a few titles from earlier in the year, but a number of these were just published.

I’m not including sequels here—like the newest title in our beloved Vanderbeekers series, or the third in the wonderful Front Desk series—in case the recipient has not read the earlier titles. And, though it’s increasingly difficult given the direction middle-grade stories are trending, I have stayed away from some of the heaviest reads of the year, including the brilliant The Shape of Thunder.

The list runs from younger to older, so please note the age range for each. My age ranges reflect both the sophistication of the writing and the maturity of the subject matter.

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